I recently detailed my transition from satellite TV subscriber to cord cutter (you can read that story here). The experience has taught me that, as much as I enjoy Netflix, Amazon Video, and other on-demand streaming services, I still value the live TV experience.
Services like Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and DirecTV NOW can deliver live TV at more reasonable prices than the cable/satellite companies, but the one drawback to these online TV packages is that local channels are usually only available in select markets, if at all. The truth is, if you want to cut the cord but retain access to all the broadcast channels in your area, over-the-air is still the best option ... provided you live in a place where you can tune in the signal with some measure of reliability.
Of course, watching over-the-air TV channels does have its own downside--namely, you can't pause, rewind, skip commercials, and record your favorite shows. That's where the over-the-air DVR comes into play. Yes, the over-the-air DVR is alive and well. Tivo is probably still the most recognizable name in standalone DVRs, but they certainly aren't the only player in what has grown into a competitive and innovative category.
Over the past few years, Nuvyyo has made a name for itself in this space with its Tablo suite of networkable DVRs. The newest model is the two-tuner Tablo DUAL ($249.99), and it's the first Tablo model to include onboard storage. Previous products required that you bring your own USB storage to the party, but the new Tablo DUAL gives you 64 GB of internal storage to record up to 40 hours of HD. Of course, there's still the option to add more storage capacity (up to 8 TB) via USB.
Curious to see if this new product could fill in the vital missing piece of my cord-cutting experience, I requested a review sample. Let's see how it did.
When unpacking the Tablo DUAL, the first thing you'll notice about the product is that it has no AV connections of any kind. That's because it's really not a traditional DVR/set-top box like one you'd get from Tivo, Dish, DirecTV, or Comcast that connects directly to your HDTV. The Tablo hails from the new(ish) genre of network DVRs, pioneered by devices like the HDHomeRun. The Tablo is essentially a network video router to which you attach your over-the-air antenna; the signal is then delivered over your network to compatible playback devices like streaming media players, smartphones, tablets, and computers.
The real plus to this approach is that, because the box isn't tethered to your TV, you can put the Tablo DUAL (and the antenna connected to it) anywhere you want in the home. If you're using an indoor antenna, no longer are you stuck trying to find the best spot for the antenna within a roughly 10- to 15-foot radius of your HDTV (or forced to run--and hide--a longer cable). You can find the best place in your house or apartment to position the antenna, then just plug the Tablo box into the closest power outlet. This would prove to be hugely helpful in my setup.
But let's back up for a second. The box itself is smaller than previous Tablo boxes. Roughly a five-inch square that sits 1.46 inches tall, it's about the size of most of today's big-name streaming media players. It sports an RF input to connect your antenna, a USB 2.0 port to attach more storage, and an Ethernet port for a wired network connection. 802.11n Wi-Fi is also onboard.
Physical setup is a simple as connecting your OTA antenna, connecting an Ethernet cable from your router (if you're going the wired route), and powering up the Tablo DUAL. I mated the box with a non-amplified Leaf Mini indoor antenna and opted for the freedom of a wireless connection.
To complete the rest of the setup process, you'll need either a computer (go to my.tablotv.com) or a mobile device. I downloaded the Tablo app to my iPhone 6 (an Android version is also available) and followed the simple step-by-step instructions: connecting the Tablo to my Wi-Fi network; naming it; and putting in my zip code or using location services to get the TV schedule for my area. The Tablo app then begins its scan to tune in OTA channels. The Tablo found 37 channels in my area (compared with 36 channels when I used my Samsung TV's internal tuner), including all the major networks: CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, PBS, and CW.
Here's the thing. I live in a first-floor apartment, and there are no windows near the only viable place in my living room where the TV can sit. Although the Leaf Mini antenna can tune in 36 channels when connected directly to my TV, the signal strength of many of those channels isn't very strong or reliable. I'm constantly readjusting the antenna to get the best reception for each channel. With the Tablo system, I was able to position the Leaf Mini antenna across the room, near my patio door, and hide the Tablo box discreetly in a nearby corner. Signal strength and reliability proved to be much better in this location--and the Tablo interface includes helpful signal strength indicators to assist with antenna adjustment, if needed.
The next step is to configure the program guide. Tablo offers a 14-day program guide that requires a subscription fee (after a 30-day free trial that begins immediately upon completion of initial setup). The subscription costs $4.99/month, $49.99/year, or $149.99 for a lifetime subscription. You can choose NOT to subscribe to the Tablo program guide and just use the device to watch live TV and schedule recordings manually by channel/date/time. If you go this route, you'll still get 24 hours of program info, but you'll lose some of the more advanced DVR tools and features (more on this in a minute).
