18
Aug
1

Since the dawn of time, humans have faced a real struggle: the relentless grip of cable companies. When it comes to TV, cable providers know they have you in a corner – all your favorite shows come on different channels, and you're going to shell out all the dollars necessary to get in on the pseudo-action. This is our spiritual war.

Over the past few years, a bold, brave few have journeyed outside of the norm, metaphorically cutting the cord and leaving cable providers in the dust. Modern technology has of course aided in the process, with things like Roku, Chromecast, and Amazon's Fire TV leading the charge against high-priced monthly television packages.

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Now, a newcomer enters the arena with a way to watch and record live TV without a subscription to a traditional cable or satellite provider. We're going to take a look at one of the first boxes on the market to do this, called Tablo. Before we get into what it does, however, let's first discuss how it works.

How it does what it does

Back in the good ol' days, one could get free basic television with a set of rabbit ears or a large, ugly antenna on the roof. Since the conversion from analog to digital, all that went away, but brought with it a slew of new free TV. Free HDTV, to be exact. To pull the signal out of the sky, an HDTV Antenna is all that's needed. I'm not going to lie: I didn't even know those existed till now. What a sheltered life I live.

The main issue here, though, is that using an HDTV antenna is very basic. There is no guide. No way of knowing what's coming on next. And certainly no way of recording or watching something later. That's where Tablo comes in: it's a DVR and streaming set-top box for a connected antenna. What a cool idea.

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Last pic: I'm just using a cheap HDTV antenna from Amazon. Works well.

Here's the gist: connect an HDTV antenna, external hard drive, and internet connection (ethernet or Wi-Fi) to Tablo. It has companion apps for iOS, Android, and Roku that allow users to set up the unit for use, which includes a full channel scan and program guide. From there, it's a lot like using a standard cable-connected television.

But there's a catch. Like all companies, Tablo has to make money, thus leading to subscription packages you can buy. These subscriptions range from $5 a month to a one-time $150 fee, depending on what you want from the service. Here's a breakdown of each one:

  • Monthly guide subscription ($4.99). This is just access to the guide, which is basically a must-have if you want to use Tablo – it's pretty useless without it.
  • Yearly guide subscription ($49.99). Same as above, but billed yearly instead of monthly. Saves $10.
  • Lifetime guide subscription ($149.99). All Tablos on your account will receive guide data on a permanent basis with no recurring fees.

Five dollars is still quite a bit cheaper than traditional cable service, so that's not a terrible deal. Of course, that also depends on exactly what you want to watch. Let's talk about channels and how well the service actually works.

How well it does what it does

OK, so just to make sure you're up to speed, here's what's happening: Tablo is pulling in the HD signal from the HDTV antenna, then redistributing it over Wi-Fi to all supported devices on the network. The guide, options, and whatnot are all available through the apps, which is essentially the bulk of the Tablo experience. Recordings and such are also managed here, much like DVRs provided by most cable companies.

Now that we're all on the same page, let's take a closer look at channels, content, and how well everything works as a system. The first – and probably most important – thing to note is that available channels are going to vary drastically depending on exact location. As a general rule, small, rural towns are going to get fewer options than suburban or metropolis areas. It sucks, but that's how it is – there's nothing Tablo can do about it, because it's all about what's being broadcasted in your area. Larger, more powerful antennas are likely to pull in more channels, but it's still basically impossible to make a blanket statement regarding coverage. The absolute best thing you can do before even considering something like Tablo is take a look at what's available in your local area. Thank God for the internet, eh?

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A comparison of the small town where I used to live and where I live now: 9 vs. 73

One other note on channel availability: just because it shows up in the list doesn't mean you'll actually get it. It could potentially still be out of range – it all depends on your antenna.

The final thing that needs to be taken into consideration is streaming quality. Approximately zero channels in my area available to Tablo stream in 1080p. 1080i and 720p are the most common, with many still streaming in 480i. If you can handle some pixels then they aren't horrible, but I can't say I recommend watching anything on an HD display at less than 720p. That dramatically reduces the number of channels that are watchable.

OK! Now that we have that tidbit out of the way, let's talk about using Tablo! Since we're an Android site, I'm going to put the majority of the focus on the Android experience. That said, I'll also briefly cover what it's like on Roku and iOS for those users who may have multiple devices in their homes.

