tablo with tabletImage: Nuvyyo

Hands on with the Tablo DVR: Over-the-air TV to go

Anyone looking for an alternative to forking out cash each month to a cable provider has another cord-cutting option at their disposal in the form of Tablo. The DVR not only records over-the-air broadcast television, but also streams live and recorded TV over the Internet for those times when you’ve left the couch in body, if not in spirit.

Tablo's focus is beaming DVR-ed and live broadcast TV content to tablets, computers, and mobile devices. Once it's on those devices, you can then send it over to your TV, but Tablo doesn't connect to your TV directly, and technically, you don't even need a TV to use it. TechHive had a first look at Tablo back in January at CES, but now that Nuvyyo is shipping pre-orders, we’ve gotten a chance to test the Tablo 2-Tuner DVR.

Getting set up

The Tablo comes with a power cord, an ethernet cable, and a quick start guide. At 4.5 by 6.9 inches and 1.4 inches high, the device is about 30 percent wider than my Roku XD and slightly taller, though it’s still quite small for a DVR. Tablo keeps things slim by relying on an external USB hard drive for storage—you’ll have to provide that yourself.

Tablo back

The back of the Tablo has a coaxial connection for your antenna, USB ports to attach your own hard drive, and an ethernet port. Missing (on purpose) is an HDMI port to connect directly to your TV.

To use Tablo, you’ll need a TV antenna, a home Wi-Fi network, a USB hard drive, and either a tablet, computer, or smartphone. If you want to watch any of the content on your TV, you'll need a bridge device—Tablo currently supports Roku, Apple TV, and Chromecast—or you could just connect your computer or tablet directly to your TV with HDMI.

Installation is pretty simple: You connect the coaxial cable from your antenna to the Tablo. Then hook up the USB drive—flash drives aren’t supported—and plug in the power adapter. You can connect the included ethernet cable directly to your router, or opt to use the built-in Wi-Fi.

Tablo Wes Novack

My Tablo all set up, ready to record to the USB hard drive on the right. 

Then you'll launch the Tablo app, on your iPad (iOS 7 or later) or Android tablet (4.2 or later, with support for Android 4.1 coming soon)—I was able to use my iPad mini to add my Tablo to my Wi-Fi network and update the software. Or you can turn to the browser-based app to set up your Tablo, as long as the Tablo is connected to your network via ethernet. Tablo doesn't currently support the initial setup over Wi-Fi using the web app. Nuvyyo is working on adding Wi-Fi setup to the web app, but for now you'll need an iPad or Android tablet to set up Tablo's Wi-Fi.

At this point, the Tablo software will tell you to connect an antenna. Tablo then scans your signal for over-the-air TV channels and asks for your location to provide program guide data. When that's done, you’ll have a list of channels discovered by Tablo.

Tablo, adding channels

Tablo recommends you only add 720p and 1080i channels to your guide, but you can manually select the 480i channels too.

When selecting which channels to add to your guide, the Tablo app recommends that you add only 720p or 1080i channels, but in my area, there are many other channels with good content that broadcast in 480i. There's no drawback to using 480i channels with Tablo, they just don't look as good as the higher-resolution broadcasts. I manually added a few more channels on my own. It takes a few minutes for Tablo’s software to update the guide for your channels.

Using the DVR

Now that your DVR is set up, it’s time to put it to use, with the help of Tablo’s assorted apps. I found it easy to navigate the apps' well-designed interface.

Tablo app on the iPad

Tablo's app for iPad: The poster images for each show make the experience more like browsing Netflix than looking at a boring programming guide.

The default Prime Time screen features prime-time shows from the broadcast stations airing over the next two weeks—the length of time that Tablo’s program guide data covers. TV shows appear as titles, usually accompanied by a poster image. Tap on a tile to get more details on the content, such as a summary paragraph, running time, the season number, and a schedule listing out when the next episodes will air. From here, you can also opt to record the entire series (new episodes only, or all episodes including reruns) or pick individual episodes to record.

You can record two shows at once—in my tests, the Tablo flexed its dual-tuner muscles, capturing both programs to the connected USB hard drive simultaneously. By default, you’ll record video in 720p, though you have the option to up the ante to 1080p. Video quality looks fantastic, especially from channels that broadcast over 1080i.

A Live TV menu option brings up a programming guide with all your channels, displaying what’s airing now and in the immediate future. Tap a channel to start watching immediately.

Tablo

Watching live, over-the-air TV slither its way onto my iPad.

Launch a video through Tablo, and a top bar on your screen contains the time code position while the bottom bar offers volume control as well as buttons for jumping back 20 seconds, pausing, and skipping forward 30 seconds. That button is particularly useful, perfect for quickly hopping over commercials.

I tried running multiple Tablo video streams to two computers in my house at the same time. The Tablo didn’t flinch, as both shows displayed in high quality with no interruptions, artifacts, or stuttering. I also tested Tablo from my Moto X smartphone using the web app in Chrome. I connected to the Tablo while on Wi-Fi, then disconnected from Wi-Fi to see if I would be able to access my Tablo content while away from home, over 4G. (The Tablo Connect remote-viewing feature is not turned on by default, but you can turn it on in Settings.) To my delight, the Tablo web app worked without a hitch over 4G, for both live TV and recorded content.

Our impressions

It’s easy to see how the Tablo DVR can be a powerful device for cord cutters. Its many features will certainly appeal to on-the-fence pay TV subscribers who are accustomed to cable box luxuries such as scheduled recordings, whole home DVR, commercial skipping, and portable viewing.

Tablo app for Android

Tablo's native apps are tablet-only, but you can access the web app with an iOS or Android phone. 

Tablo's direct competitor, Simple.TV, offers similar features and service in its dual-tuner model. Tablo has a leg up in that the hardware is slightly cheaper ($220 vs $250). Simple.TV also disables some core features if you don't have an active subscription. Remote viewing, recording by series, and other features are rendered inaccessible when you don't subscribe, making the usefulness of these devices extremely limited.

I did have some trouble with streaming to my TV over Roku—I just couldn’t get the Tablo DVR to work with the Tablo channel on my Roku XD. Tablo support says it could be an issue specific to my device, but I haven’t had any issues with any other apps or services on this Roku box. The Tablo's Wi-Fi also seemed to interfere with my Roku box—the Roku couldn't get a network connection when the two boxes were sitting directly next to each other. Moving the Roku a couple feet away from the Tablo resolved the issue.

The Tablo 2-Tuner DVR costs $220 and becomes widely available April 14. A four-tuner model will follow later this spring, with an anticipated retail price of $250. Tablo provides a month of free program guide data with purchase. After that, the optional service costs $5 per month, $50 per year, or $150 for a lifetime subscription.

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