Make no mistake: cutting the cord is about compromise. Giving up the endless channels and convenience of a cable or satellite subscription isn't painless, but the upside is you will save a good chunk of money.
Simple.TV ($150) is an over-the-air DVR for those with a high tolerance for compromise. It embodies a unique concept, recording over-the-air TV signals, then streaming them to compatible devices (including iPads, laptops, and Roku-connected TVs) both inside and outside your home network -- there's no direct HDMI or other video output on the box itself. In reality, there are a lot of caveats: it's single-tuner only, there's no built-in Wi-Fi, image quality is no more than adequate, it's less responsive than a standard DVR, you need to supply your own hard drive and antenna, and most of the good features require the $5-per-month Premier subscription.
That's quite a lot stacking up against Simple.TV, but the killer feature is really its cost. The next best alternative for cord-cutters is the TiVo Premiere, which has total ownership cost of $330 with a one-year subscription or $650 with a lifetime subscription; Simple.TV's total cost of ownership is $200 with a one-year subscription and $300 with a lifetime subscription. There's no doubt TiVo is better, but it's not hard to see why Simple.TV's pricing would appeal to buyers already looking to spend less on TV.
Simple.TV has quite a few limitations, but it's just good enough to be worth considering for early adopters, especially at its budget price.
The hardware: A simple white box
There's not much to the Simple.TV hardware. It's an unassuming white box with rounded corners that's smaller than a cable box, but much bigger than an Apple TV. The casing is made of plastic and the whole box weighs nearly nothing, feeling empty when you pick it up. There's a relatively large light on the front that glows blue when the box is on and red when it's recording.
Around back are Simple.TV's ports: antenna input and output, a USB port, two Ethernet ports, and the power adapter port. The antenna output lets the over-the-air signal pass through directly to your TV or another device, while the second Ethernet port allows you to connect another device to your home network. The USB port is for connecting a hard drive. The included power adapter has slim "wall wart" design; with a box this size, a built-in power supply would have been nice.
Bring your own hard drive, antenna, Roku
If Simple.TV's price seems too good to be true, that's partially because it is. While the Simple.TV box itself only costs $150, you need to provide some additional hardware to get it up and running. At the very least, Simple.TV requires an external hard drive and an antenna.
I already had a spare hard drive to dedicate to Simple.TV, but if you don't, budget another $80 for a 500GB external hard drive that doesn't need an external power supply, like this one. Similarly, an inexpensive
If you plan on watching Simple.TV on your living-room TV, you'll probably also want a Roku box. You can also get Simple.TV on your TV using AirPlay with an iPad and Apple TV, but at the moment only Roku provides the true "lean-back" experience you'd get with a traditional DVR. The bottom line is that you may have to budget an additional $180 for the Simple.TV experience, depending on what gear you already have.
Setup is, fittingly, simple. That's a major accomplishment for a product that could easily skew geeky. Hook everything up, fire up a browser, and it walks you through the process. An over-the-air channel scan took about 10 minutes and picked up 70 channels. Even more impressively, the software automatically hid not-terribly-useful subchannels and other less popular channels that you probably don't want to wade through.
Simple.TV's main purpose is to let you watch and record over-the-air TV pretty much anywhere. It works with free over-the-air TV signals using an antenna, as well as unencrypted basic cable (Clear QAM) -- although unencrypted cable won't be around for long. I did all my testing using over-the-air TV and all the standard caveats about over-the-air TV apply: only a few channels are broadcast over the air (basically major networks like CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, and PBS) and which channels you actually get is very dependent on your local reception. The bottom line is you can't get a lot of the content available on cable, like ESPN, AMC, Comedy Central, HBO, and Showtime.
The Simple.TV box sits on your home network (connected via Ethernet), diligently recording and storing your content. It can serve recorded content and live TV to devices on your home network (like a Roku box, iPad, or browser), as well as devices outside your network, enabling Slingbox-like placeshifting. Simple.TV claims it can stream to five devices at once, but a lot of that depends on the robustness of your home network.
In the living room, you'll most likely want to stream to a Roku box, which offers up the closest to the traditional DVR experience. The other option for living-room watching is using an iPad and AirPlay to stream to an Apple TV. (You could also use an iPhone, but the resolution is significantly limited.) It's a great setup, especially navigating your content using the iPad, but it's more strain on your local network since video needs to be streamed from Simple.TV to your iPad, then again to the Apple TV.