The Tablo app is pretty simple, mostly intuitive, and fairly buggy (that goes for both iOS and Android). Devices don't stay connected to Tablo constantly, so re-connection is necessary every time the app is launched. This generally only takes 1-2 seconds, so it's not an outrageous annoyance, but rather slightly inconvenient (if you can even call it that). After connection is established, the app jumps straight into the Live TV broadcast schedule (read: the guide), which is where you'll find something to watch and/or schedule recordings. The hamburger menu offers a few other methods of finding content, as well: subcategories for TV Shows, Movies, and Sports. This is also where you'll find scheduled and stored recordings, as well as settings. It's all relatively straight forward. The overall layout is identical on both Android and iOS.

Screenshot_2014-08-18-14-02-09 Screenshot_2014-08-18-14-02-58 Screenshot_2014-08-18-14-02-41

There's also a neat feature called "Tablo Connect," which allows Tablo to be accessed outside of its local network, so users can watch TV on the go. That gives people something to do while working!

So that's what the app is supposed to do. Let's talk about what it actually does: crash. Fairly often, in fact. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme nor reason to the crashes, either. Sometimes it happens while scrolling through the guide. Sometimes it's while accessing options. Sometimes it's just kind of sitting there. There's never any sort of force close dialog, either – it just disappears. It can be re-opened immediately, but it's still quite annoying.

Speaking of annoying, the app is only available on tablets. You know, because everyone has a tablet and no one ever wants to watch stuff on their phone. Even if many users would prefer the larger screen, the app has Chromecast support, so a phone is still a useful option. No need for a tablet at all. I hope the company remedies this soon.

There is also one major annoyance when streaming to Chromecast: if you go back to look at the guide, it kills the stream. So you can't look at the guide while watching something else. That drives me crazy.

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While we're talking about Chromecast support, it's also worth mentioning the Roku app. Compared to the iOS/Android apps, it's pretty basic; no guide, no recording options. You can only view what's currently on, the above mentioned categories, and content that has already been recorded. Of course, the odds are you won't be scheduling recordings from your TV, so it's still pretty functional.

Conclusion

While testing Tablo, something occurred to me: I was pulling an HD signal out of the sky, into a DVR-like box, then redistributing that signal across my Wi-Fi network, grabbing it with my tablet, and redirecting that signal back to my TV over Chromecast. All so I could watch an episode of Bewitched that was filmed in 1965. If Samantha Stevens could see this today, she'd surely be convinced that it's magic.

I wouldn't personally go that far, but I do think Tablo – or at least the idea behind it – is really cool. Unfortunately most premium programming isn't available for free (that's why it's premium), which would still make it difficult for someone who's used to watching a lot of TV to cut the cord and switch to something like Tablo.

That said, if you've already gotten rid of your cable company and stick with things like Netflix or Hulu, Tablo is an excellent way to get a little more entertainment – which includes most local channels – for not a lot more money. It's not a perfect system, and it's a little bit pricey at $200, especially when you consider that you have to bring your own HDTV antenna and hard drive. That can easily push the total cost over $300, so you'll definitely want to double- and triple-check your coverage before making the investment.

It's also worth keeping in mind that there are other companies doing the same thing now, like Simple.TV, for example. I happen to have a Simple.TV just beside my Tablo at this very moment and will be reviewing it in the very near future, so if you're interested in picking up a streaming DVR, then you may want to wait to see how the two compare.

If you just can't wait, though, hit the link below to grab your Tablo today.

Buy: Tablo

Cameron Summerson
Cameron is a self-made geek, Android enthusiast, horror movie fanatic, musician, and cyclist. When he's not pounding keys here at AP, you can find him spending time with his wife and kids, plucking away on the 6-string, spinning on the streets, or watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on repeat.

  • http://usamaisawake.wordpress.com usamaisawake

    You don't need HDTV antennas. If you live in an area with strong signal your old rabbit ears will work just fine.

    • itlnstln

      This. There really is no such thing as an HDTV antenna. Antennae are the same as they ever were. Stations have just started putting out HDTV signals.

      • Raymie Humbert

        What IS different is that there are more stations on UHF than VHF.

