Cord cutting is catching on big time these days (for those uninitiated, cord cutter are those that decide to ditch cable/satellite and use alternative methods of TV viewing). There are a number of options out there: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Streaming, and there is of course the old reliable OTA (Over the Air) antenna. Just like in the old days you can hook up an antenna to your TV and start instantly watching free broadcast television within your area. Turns out there are 48 channels available to me with a 30 mile antenna. I had no idea there were so many. That was great news because it filled a gap in my viewing that Netflix and Hulu could not. Generally speaking, Netflix airs TV shows after a season is over. It’s kind of like waiting for a DVD release. Hulu, on the other hand, airs current TV shows on a slight delay (usually a day later) with minimal ad support. The only problem is that Hulu does not carry every network. CBS, for example, is not on Hulu. Luckily, that’s where the antenna comes in. I can tune over to my local CBS affiliate and watch Criminal Minds for free. The downside to that is 1. I have to watch it live and 2. I have to set through all the commercials because it is indeed live.
This is where TabloTV comes in. For the past month or so I have been able to test out a nifty device called a TabloTV. What is that, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. TabloTV is a DVR (digital video recorder) that records OTA broadcasts. If you’re old enough to remember, it’s kind of like in the old days when you would record TV shows on your VCR. Except in this case, it’s entirely digital so there are no cassettes to keep up with and they don’t eventually wear down in quality or get eaten by the VCR. Since installing this little device I have been able to watch my favorite shows without having to alter my schedule to that of the TV guide. But enough of the introduction, let me jump into my experience with this device.
How It Works
The TabloTV is a DVR unit that receives your antenna signal and then, depending on your needs at the time either save the data to an external hard drive or streams the signal to your TV through a device to watch live. Now, some people might get a little picky here about the word “live.” Technically, the TabloTV records your video and then relays it to your TV so even when watching live TV there is a slight delay of a few seconds. But, even those that have had cable have experienced having the same show on in two different rooms of the house and they are several seconds off in their timing so live is somewhat of a relative term. It is live as far as I am concerned. The greatest part about the TabloTV, which to some may seem like a negative at first, is that it in no way connects directly to your television. Instead, the unit has a built-in WiFi capability that sends the signal out throughout your wireless network. This is really the beauty of the device – any device that is logged into your (hopefully password protected) network can pull in signal from the TabloTV. This has a couple of cool benefits. The first is that you only need one unit because it can be shared throughout the household and is not attached to a single television. The second is that you can set up the TabloTV (and antenna) anywhere you need in the house. So if you get the very best signal in an obscure area of the house you could set up the TabloTV and antenna there and then watch the programming from anywhere in the house that is on that network, you can even watch on a laptop or tablet. It’s really quite versatile. Through certain aps and devices you can actually access your recorded from outside your network and view from anywhere you can pick up the internet.
Opening & Installation/Setup
There are a couple of units available: I used the Tablo 2-Tuner DVR, which means it can record two programs at the same time, which is a huge jump from VCRs that can only record one channel at a time. The 2-Tuner unit currently sells for about $175 and there is a 4-tuner unit available for about $239. When the TabloTV unit arrived the unit itself was very minimal in size and accessories. The TabloTV unit is about 7x5x2 inches in size and comes only with the unit itself and a power cord.
This means that the rest of the hardware is to be provided by the consumer. Which, if you are already transitioning into the cord cutting world, you probably already have most of the equipment or were planning on buy them already. The first thing you need is an antenna. Whatever kind of HD antenna you already have will work fine or you can get one pretty cheap (I got a 30 mile range antenna at Wal-Mart for about $20). If you were planning on watching live OTA broadcasting then you probably have an antenna already. You do need to have an internet connection, which most households do have, especially those that are dropping cable. And you are going to need a streaming media device. I personally used a Roku 3 (which streams Hulu, Netflix, and a whole bevy of other services) with the TabloTV but it is currently compatible with the major media devices: Roku, AppleTV, and Chromecast. Currently, the TabloTV is not compatible with DLNA so if you have a blu-ray that streams the TabloTV will not work through it. Also, they are currently working on compatibility for Amazon Fire TV and Android TV in the near future. I do want to point out that a media device is not necessarily needed if you have a fast enough computer. TabloTV has a live function, which I will discuss later, that you can play right on your desktop so if you can hook your computer to your TV you can stream that way as well. One thing you will need, though, is a good external hard drive that is dedicated to the TabloTV. I have a 500GB external drive that hooks to the back of the unit and is plenty enough. The unit itself has no memory so it saves the files to this hard drive.