Storage space is determined by the size the hard drive you connect. I connected a 320GB hard drive, which can store about 140 hours of programming.
Limitations: Single tuner, no Wi-Fi
Simple.TV's two biggest limitations are its single-tuner functionality and the lack of built-in Wi-Fi.
Being single-tuner means that Simple.TV can access only one live TV show at a time. If you're recording a program, you can't watch another live TV show at the same time and vice versa. (You can, however, watch or record a show while playing back a recorded show.) Conflicts are certainly less of an issue since there's not as much to watch on over-the-air TV compared with cable/satellite, but the more people in your household who rely on Simple.TV, the more likely you'll miss being able to record two (or more) shows that air at the same time.
While it's easy to see why Simple.TV chose to require a wired Ethernet connection for the stablest performance, it really limits your setup options. Ideally, you'd be able to place the Simple.TV box close to an Ethernet hookup and your antenna location, but I bet many people will need to make either a long Ethernet run or a long antenna cable run. The lack of Wi-Fi is a hassle, especially now that excellent dual-band routers are more affordable.
Subscription options: Expect to pay for Premier
Simple.TV works without a monthly subscription, but all of its best features require a Premier subscription. Simple.TV breaks it down pretty clearly in chart form on its Web site.
If you opt for the free Basic subscription, you're more or less getting a glorified VCR. I wasn't able to directly test the Basic tier using my reviewer's account, but photos provided by Simple.TV make it clear that if you want to do anything more than watch live TV and schedule recordings for "Thursday at 8 p.m. on Fox", you need to step up to the Premium service. Aside from better DVR features like season pass recordings and better guide data, you also gain the Slingbox-like ability to access your DVR from outside your home network. If I were relying on Simple.TV as my main TV source, there's no doubt I'd go for the Premier monthly subscription.
Premier service currently costs $50 per year or $150 for a "lifetime" subscription. The math is pretty simple; you'll make out better with a lifetime subscription if you keep your Simple.TV for over three years. Personally, I'd say that's too long to be locked in to a new company that may not be around three years from now. Simple.TV also says a monthly fee option will eventually be offered.
The DVR experience: Less than a TiVo, but sometimes more
DVRs have been around since 1999, but newcomers to the category tend to miss the nuances that make the timeshifting experience so satisfying. A great DVR needs, at a minimum, excellent EPG data, extensive season pass options, and snappy response time. Simple.TV gets about half of this right.
Simple.TV's guide data is largely spot-on, assuming you get the Premier subscription. I found guide data to be accurate, although with occasional missing art. My season passes recorded dutifully, ensuring that my DVR regularly filled up with my favorite shows without having to set any recordings. Navigating live TV and recordings on the Roku is certainly a stripped-down experience, but it works pretty well overall.
Actually watching shows via Simple.TV is less satisfying, especially as a self-described DVR power user. I eschew live TV whenever I can, recording virtually everything (including sports) so I can blast through commercials with the 30-second skip button. Heck, I even use 30-sec skip to blast through the huddles in NFL games. (It's an art.)
Simple.TV through the Roku box doesn't quite allow for that kind of control. Press right on the Roku's directional pad and it skips forward and automatically pauses, so you'll need to hit play to start up the video again. The skip forward is also inconsistent. Sometimes it seems to skip forward about 30 seconds, sometimes not at all, and sometimes it splits the difference.
Making commercial-skipping even tougher is the fact that when you fast-forward and skip, the video stays paused in the background, rather than following your progress like a typical DVR. You get a scrub bar at the bottom, but there aren't even Netflix-style thumbnails to guide you as you go. You're essentially in the dark as you fast-forward, skip, and rewind. I ended up pressing skip-forward about 10 times when I got to commercial breaks, hoping for the best and adjusting afterward.
Not everyone is as hands-on about their TV watching, and if you don't mind sitting through commercials, the experience is a lot better. Simple.TV has done a decent job at providing a traditional TV experience on the Roku box, complete with a basic guide for Live TV and list of recordings. That's a big plus over competitors like Aereo that virtually require an iPad to watch on a TV.
Simple.TV really shines when you're not on your living-room couch. The ability to stream to multiple devices is nice, especially if you have an iPad, and Slingbox-esque access to your DVR from anywhere is a nice bonus. Image quality outside your home network depends on how fast your broadband upload speed is (often not great), but it's still worth it to catch, say, some playoff baseball on the go. It's an experience you can't get even on TiVo, without ponying up for accessories like a TiVo Stream and Slingbox.