        I've been following Mexico's (intricate) DTV transition using the same system as the United States. There, there were several large markets where stations were intentionally shoehorned onto VHF (leading to many markets having the maximum of seven VHF stations). In those areas—Mérida and Cancún come to mind—there WILL be a need for people to look at their antenna setups.

    • Kevin Crosby

      The ONLY difference is that most of the newer so called HDTV antenna's are cooler looking. My PVC tube and coat-hangar rig works beautifully.

  • BoFiS

    If only TiVo bothered to make a Stream app for Android (phones and tablets please!) or you know, ANYTHING besides ipads they would be killing this segment. As it stands, I have no reason to want to upgrade my TiVo since the ability to stream content is the major selling point besides extra tuners.

    • Ivan92116

      According to their Twitter feed, the Android app is coming next month:
      "Finally! Very glad to say that our Android streaming app will become available next month! Stay tuned for details. #android #tivoroamio"
      https://twitter.com/TiVo/status/501353359886934016

  • sargas

    "HDTV Antennas" are as scammy as gluten-free milk. All old-fashioned rabbit ear antennas will pick up the free digital broadcasts, same as before the switch.

    Older TVs don't understand the digital signal, hence the need for converter boxes for them. But you can use any old antenna since the frequencies didn't change.

    • BetterWithRoot

      My Monitor doesn't have a TV tuner. An HDTV antenna isn't a bad thing, It's an HDTV box and antenna in one, it's a perfect fit for me. Plus it has the added ability of DVR.

      I understand the frustration behind the marketing language though, and there are some consumers whom will be taken advantage of.

      • http://usamaisawake.wordpress.com usamaisawake

        Not exactly. The author linked to the Amazon antenna he bought here: http://www.amazon.com/AmazonBasics-Ultra-Thin-Performance-Indoor-Antenna/dp/B00DIFIO8E/ -- and it's a basic antenna without any tuner capabilities. You have to plug in the antenna to a tuner. And unfortunately as you mentioned, some consumers are fooled into thinking there's something special about HDTV antennas when often they're just the antennas and maybe with a pre-amp or something, but no tuner.

        EDIT: just looked up FreeView which conor and Phillip talk about in another comment; and MAN, we (the U.S.) is SO ripped off on this too

        • BetterWithRoot

          Gotcha, I missed that link under the pictures. Going back I seen it. Dang. Here I thought it was a complete product.

          Thanks man!

  • c0n0r

    Am I misunderstanding or is this a US version of Freeview that we get in the UK? Albeit with a fancy STB with some nice features.

    • Philip Worthington

      I'm from the UK, but I loved in the US a few years ago and installed TVs for a living. It's not Freeview exactly, there's no built-in guide, no interactive features, no digital teletext (but then, the US never even had teletext!)

      It also doesn't get organised into channel order for you, you tune it like an analogue radio. It's very basic, because most people in the US use cable.

      • primalxconvoy

        America seems a bit behind the times when it comes to digital tv...

      • Raymie Humbert

        I think another reason is because the multiplexing model doesn't work in a country where media is very localized.

        Don't get me wrong, I think Freeview is a better system on the whole (it didn't help that in building ATSC we went with 8VSB modulation instead of OFDM). But consider these cases:

        * In a large market there will be independent stations without a network affiliation or carrying ethnic programs, but those same stations do not have counterparts in a very small market. Where do these stations go?

        * There are some markets with multiple ABC affiliates (Grand Rapids/Battle Creek, Tampa Bay/Sarasota). How do you fit two ABC affiliates into a very nationalized, homogeneous multiplex system?

        The amount of localism in American television is much higher than it is in many countries. It makes the tuning system make a little more sense.

      • TVvatch

        Thanks for describing this. Living in Czech Republic I get SD&HD channels, interactive content (HbbTV on Czech TVs), teletext and digital guide for "free" (Television licence) with my basic TV which is recording-capable too + simple wire antenna so I really didn't understand the article much. No sarcasm.

  • Bill Anderson

    No thank you, monthly fee. My Windows Media Center has more than paid for itself if you look at these fees.

    • http://www.toysdiva.com Toys Samurai

      I agree, especially because these days, almost everyone I know has a rather capable old Windows machine lying around in their house. HDTV capture card/box isn't expensive. It won't take much time to get a Windows Media Center up and running.