Installation was incredibly easy. I just hooked up my existing antenna via a coaxial cable, plugged in my external hard drive with a USB port, and plugged in the power. That was it. Then I headed over to my laptop to complete the installation process. The instructions give you a specific website to go to and once you go there it starts scanning for your network. The website was not very responsive at first but I quickly learned that TabloTV is geared towards the Google Chrome browser (I usually use Firefox). Once I switched to Chrome it connected immediately. I just put in my network password and it started connecting.
The first thing that I had to do was set up an account. That required all the usual stuff; email, name, etc. It’s all pretty easy stuff to set up and very intuitive. A quick word about putting in credit card information: the TabloTV has a free and a paid service, which I will show the differences a little later. When you first activate your account you get a free 30 day trial of the paid services. I recommend that you do not enter credit card information upon activation. That actually cancels the trial and you start paying immediately. It’s better to wait until the end of the trial to sign up. The next thing that happened was that the unit recognized the external hard drive and required it to be formatted. This is why I recommend a dedicated external hard drive. The formatting erases anything on the hard drive so if you are sharing the hard drive with other uses you risk losing your data.
Once I got the network connected and my account set up it was pretty easy from there. The first thing I did was go to the settings menu to scan for channels. There are a couple of good things on this page to pay attention to. First, at the top of the screen you can see the external hard drive data. This shows the amount of used and remaining space on your external hard drive. A valuable tool, especially if you record a whole lot. My 500 GB hard drive has never exceeded 5GB of use (mainly because I tend to delete most things after watching).
A little further down the page is the channel update (Update Now) and Edit Channel Lineup. The Update Now option is basically your channel scan. The TabloTV goes through and finds all the channels in your area. At first only a few channels showed up for me but then I did a full reboot/refresh of the guide, which took about 10 minutes, and it brought up a lot more channels. Once you get through this step you are ready to start using your TabloTV. This can be done a couple of ways; on your desktop/device (online) or on your television.
First, I want to mention some of the options that are available online. This is important because while I did a majority of my viewing through the Roku to my television I found I did most of my preparation and scheduling online. First of all is the Live TV screen which, when you go to the TabloTV website, is your homepage. This is essentially a classic TV guide grid. You have all of your television stations down the left side column and times across the top. You can scroll around and look for any programming you want to find. This is based on when you do the update to the channels. When you update it not only looks for channels but it also goes out and finds the data for the shows and movies for the next two weeks.
From here you can also stream live programming. If you find something on the grid that happens to be on right at this moment you can click on it and play and it will stream directly to your computer. You can literally be streaming something on your laptop while somebody is streaming something else on TV in the same room. This, of course, can be limited by your computer. If you have a slow computer the stream will be impacted by that.
From here you can also schedule a show to record at a future time. For example, if I want to record the show Backstrom all I would have to do is click on the grid for that show. And it would bring up a detail view of that show. As you can see below, it gives a description, number of available episodes coming up and the option to record all or record only new episodes.
Scrolling down on the same screen you can actually see the specific episodes. It shows what episodes will be airing, when they come on, and a description of each episode. You have the option to record individual episodes from this screen.
On the left-hand side is a drop down menu with a variety of options. What TabloTV has done here is not only provide a classic grid guide but also a categorized listing of programming broken down by Prime time (Shows Airing only in prime time), TV Shows (all TV shows), movies (only movies), and sports (broken down by each specific sport).
This is actually a pretty cool tool as you can pull up all the TV shows coming on and find stuff you never would have thought of or maybe didn’t know about. For example, one of our local TV channels plays the 1960’s Batman series in the middle of the night on Sunday. I had no idea but it popped up on the TV Shows listing and I was able to record it. It’s a great way to find out about stuff you never knew was out there. Below are what these different menus look like. Once you see something you like you just click on it and choose record setting just like with the Backstrom example above.
From the same dropdown menu you can also view recordings you have scheduled. Not only that, but if you select on a specific show it will show you the details of when it comes on, the episode description and you have the ability to cancel episodes from here as well.
Setting up TabloTV for the Roku was extremely easy. It took very little effort to go to the Roku website and ad the TabloTV channel that already exists there. Once that was installed it was easy to update Roku and ad the channel. A quick update to the Roku device and the TabloTV channel appeared on my channel menu.
Once you go into the TabloTV channel there are a handful of options that mirror those of the online TabloTV site. You have a selection for Live TV, Movies, Sports, Movies, TV Shows, Scheduled, and Recordings. It pretty much mirrors the options that are available on the online version. The view of it is slightly different but you still can easily peruse the options that are available for the upcoming two weeks.
