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Simple.TV 2 review: Great cord-cutting OTA DVR for PCs, not so much for TVs

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For Simple.TV and Tablo "accessories" we've budgeted an antenna (they start around $40), a USB hard drive (around $55), and a few cables (around $10), while we've added another $40 to the Channel Master for the Wi-Fi adapter. And as usual, it makes sense to get a "Lifetime" subscription if you plan on keeping the device for longer than a couple years.

Total cost of ownership

Channel Master DVR+ Tablo Simple.TV 2 TiVo Roamio TiVo Roamio OTA
Hardware $250 $220 $200 $170 $50
Accessories $145 $105 $105 $50 $50
Subscription fees $0 $150 (lifetime) $150 (lifetime) $500 (lifetime) $15/mo
3-year cost $395 $475 $455 $720 $640
4-year cost $395 $475 $455 $720 $820

Setup

Without a user interface of its own, the Simple.TV relies on users going to the company's website to set it up. I prefer this approach because doing so with a remote control on a TV screen is the worst part of installing any connected home theater gadget.

After creating a user account, the simple wizard walks you through connecting the hard drive, antenna and Ethernet cables. After this is done it will scan through the available channels, and despite having dozens available in my local area it only took a few minutes to find them all.

Apps

simpletv2.jpg
The Roku app consists of a series of side-scrolling tiles Ty Pendlebury/CNET

While there are a number of different apps available for use with the Simple.TV there isn't much of a unified look to them.

simpletv3.jpg
The Android and iOS apps feature a drab grey interface, but are the best of the lot. Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The Windows 8 app is the most "out there" with a spare, almost iOS 7 appearance. It's also the most unreliable, frequently crashing on our test AMD desktop as well as experiencing lip-sync issues on a Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Windows 8 hybrid.

The Roku app hasn't changed much since Simple.TV first launched and consists of a series of tiles pointing to the different sections such as Live TV. It's not the easiest interface to use, especially when you have to cycle through one tile at a time to get to the live show you want to watch.

The iOS and Android apps are definitely the easiest to use. The main view consists of two main options: "Live TV" and "My Recordings." Pressing Live TV takes you to a grey program guide and clicking on a show brings up a synopsis plus two buttons, "More Episodes" and "Record Series." The Play button itself is located on the thumbnail of the show and can be easily missed.

The Web app is relatively straightforward except for one major quirk: you can't watch live TV from the guide, only record. You need to go to the home page and choose from the channel list. This is unlike most of the other interfaces which allow recording and live TV watching from the guide.

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The Web interface is easy to navigate and uncluttered. Screenshot by Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Performance

If you've used devices like the Slingbox previously then you'll know what to expect from the Simple.TV as far as picture quality is concerned. It's perfectly acceptable for tablets and phones but at sizes larger than a laptop screen the side effects of web compression become more obvious.

Compared to the TiVo Roamio OTA , the Simple.TV had a more compressed image on daytime HD TV with aliasing on diagonal edges and compression artifacts in large blocks of color. These Simple.TV problems are very noticeable on a large screen, though when streaming over the Internet to a tablet they are not.

I didn't compare the Nuyyo Tablo directly to the Simple.TV 2 for this review, but the Tablo's highest picture quality setting was superb in our review : "Tablo's image quality is, for the most part, on par with HD from a cable or satellite company." I can't say the same for Simple.TV 2.

While two people can watch live TV at once on different devices, if a third person joins a strange error messages can pop up on two of the three screens: "there is no storage device connected to the Simple TV." It would have been preferable for something specific like "both tuners are in use".

Streaming to a mobile phone was a little spotty even with a good 802.11n wireless signal. If you live in an apartment building like myself, you should try using a 5Ghz connection (if you have a compatible router) or better still via Ethernet.

The sharing and archiving features worked as advertised, though make sure you have a healthy upload speed before giving all of your friends access to your "MasterChef" library.

Conclusion

While its features are innovative and fun, the Simple.TV 2 isn't the best cord-cutting DVR on the market. The TiVo and Channel Master can beat it for image quality and convenience, especially if you're one of the 50 per cent who would buy a Simple.TV to watch on a TV. Meanwhile the Tablo also offers better image quality, if fewer features at the moment.

Simple.TV 2's best use-case would be if you have a household of tablet users who want to watch different programming at the same time. In general use, it's pretty straightforward and setting up recordings is fairly easy. It's also one of the cheapest in the long run. If you're looking for a DVR which can both stream to portable devices and to your TV, and don't want to invest in TiVo (and its Stream attachment), Simple.TV is a versatile and feature-rich choice.

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