  • tumbleweed

    But' the same problem still exists for rural areas as far as any antennas, unless you have a tv station within 30' miles or so, can't pull signal in! Have tried all kinds of antennas.

  • Philip Worthington

    Ha, in the UK this is the normal way we get TV. Funny to see it described from a US point of view!

    • http://usamaisawake.wordpress.com usamaisawake

      I think the author was not aware re: free HDTV over the air and free guide info. However I don't think, even in the UK, that everyone can get a device that pushes HD signals over their local home network?

      • c0n0r

        A Raspberry Pi with XBMC and TVHeadEnd installed and a USB TV tuner could do that for the total price of £40

        • http://usamaisawake.wordpress.com usamaisawake

          Thanks. Solutions are out there for us geeks, I guess Tablo is for people who are less familiar or comfortable with using RPi and stuff. But my response to Phillip was just that the U.S. also has free HD that just works, and I think he was misled by the article because it made it seem as though we don't have those basic features in the U.S. I don't think by "normal" he had meant to include the network capabilities of Tablo, which sounds like is just replicating the setup you mentioned with the RPi and XBMC.

          • Philip Worthington

            You're right, this device is very focused on home networking too, which isn't a part of the UK Freeview standard. However, the most popular Freeview PVR boxes are made by Humax, and will stream recorded content to other Humax boxes, plus you can copy the recordings to USB.

            It do also understand that technology adoption is different in the US where you have huge geographic and cultural differences. I lived there 8 years ago and was initially shocked by how 'backwards' most consumer technology was, but I think things are catching up.

          • http://usamaisawake.wordpress.com usamaisawake

            I'll have to tell my cousin in the UK about the Human devixe., if he doesn't already know about it. Thanks. It seems you guys have way, way more options than we do.

            So I'm going to add this to the list of things the UK does better: cell phone coverage & pricing, TV deployment, TV content (Top Gear, Sherlock, etc.), and let's not forget healthcare coverage. I'm sure there's much more but I'll stop here for now :-)

          • Philip Worthington

            Don't forget national radio coverage for all major radio stations, no
            retuning your radio fives times when you drive between cities. Oh, and free nationwide digital radio too. http://www.ukdigitalradio.com/

            As for the Humax boxes, just look here: http://www.humaxdigital.com/uk

            They make the best Freeview, FreeSat (free digital satellite) and YouView (free digital TV with free internet streaming TV built-in) boxes.

        • mcnegro

          Raspberry pi sucks for XBMC. It's fine if all your doing is xvid or 720p H264. It pukes if you feed it high bitrate 1080p H264 with DTS audio which is what most of my movie rips are.

          Much better to just invest in a low end x86 system for XBMC. That way you can play all the codecs, 3d and everything else.

          • c0n0r

            Can you get 1080p H264 with DTS audio from terrestrial digital TV? It was just be cheapest example I could think of to achieve the same features as talked about above.

          • Ambroos

            Heh? I have no issues playing back 1080p 30GB BR-rips with DTS on my Raspberry Pi streamed over SMB. With the regular turbo OC settings anyway.

    • novatom

      Fortunately the U.K. adopted a better over the air DTV standard back in the 90's so it's not as difficult for viewers to get a signal. Broadcasters in the U.S. lost a lot of viewers in the 2009 DTV transition who can no longer receive the broadcast signal. .

  • Nick Cannon

    Cutting the cord with a monthly fee

  • kabloink

    Screw these subscription schemes. I just want a dvr where you can manually set a recording by time and channel.

    • Toasted_Cracker

      If that's all you want to do then I would highly suggest this....
      Mediasonic HW-150PVR HomeWorx ATSC Digital TV Converter Box with Media Player and Recording PVR Function/HDMI Out (Black) https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00I2ZBD1U/ref=cm_sw_r_udp_awd_-xN8tb1WAMHXR

      I have one and it's been fantastic. Its also cheap at $37 you can't beat the price. The only downlaod side is the UI sucks and takes some getting used to.

  • OhYeah!

    This has the same problem as the tivo. Don't charge me monthly after I have shelled out for your box. The guide should be FREE with the box. Maybe charge for storage of shows in the cloud or something but charging me to see the guide is a cheapskate move by Tablo.

  • tumbleweed

    The whole TV thing is a scam, for what shipping shows?