The biggest difference with the on-screen presentation is that the live option does not have the guide format that most people become accustomed to. Instead, the live option does have a list of the channels and tells you what is on at that moment. You have to select one of the channels to watch it and to change the channel you need to go back and scroll through the list and select another channel. This might seem inconvenient to some but really this is because DVR viewing is generally tailored to active viewing rather than passive viewing. Passive viewing is what people traditionally do by flipping through channels and hoping to see something interesting. Active viewing is based more on knowing what you want to watch and going towards it. Just like Hulu and Netflix require you to select a show and start watching, TabloTV approaches OTA in the same manner. Cord cutters will get accustomed to this method of watching pretty quickly.
After five weeks of use I can say I have not had any performance issues with the TabloTV. The online interface is easy to use and it’s simple to shows and set up recordings. You have options to record a single time or record an entire series. The playback works great and has great quality. A little known secret is that cable/satellite usually have to compressed their programming to deliver it to you and so technically it is not true 1080 HDTV (not that your eye can always tell the difference) whereas OTA does not compress the signal so you can actually get a better quality image. The TabloTV records this higher quality so your playback of Criminal Minds is the highest quality possible. The navigation is highly intuitive and no instruction was ever needed to learn how to pilot the device. It’s very easy to find your recordings and you can easily delete them onscreen after watching. I never had any issues where the recording setting missed a program or stopped recording partially into the program. Sometimes there can be signal issues, but those issues were there when the antenna was plugged directly into the TV; bottom line it was an antenna reception issue. If you get bad reception without the TabloTV you will get bad reception with it. Now, one thing that might bother some people is the playback function. The playback has a little bit of a learning curve when fast-forwarding. The image remains and you see the time bar across the bottom. You essentially guess where to stop. After a little practice I have gotten pretty good at knowing when to stop the bar. This is a little different from traditional DVR where you see the image as you fast-forward. This is understandable if you think about it. You are not watching a video as much as watching a file like you would on Windows Media Player. In that same vein, when you watch a media file or flash file you click along the time bar at the bottom and don’t truly fast-forward a video. It’s a minor issue but does take some getting used to. One thing that is great is that the TabloTV does a fantastic job recording and playback at the same time. On several occasions I was able to watch an already started show several minutes late while it continued to record and overlap another show on another channel, which was watched after finishing. This simultaneous watching and recording never caused any issues.
I briefly wanted to touch on the paid services offered by TabloTV versus the free services. All of the examples that I showed up to this point were part of the trial period that are usually offered for a fee. Right now, the price for paid support is offered at a variety of rate: You can purchase one month at a time for $4.99, a year for $49.99, or lifetime for $149.99. So, “what is the difference?” you ask. A lot, it turns out. I got the chance to use the free version for a week or so and it’s pretty big difference. The first difference is your menus are vastly different. The only options left are live, recorded, and scheduled. The category breakdowns are removed. The description information is removed as well. Episode titles and descriptions are not there. It only shows you the title of the show/movie and if it is new or not. Additionally, the recording options are reduced. Record series and record all are no longer options. Instead, you have to go in each day and manually select shows to record. There is an option to record a specific channel and specific time/day but it’s based on time and not the show. Also, the unpaid update lasts for 24 hours instead of 2 weeks. So, each day you need to go online and update the guide and select your shows to record. It’s a very barebones format. It is entirely manageable as I was able to do it for a week with no major issues or misses but is an inconvenience. My recommendation is that if you cut the cable bill and can afford $5 a month you should go ahead and do it. The convenience is worth the investment and you don’t have to worry about missing something.
Overall, the TabloTV is one of the coolest devices I have seen in a while. You can record your favorite shows and movies OTA instead of having to watch live so you still get the convenience of being able to fast-forward through commercials. It serves as a great companion to other streaming services such as Nexflix & Hulu because it just offers a lot more options to watch. As I mentioned earlier, you can watch networks like CBS that are not available through other services. Also, it’s a really great tool for recording local programming. Maybe you want to record local news or a local weekly show. There is no way you would find that anywhere but OTA. Now you can save that time you were a witness to some event in the news. The performance is excellent and I really can’t name any issues that I had with the product. The only downside I can name is that it does require investments in equipment: The TabloTV device, an antenna, a media device (or laptop/tablet), and an external hard drive. Though, as I mentioned earlier, if you are a cord cutter you very likely had most of these items on had already. If not, the investment will quickly outweigh the cost of a monthly cable bill. Between Netflix, Hulu, and TabloTV I do not miss cable at all. If you have the extra cash to get one I highly recommend it.
You might be wondering why this article was titled Part I. Later this month TabloTV is scheduled to release a new version of the TabloTV channel that will have more options and a different format so when that drops I will be giving you the update on that. To be continued…