Secret revealed: You can watch TV for free

Clear TV pitchmanIn yet another sign of my advancing age or of widespread education failures, I find it really, really odd that a company is selling over-the-air TV antennas through TV commercials. It’s not that ClearTV is doing anything wrong, it just sounds to me like they’re telling viewers they can drink tap water for a fraction of the cost of bottled. It’s so obvious to me that I don’t recognize that some folks might need to be told about it.

On a related note, I’ve been experimenting with Simple.TV. (I got a killer deal on a first-generation unit with a transferrable lifetime guide subscription, all for less than the cost of a lifetime subscription. But I digress.) On the Simple.TV overview page, it says, “Most of us don’t realize it, but broadcast TV is available – free – to more than 90% of the U.S. population. It might seem like a retro way to get TV, but it’s the best kept secret ever.” So you and me, dear reader, we must be part of a minority that already knows that OTA TV is free. I guess we should be proud that we already know the best kept secret ever.

The difference between ClearTV and Simple.TV is the difference between a toaster and a food processor. ClearTV is simple, and Simple.TV is potentially powerful but not simple. ClearTV is just a flat square antenna less than 8 inches wide. That antenna will run you about $28 delivered, or you can order two for about $36. I’ve never tried one, but the site reported what I would expect: “The Clear TV antenna does work, but there isn’t anything particularly special about it versus other (cheaper) antennas. It’s simply an antenna, and was not superior to the 20-year old set of rabbit ears we dug out to compare it against.” TV commercials are expensive, so their products need higher profit margins. It sure sounds like the ClearTV is a $2 antenna in a $20 box, but for a lot of viewers, that $2 antenna is all they need.

On the other hand, I can review the Simple.TV receiver, which took some work to set up right. It requires an external USB hard drive and didn’t like the thumb drive that I plugged in at first. Fortunately, I found an old 160 GB external drive, an awkward size that won’t help many computers these days. After restarting the installation process, I wrestled the receiver to the point of being able to watch OTA TV.

Then came the guide problems. Simple.TV’s program guide simply wouldn’t load on my Chrome browser. (Internet Explorer isn’t supported!) No error message, no indication of loading, just a blank page under the Guide tab when I’d click it. After poking around Simple.TV’s FAQs, I saw a note about slow loading of the guide caused by selecting too many channels. I unchecked some of the digital sub-channels that the receiver had found, then the guide worked.

Another Simple.TV guide problem is “To Be Announced”. Not just for obscure channels in the middle of the night. As I type, my local CBS affiliate shows TBA for 1 pm; NBC is TBA at 2. The program after Letterman? TBA. Every other TV listing service knows those shows are The Talk, Days of Our Lives, and Craig Ferguson, respectively. (Update: Simple.TV appears to have solved this problem since it signed up with Gracenote to provide listing data.)

Recording and playback have worked great, but there are far too few viewing clients. Simple.TV’s iOS app is only for iPads, not iPhones, and there’s still no Android support. At least there’s a Simple.TV app for the Roku.

Mind you, this is a year-old, first-generation receiver, so maybe I’m being too hard on Simple.TV. (You can read a much longer review of this particular model on cnet.) This should be the inspiring story of a couple of guys who won an award at the 2012 International CES, followed by a successful Kickstarter campaign. For widespread success, the Simple.TV team needs to get closer to the ease of use of a toaster. Except for streaming TV to the few types of devices that can watch it, I prefer my do-it-yourself Windows Media TV computer. We’ll see whether Simple 2.0 changes any of that.