Setting up the program guide is as simple as checking off the channels you want displayed and hitting "Add to Guide." The app begins to load data, building a list of colorful thumbnails for all the TV shows, movies, and sporting events that are available. If you press the three-line Options icon at the top left of the app screen, you'll see a status indicator that the app is "updating guide" with a progress bar. Tablo recommends you wait to set up any recordings or make advanced settings adjustments until the initial download is done. You can dive right in to watch live TV, but the guide won't have all the program info in place. The initial download took only about 10 minutes, but it did take a couple of hours before all the program info loaded in the guide.
That's the core setup process. For me, it was slick and seamless to get live TV streamed to my iPhone in roughly 10 minutes. But of course, I don't just want to watch TV on my mobile device. I want it on my big 65-inch HDTV. For this, you need a compatible streaming media device, and pretty much every major platform is supported. The Tablo app is available for Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Android TV, and LG's WebOS. It's also Chromecast-compatible. I downloaded the app to an Amazon Fire TV, launched it, and waited just a few seconds for it to find and automatically sync with the Tablo on my network. Again, it was so easy and worked without any problem.
Two factors are going to heavily influence the Tablo DUAL's performance. The first is the quality of your OTA antenna/reception, and the second is the quality of your network. I get 65-Mbps broadband from Comcast and use a Netgear AC1750 802.11ac Wi-Fi route--combine that the flexibility to put my OTA antenna in just the right place, and the results were great.
I was actually quite surprised by how good the picture quality was from this streaming device. On my 65-inch Samgung 4K TV, fed through the 4K-upscaling Amazon Fire TV, the picture was clean, well-detailed, and free of compression artifacts. Maybe it was a hair less sharp and clean as a pure OTA signal fed into my TV, but I'd say it was better than what I used to get from Dish Network. Video playback was also smooth and mostly stutter-free--it never really felt like I was watching a streamed feed. Yes, I did see the occasional hiccup due to a drop in signal strength, but that's the norm for me with antenna use. For the most part, I was able to just sit back and enjoy a live TV experience without thinking too much about the technology behind it.
The Tablo interface is a model of simplicity and ease-of-use. There's excellent design consistency across the iPhone, Web, and Fire TV platforms, which makes for a cohesive experience. The Main Menu toolbar pops up from the left side of the screen, and it includes options for Live TV, TV Shows, Movies, Sports, Scheduled, Recordings, and Settings. The iOS and Web apps add a category for "Prime Time," while the Amazon Fire TV adds a Search tool to type in specific titles.
Selecting "Live TV" pulls up a standard-looking program guide, with the channel lineup running horizontally and 30-minute time blocks running across the screen. To launch playback of a certain channel, you can click directly on the channel name (i.e., 2-1, 2-2, 4-1, 7-1, etc.) or, on the Fire TV, highlight a show name and hit the remote's play button. If you click (press enter) on a certain show in the grid, it pulls up show info and record options--you can set the DVR to record all episodes, to only record new episodes, or select specific episodes from a list. Easy peasy.
When you first launch a channel during a viewing session, the system is a bit slow to start video playback. It takes about 12 seconds; Tablo says that's how long it takes to "spin up a tuner, begin the transcoding process, and create the first few segments of video required for playback." On the plus side, the video starts up more quickly when you revisit the channel during the same session. Channel numbers you've visited glow red to let you know that you've already launched them during a particular viewing session.
As a two-tuner DVR, the Tablo allows you to record one show while watching another, or watch two different shows simultaneously on separate devices. I had no issue streaming one channel to my Amazon Fire TV while watching another on my iPhone or MacBook Pro. The system supports playback of six streams simultaneously, so multiple people could watch recorded content at once on different playback devices. Tablo does offer a four-tuner model, but it lacks the DUAL's onboard storage.
Controls on the playback screen include a 20-second rewind, a 30-second skip forward, and a play/pause button. Tablo doesn't offer an official Commercial Skip function like my old Hopper; but, in addition to the 30-second skip ahead tool, Tablo offers thumbnail views of recorded content that allow you to see exactly when the commercial ends, which was a good-enough solution for me.
Beyond the Live TV grid, you can also browse content by genre: Prime Time, TV Shows, Movies, or Sports. Click on one of these options in the toolbar, and you can view a grid of full-color thumbnails for all applicable titles showing over the next 14 days, arranged alphabetically. Find a show, movie, or sporting event you like and tap on it to get info and set DVR functions. The "Scheduled" and "Recorded" options on the toolbar are presented in the same clean layout, with the colorful thumbnails, as opposed to just a list.
