Competitive review: Tablo vs. Simple.TV

Tablo screen shot of available movies

Tablo allows me to select movies by channel. Cool!

When I was in Europe this summer, I used my Simple.TV as a home monitor. Once a day or so, I’d tune in to 24/7 local weather and thus verify that (a) my house had electricity, (b) my house had internet access, and (c) something of value remained untouched by fire or burglars. It was a fun reminder of the time and temperature difference between Denver and wherever I sat, but the main reason was to reassure myself that home was as I left it.

That summer fling was the apex of our affair. I had a lot of fun with the Simple.TV, but people and devices change. I’ve found a better over-the-air DVR, a Tablo receiver that I’ve been exercising for a few weeks now.

Simple.TV is still pretty good, and it’s easy to root for. (But it’s annoying to type, so I’ll refer to it as Simple from now on.) Simple effectively launched at the International CES in January 2012 (winning a Best of CES award from CNET), followed by a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign that overflowed its goal in June. After some delays, the first-generation product emerged in late 2012. A dual-tuner version began selling early this year.

Late last year, some first-generation, single-tuner Simple receivers showed up at closeout deal sites, possibly in anticipation of the launch of dual-tuner Simples. I bought one of those, and that’s what I’ve been using for testing. The word on the dual-tuner receivers is that they’re faster in changing channels, and of course they can record two shows at once.

I first saw the Tablo at the 2014 CES, and I just wasn’t that impressed. It didn’t seem that different from Simple. Plug in an external hard drive, an OTA antenna, and an ethernet cable, then select a live show to watch or a future show to record. Tablo has more tuners (up to four), and it can use WiFi instead of a network cable, but is that a reason to switch? After I saw the Tablo gang again at CEDIA, they sent me a two-tuner receiver to review, and it turns out that there’s more to the story.

Tablo has some sneaky advantages. Tablo’s web-based scheduler can break out movies by genre, star rating, or broadcast channel. That last one is important; I like keeping Spanish-language stations for their sports, but I’d get frustrated trying to watch a movie there. TV Shows can be listed by genre, premiering, new or by channel. Simple breaks out “popular” TV shows, but is otherwise a clear step below Tablo’s discovery tools. Both could use an improved search that includes keywords and actors, but I digress.

Simple is, well, simpler to recognize on the network. For me, I plugged it in, accessed it once from a local network to register my account, and it just worked. Tablo has an odd requirement for each device to be paired locally on the same home network before that device can access the receiver from another network; in my case, it also required manually opening some router ports. Once those hoops are navigated, all is well.

Simple.TV's scan dialog, with four identical Over-the-Air (Antenna) options

Simple.TV’s scan dialog, with four identical Over-the-Air (Antenna) options

My Simple receiver takes A Long Time, over 20 minutes, to scan available channels during setup or when a new channel becomes available. Every other OTA scanning device I’ve ever used (TVs, PC adapters, the Tablo receiver) needs only about five minutes. I don’t know whether the second-generation Simple addressed this delay. Another problem is that Simple presents me with four identically titled Local Over the Air Broadcast (Antenna) options. Through trial and error, I’ve learned that they’re not the same underneath, and any channel Simple doesn’t recognize requires manual tweaking to get its listings.

Then there’s my Android tablet. Apparently, Google recently broke the method that Simple was using to stream its shows to Android tablets; my version 4.1 tablet works great but my 4.4 Nexus has problems. Recordings on the Nexus display random, crazy lengths of time, making skipping or seeking almost impossible. You could argue, as Simple’s support folk argue, that it’s all Google’s fault. Until somebody fixes that, I’m still seeing it as a Simple problem. Further, the Simple Android app displays old-fashioned 4:3 standard definition recordings as stretched-out widescreen. By default, the Tablo app also stretches 4:3 shows, but in that app’s settings, the user can choose Use External Player; on my tablet, this means launching Chrome to watch video in its proper dimensions.

And then there’s support. Tablo hosts an active community forum where users post feedback and questions. Official Tablo support team members answer a lot of those questions as well as posting announcements and contests. Tablo has an active Twitter feed averaging about a tweet per day and a similarly active Facebook page. On the other hand, the top thread (as I type) in Simple’s support forum General Discussion section threatens a class action suit against Simple, and the second is about erratic connectivity with the second-generation receivers. Another wonders whether Simple has abandoned social media. As of this writing, Simple’s Twitter account has tweeted only once since September 29. My point is that there’s a central forum where Simple users are providing feedback and asking questions, and as far as I can tell, no one from Simple has been moderating those concerns. Little complaints get overblown without calming voices of reassurance.

Weird graphic for Simple.TV's English Premier League matches.

Weird graphic for Simple.TV’s English Premier League matches.

Sometimes Simple’s support feels as garage-based as its invention. For weeks, many of the movies in Simple’s program guide were listed as English Premier League Soccer, with the misshapen graphic I’ve attached on the right. If the movie was Jaws, the listing was English Premier League Soccer with the episode title of Jaws. Soon after I pointed this out to Simple’s support department, those movie listings became No Data Available for a few days, then returned to normal. But for actual EPL soccer matches, that weird graphic is still what Simple displays to indicate what’s coming up. (I presume that the problem was a simple database corruption, which would match the symptoms I saw.) Still unaddressed is the fact that halfway through the college football season, every game is listed as 2014 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl with a different distorted graphic. Tablo’s listings are accurate except for one completely missing channel, which Tablo support assures me will be fixed.

Nothing’s perfect. If one of my devices hasn’t touched base with the Tablo for a few days, then when I’d try to access my Tablo receiver, the device won’t allow me to do anything until after it syncs its guide information and program images with that Tablo. I’d expect that I couldn’t search or schedule future events, but not this. No option to skip till later. No live TV. No playing recordings. On a 3G network, my iPhone waited eight minutes. On the home network, my Android tablet waited almost 10 minutes. At a minimum, this should be an option. In the best case, my device should grab the live TV data and info from any existing recordings, then load up on two weeks’ worth of images in the background. Simple never had this problem.

Considering that the data subscription fees are about the same, I’d have to recommend Tablo over Simple. The TiVo Roamio OTA DVR, which I haven’t reviewed, probably has some advantages over both but requires a separate unit for streaming and carries a much higher monthly programming fee. I’m also keeping watch for Tablet TV, which has apparently beta launched in San Francisco, won an award for best TV technology, and has an active Facebook page. I saw the Tablet TV receiver in action at the NAB Show in April (here’s a photo), but I’m more impressed by the announced business model – free guide data. Local broadcasters will send a few pay-per-view movies in the background to users’ hard drives, and those rentals are designed to pay for the service. Personally, I figure that local broadcasters should get behind OTA DVRs because they mean that more viewers will be watching more local TV. Until Tablet TV expands and proves itself a worthy competitor, for streaming, your best bet is Tablo.