Image quality: Passable, with notable exceptions
The biggest question I had going into this review was how good Simple.TV's image quality would be. Because the Simple.TV box lacks an HDMI output, it needs to compress and send all your video signals over your home network. Part of the attraction of over-the-air TV is its pristine image quality -- typically better than what HD cable offers -- and it was hard to imagine Simple.TV could preserve that.
The short version is that while Simple.TV's image quality is noticeably softer than uncompressed over-the-air TV, it likely meets the "good enough" test for most people. Shows like "Parks and Recreation," "Nova," and "Go On" didn't suffer much from compressed image quality, although videophiles (read: me) will certainly notice the difference. As with Netflix and other streaming-video services, image quality typically starts out poor, then quickly improves in a few seconds. While that's not a problem on Netflix, you do notice it more on a DVR where you'll be fast-forwarding past commercials regularly.
While I generally found Simple.TV to be plenty watchable, there was a major exception: football. The most-watched sport in America suffers quite a bit from Simple.TV's compression, especially on the long passing plays that are quite common in a modern NFL game. It's hard to track the ball's flight on Simple.TV and even on less-demanding footage you get a sense that there are frames missing -- something's off. Switching between a TiVo Premiere and Simple.TV was an eye-opener, and even less critical viewers noticed Simple.TV looked different. I didn't have the opportunity to test with other sports like hockey or basketball, but I wouldn't be surprised if other fast-action content suffered from the same issues.
All that being said, I watched an entire recent football game on Simple.TV and you do get used to its image quality after a while. But it's a compromise I personally wouldn't want to make on a regular basis, especially knowing how good over-the-air HD can look.
Bugs and stability
Simple.TV made a lot of improvements over my testing period, so it's fair to say that some of the bugginess I experienced was due to the fact that the software wasn't fully baked yet. (To be fair, my testing started a month before the product shipped to buyers.) Still, even as late as last week there were bugs to be fixed, some of which Simple.TV has already addressed. The bottom line is that you shouldn't expect a perfectly smooth ride at this stage.
The worst experience occurred when I tried to catch up on the vice presidential debate I had been recording on Simple.TV. The recording didn't show up in the list of recorded programs on my Roku, and when I went to the Live TV guide, the guide wouldn't load at all. Switching over to my laptop, I found it correctly showed that the VP debate was being recorded, but I still couldn't access the program via the live tuner or the recorded program. After at least 15 minutes of frustration, I gave up and had to settle for post-debate analysis via the live TV, using my TV's built-in tuner.
That snapshot overstates my overall frustration using Simple.TV, although it's not the only time I ran into difficulties when I sat down to watch TV. Simple.TV is still something of a work in progress and buyers should know that going in.
What are the alternatives?
The TiVo Premiere is the flat-out best over-the-air DVR. TiVo's software is rock-solid and easy to use, plus it offers up pristine image quality and dual-tuner capability. The catch is that TiVo's service costs $15 per month with a one-year commitment, on top of the $150 cost of the TiVo Premiere hardware. That $15 per month subscription adds up, making it significantly pricier than Simple.TV.
|Total cost of ownership|
Aside from TiVo, there haven't been many compelling over-the-air DVR options over the years, but that's starting to change. Boxee
Aereo's no-hardware, entirely cloud-based service also seems nice from the outside, but in my testing, it just didn't work as a living-room experience. I'll be taking a second look at the Aereo service soon to see if the service has improved since launch, but in any event it continues to be a New York-only option.
Conclusion: Inexpensive, but lots of limitations
For Simple.TV fans that have waited since CES 2012 to check out this next-gen DVR, this product launch has to feel bittersweet. While it's true that Simple.TV is the best non-TiVo over-the-air DVR I've tested -- especially considering its price -- there are too many quirks and limitations for me to give it much more than a cautious recommendation. This is early adopter territory and you shouldn't expect the convenience and functionality that a more mature DVR offers. That being said, the cost savings are significant if you can live with Simple.TV's limitations.
If you're on the fence about Simple.TV, the best advice may be to wait. It seems like manufacturers are finally giving some attention to the over-the-air DVR market, and CES 2013 is just around the corner.