Within Settings, you can initiate a new channel scan, edit the channel lineup, and adjust quality settings. For recording quality, you can choose: HD 1080-10 Mbps or 720@60fps; HD 1080-8 Mbps; HD720-5 Mbps, HD 720-3 mbps (rec); or SD 480-2 mbps. I selected the highest quality, which of course fills up the hard drive a lot faster but (as I said) delivered a great-looking picture.
Another important feature buried down in the Settings menu is the ability to enable Remote Access (which is turned off by default). Remote Access lets you watch your live and recorded shows outside of your home network, using Wi-Fi or your cellular data plan. You can set the Remote Access quality in a wide range between 500 kbps up to full quality.
I tested Remote Access on both my iPhone and MacBook, and I never had any issues connecting to the Tablo service. Once again, quality will depend on the network you're using; I set mine for full quality, and for the most part enjoyed smooth, stutter-free streams, although admittedly the image was fairly compressed when trying to watch TV on my laptop over Wi-Fi at a local Starbucks. The Tablo system does not include an option to download recorded content for offline viewing on a mobile device (apparently there are some third-party tools that do this, found on the Tablo Community site.
It's important to point out that Remote Access is only available with a Tablo subscription. Here's a link that shows you what you do and don't get with the subscription.
For our audience, the biggest downside to the Tablo DUAL is probably the fact that the box doesn't support surround sound. It only streams stereo audio, so you won't get the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks offered with most prime-time shows (not that the full surround sound palette is really used for most primetime shows).
A 40-GB hard drive isn't that big and will fill up fast if you set the DVR to record at maximum quality. If you tend to let programs build up before watching them, or you like to keep them for a while, you're definitely going to want to add more storage. It is nice to have the flexibility to choose how much storage you want to pay for.
Because this device is completely network-dependent, if your home network goes down, you lose your TV signal, too. Of course, that's true of all cord-cutting services.
While I like the user interface overall, a couple tweaks could improve the experience. The playback window needs a direct record button; should you decide you want to record what you're watching, you have to go back to the guide, click on the show name, and hit record. Also, there's no channel up/down function to channel-surf through the lineup; again, you have to go back to the program guide in order to change the channel.
Comparison & Competition
HDHomeRun is arguably the best known "stream over your network" solution, and the HDHomeRun Connect is the closest competitor to the Tablo DUAL. The two-tuner box costs just $99 for the box, but it lacks onboard storage. Like the Tablo system, you can get full functionality and remote access via an annual $35 subscription, or you can skip the subscription and just get live TV and basic DVR functions.
From Tivo's DVR lineup, the Roamio OTA DVR ($399.99) is the most direct competitor to the Tablo DUAL. It's a more traditional DVR, with AV outputs to connect directly to your HDTV and a dedicated remote control. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, VUDU, and Amazon Video are built into it. The Roamio has four tuners and a much bigger hard drive (1 TB). While it carries a higher price tag of $400, the Roamio is an all-in-one solution, and Tivo recently did away with its (pricey, I thought) subscription fee--so the program guide and remote access are included in the cost.
Channel Master's DVR+ is another traditional DVR that connects to your HDTV and has a dedicated remote. You can access streaming services like VUDU, YouTube, Sling, Pandora, and Channel Master TV. It sports two tuners, and you can choose between two versions: the 1-TB model costs $399.99, or you can get the "bring your own storage" version for $249. There's no subscription fee.
If you own an Android TV player like the NVIDIA SHIELD, Tablo recently introduced the Tablo TUNER ($69.99), which is a two-tuner USB DVR stick that you can plug directly into your player to add live TV and DVR functions via the free Tablo ENGINE app. One perk of the Tablo ENGINE is that it supports 5.1-channel surround sound.
I really enjoyed my time with the Tablo DUAL over-the-air DVR. I was pleasantly surprised by just how easy it was to set up, how good the picture quality was, and how intuitive it was to use across all my devices. Admittedly, the Tablo approach might not be for everyone. If you're preparing to cut the cord and want to buy an all-in-one DVR solution to replace your cable/satellite box in your AV gear rack, you might be happier with a more traditional DVR design like a Tivo or Channel Master product. If, on the other hand, you've already cut the cord and want a DVR product that seamlessly integrates with the streaming media player you already own--and lets you take your OTA content anywhere you go--the Tablo DUAL is a great solution.
• Visit the Tablo website for more product information.
• Check out our Satellite Receivers & HD DVR category page to read similar reviews.
• Nuvyyo Introduces Tablo DUAL Two-Tuner Over-the-Air DVR at HomeTheaterReview.com.