Many people over the last couple of years have been finding ways to leave their cable companies. It’s not that we have an aversion to content, we just can’t stand the cable bills and sometimes we don’t like the companies themselves. The point is, in this day and age we have other ways of accessing the content. A lot of people have started using Netflix and Hulu to supplement their fix, but that doesn’t cover everything. If you have an HDTV antenna, that will help a lot, but with Tablo, a product a made acquaintances with at CES this year, it will make your HDTV experience at least twice as good.
Tablo is designed to be a product that will ingest the content that you have coming in on your HDTV antenna, organize it, and make it more readily available to you when you want to watch it. In short, it’s a DVR for your HDTV antenna that you can access from any of your connected devices. They have support for Android, iPad, Roku, and a web interface when all else fails (which it might).
Out of the box, you will be able to take advantage of all of the services it provides assuming you have a proper hard drive ready. It will first scan to see what channels it can pick up and allow you to decide which ones it will even bother tuning to (since some of them will be too poor of quality to bother). Once it has finished scanning, it will sync over your network (LAN or WiFi) and determine the schedule for all of the channels that it found.
From that point forward, you pretty much just use it like you would a traditional DVR with the added bonus that you can view your content on any of your mobile devices. You can view your entire channel lineup, choose individual episodes to record, choose entire series to record, filter by just about anything you can think of, and it all comes in a very attractive UI.
The one thing that really surprised me about the Tablo is that it doesn’t have any form of output other than the internet. You can’t connect the Tablo directly to your television to uncomplicate the process of watching live TV, which often does become unnecessarily complicated.
As far as the hard drive is concerned, there isn’t one on board. It’s your responsibility to provide one. On one hand, that’s great because you aren’t constrained to the limitations that are assumed by the manufacturer; there aren’t different capacity models that they charge an arm and a leg for an extra GB. However, that does mean that your initial cost is going to be more and there are limitations for what the Tablo will support.
First, it has to be a hard drive, flash memory won’t cut it. According to their FAQ page, flash is slower than hard disks. This is news to me, but in any case, they won’t do flash and you’re gonna like it. That said, you also need to keep it at 2 TB and under and it needs to support USB 2.0. According to Nuvyyo, the makers of Tablo, they don’t need the extra speed from USB 3.0 so you may as well save some money, though most USB 3.0 products are backwards compatible. They also mentioned that they are actively working to support larger volumes.
There is some flash memory on-board (gasp) that is used for caching live video, but it is very minimal and won’t be used for anything other than that. The Tablo won’t even download your channel guide until you’ve connected a hard drive.
How Does Tablo Behave In The Real World?
In short, it’s not bad, but that doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. I already mentioned that it doesn’t come with any kind of video output, which over-complicates the act of watching live TV. It’s fine if you’re watching from your tablet while you’re out of the house, but if you’re sitting in front of the television, why not just turn to HDMI 3 and watch TV?
The biggest recommendation I can give is to put this and your HDTV antenna in the best place for WiFi and OTA reception. There’s no reason to have it near the TV, so the better reception you get, the better experience you will have overall. When I first installed the device I hadn’t really grasped this concept and tried to install the setup in the window nearest my TV but I had less than ideal WiFi in that location and the HDTV antenna was blocked by shrubbery outside the window. After I moved everything to a much friendlier location, my experience was much better and the app seemed to crash far less often.
That said, you might see a few force close messages, at least on the Android app. I can’t speak personally for the iOS application, but according to Nuvyyo it is more stable than the Android app and they are always working hard to improve stability and add new features to their entire linup. The web app is probably the best and easiest to use, but it’s the one that I use the least since I’d rather be consuming my media on the go, or at least not in front of my computer. Fortunately the Tablo app supports Chromecast, which made it slightly less painful to watch live TV.
If you don’t use the app on a particular device for more than a few days, it will want to sync the entire channel/program list to your device again. This usually takes 5 or so minutes and even for a patient person like me it becomes very tedious. Nuvyyo says that they have a firmware update coming that will make this process about 50% faster, but for now this is still something to consider. This isn’t much of a problem on the web app as it will sync in the background, but on the mobile app you have to sit and wait for it to finish syncing before it will let you watch anything.
Nuvyyo tells me that it’s necessary to store this information locally so that you don’t have to be connected to the internet to use the DVR and the app is able to run much faster once the Tablo has synced. Perhaps they can make this a background task that happens without interaction from the user so that it’s always ready to go; a daily sync at 3AM, for example. The upcoming update to make things work faster is certainly a welcome one, though. In addition, the cover photos often take up to 30 seconds to appear, which if you’re like me is long after I’ve navigated from the screen. If they need to sync everything every time, then do it – lower resolution photos might help as well.
My other recommendation would be to go for a big hard drive, probably just max it out at 2 TB. I started with a 120 GB hard drive that I had lying around and quickly realized that it wasn’t going to cut it. I set the Tablo up to auto-record a few shows that I thought I would like to watch (and an occasional news program that I was too lazy to get up to watch) and the hard drive was filled up within a couple of weeks. You can control the quality of the recorded content and set it at a lower resolution to save space, but it just seems rude to throw that HD stream back into the face of its kind distributors.
When Will I Start Saving Money?
The cost of the actual Tablo is $220 for the 2-tuner version and $300 for the 4-tuner version. In my experience with the 2-tuner version, you probably don’t need 4 tuners unless you plan on recording all of the things but it does require a tuner for some reason to watch recorded video when you’re away from home, so that is something to keep in mind.
Add in the cost for the hard drive and you have already spend between $300 and $400 and there’s still a subscription fee involved with Tablo. It’s $5 per month, $49 per year, or a $149 lifetime subscription, the former of which can be cancelled at any time without penalty. You can use the Tablo without a monthly subscription, but it becomes significantly less valuable.
Bottom line, if you assume an average cable cost of about $50 per month, a $400 initial investment for the Tablo, hard drive, and HDTV antenna, and $5 per month (first month is free) for a subscription to the premium services (most expensive scenario), you will begin saving money after 9 months. This, of course, means you will have to compromise on the content that you consume, but there are ways to supplement the loss and still pay less over time than you would with cable.
The Actual Bottom Line
Tablo isn’t perfect and it isn’t cheap, but in the long run (less than a year) you will make up for its cost and start saving 95% monthly vs the average price of cable and I’m sure Nuvyyo (the makers of Tablo) will be working hard to improve the experience of Tablo along the way. If you’re a cable subscriber, but really like the features that Tablo provides you will be pleased to know that they have been tinkering with the use of cable cards with Tablo. I can definitely say that Tablo makes the HDTV antenna experience leaps and bounds better, bringing the features of Aereo home and keeping it legal.
My experience with Tablo has been almost entirely positive and though I’m going to experiment with using the box without a subscription when my free trial ends in about a week, I have a feeling it’s going to bring me back. This is mostly with the “record by series feature,” which basically allows you to click a single button and the Tablo will record every instance of a particular show that it sees without you having to manually find it and click record.
If you’re thinking about becoming a cord-cutter, consider whether you would be willing to live without seeing “The Walking Dead” at 9PM on Sunday and then you’ll know whether its right for you. If the answer is yes, you have the potential to save yourself a good chunk of change and have better access to your content at the same time.