  • tumbleweed

    Sorry meant "shopping "

  • Defenestratus

    I always find the term "cord cutting" hilarious since in many cases the internet connection over which you're getting your content is actually provided by the cable company.

    • primalxconvoy

      Except you can almost halve your bills this way. "Bill reducing" hasn't got the same ring to it.

    • Dave Bowen

      My internet doesn't come from the Cable Co.

  • Richard Lloyd

    I'm a bit non-plussed with this Tablo device. In the UK, companies like Humax have dual-tuner terrestrial or satellite PVRs with wired or wireless "smart" facility (e.g. for streamed catch up shows from the last week, plus certain other apps such as YouTube, BBC News/Sport etc) available for a while now. They have an Android/iOS app for remote recording, a built-in hard drive and can play many codecs of music/video/photos via either the built-in USB port or via DLNA. Basically an all-in-one HDTV box without a subscription - arguably better than the Tablo, IMHO.

    • primalxconvoy

      Exactly. Although this new hardware sounds good, the software isn't up to par, especially for mainstream users who will inevitably be returning these en masse back to Walmart or Tescos if they are ever sold in place like that.

      I'd just stick to a regular free tv box and then use Netflix or equivalent.

  • me me

    I have a DVR in UK which records everything to its internal hdd and then I live stream via Slingplayer. Would be handy to download the mp4 to then watch offline but to be honest on a slow shared free hotel wifi the Sling idea works best as its quite watchable at 0.5Mbit. If 'net too slow for that I watch pre-downloaded mp4 off internal phone/tablet storage.

    get_iplayer http://www.infradead.org/get_iplayer/html/get_iplayer.html

  • Dave Bowen

    I've been using a Tablo (2 tuner) since they fist shipped. I got one free year of the guide since I pre-ordered it. My fist antenna was horrible. I bought in Buy.com for about $30. I would highly recommend a good antenna (https://www.antennasdirect.com/store/C2-Clearstream-Long-Range-Indoor-Outdoor-HDTV-antenna.html) because it will make all the difference. I'm about 14 miles from our stations and I still placed my antenna on the roof (I actually took the DirecTv dish off the stand and placed my antenna on that...LOL! take that DircTv) and I get an amazing signal. In my mind the Tablo is a bit over priced @ $220. for the 2 tuner. You still have to buy a hard drive ($60-100) and if you don't have an antenna, that as well. I think the price would be fine if they supplied it with a hard drive. Also, the problem with buying your own HD, you might get one that doesn't work as well and It could cause issues. I've had a lot of problems trying to view recorded or live TV on my tablet or phone when I'm out and about. For some reason their web app is hit or miss so I basically stopped trying to watch when I'm away from the house. The Roku App needs a complete redo. It's really nice to have it but it is very cumbersome to use. With that said I am very happy I bought the Tablo. I would recommend it to anyone that can afford the initial investment. They are working on improving their apps so I am confident that those small issues will be addressed in the near future.

  • Cuvis

    So, it's an HDHomeRun, with a monthly fee attached.

    Brilliant.

    • samcraig

      no computer needed though

  • digiblur

    If Tablo had a user interface and HDMI out combined with it. That was the one thing that pushed me away from them. I needed a box that also had a simple interface for the wife and kids to use as well they didn't require a tablet/phone to watch TV. ChannelMaster DVR+ won in that regard. KISS principle.

  • jeffhesser

    Every time I get a little bit frustrated by having to deal with a computer in my living room i see reviews like this or info about TiVo's and realize how much worse it could be. haha

  • samcraig

    I've been intrigued by Tablo and will probably switch at some point. We cut the cord 2 years ago (we live in NYC). I currently use an old laptop with windows media player as a DVR and a silicondust hdhomerun which can record two shows at one time. Since I had the old laptop, the total "hard" cost was $40 for the antenna and $90 for the HD Homerun. Well worth it. Although - there will come a time when the laptop will die. And then I'll have to decide whether to go with a new cheap laptop again or the Tablo. Given size, flexibility, etc - probably tablo.

  • David Allen

    Yeah I'm doing all of this now with a pair of HDHomeRun Primes and an HTPC running XBMC...excuse me Kodi Media Center. I can stream to my devices just fine without any crashing and even better without monthly, yearly, or one time 150$ payments.