Review: Tablet TV still has some work to do

Tablet TV live TV windowAs I mentioned in my last post, the most intriguing find from last year’s NAB Show was the prototype of a Tablet TV receiver. As you can read from its press release at the time, Tablet TV was to be an over-the-air DVR streaming to nearby “portable devices with no subscription fee, cable, satellite or Internet required.” Not only would users be able to watch local OTA, they’d also have access to selected on-demand movies, delivered to the receiver by a local broadcaster.

Tablet TV was formed as a joint venture of London-based Motive Television and Granite Broadcasting Corporation, and the idea that a broadcaster would embrace an OTA DVR excited me most of all. The business model with on-demand movies wasn’t just a benefit for viewers, it was also a carrot for other stations to monetize the service. I also liked Tablet TV’s promise of free guide information, presumably using the electronic program guide (EPG) information embedded in local TV broadcasts. The press release promised a fall 2014 launch, and I just couldn’t wait.

In late August, Motive’s CEO staged a well-promoted demonstration at San Francisco International Airport, but Tablet TV didn’t formally launch in San Francisco until two days before Christmas. A month later, its receivers went on sale for folks outside the Bay Area, and I purchased one of the first to test here in Denver. A few days later, I opened the iPhone-like box to find the receiver and its accessories packed inside. But for its outward polish, this unit performed as if it were an early beta version, apparently hard-coded for San Francisco TV stations and barely able to pick up a few compatible Denver signals. In late February, Tablet TV released a firmware update which greatly improved my receiver’s functionality. The Tablet TV folks have promised more updates within a few weeks, but I thought I’d bring you to date on how it looks so far.

The receiver, called a T-Pod, looks just like the prototype – an extra-large bar of soap with a short, telescoping antenna. It comes with a mini USB power supply to charge its internal battery and a micro SD card for recording programs. The bad news is that the T-Pod has no input jack for that great antenna on my roof; the good news is that its tuner is surprisingly sensitive with just its little built-in antenna. Setup was an awkward two-step of getting my iPad to use the T-Pod’s internal WiFi for an initial conversation, then switching both to the home WiFi network. An initial channel scan later, it was ready for business.

Tablet TV schedule pageRemember that part about pulling in the broadcast EPG to use as guide data? It turns out that broadcast EPG information is spottier than the FCC had mandated in the digital TV conversion. The Tablet TV folks still hope to find a way to use whatever EPG data is available over the air, but for now, the unit gets a lot of it from an online provider. So now whenever I launch the Tablet TV app, it spends a minute or so pulling in guide data over the internet.  Then after I verify that I don’t want to rescan channels, it displays the schedule page (see right).

Notice the channel numbers in that grid; I don’t really have a Channel 1 in Denver. Instead of listing true or reported channel numbers, Tablet TV sorts the channels by dot-one (primary) or dot-two (digital subchannels) then numbers the channels by the resulting list. This brings the major networks to the top as you’d find on a cable TV box, but for those of us who know the “real” numbers, it’s like typing on a keyboard ordered A-to-Z instead of Qwerty – helpful for novices but frustrating for experienced users. Further, the network logos aren’t always accurate. For example, in the screen shot, the third channel’s logo is KRON, San Francisco’s MyNetwork station, but it lines up with Denver’s CBS affiliate. That makes finding the right channel like typing on that A-to-Z keyboard with some of the keys mislabeled.

The plan is that once the viewer spots a program to record from the grid, he taps it, then verifies the recording request and that’s it. For me, that’s all that happened; when I returned later, I saw it had not recorded my request. When I asked a Tablet TV guy who’d been giving me tech support about that, he wrote back, “The Scheduled recording feature works, however there have been some issues we are now aware of.” So I when I tell you that I can’t make it work, keep in mind that the feature works somewhere. Manual recording and playback are also squirrelly at best, but Tablet TV plans to fix all of these recording issues in future maintenance updates.

Movie description for The Long RidersFor some reason, the grid has significant holes in it, with missing information for occasional channel/times and some entire channels. The grid also includes an unintended trivia game; every movie is titled “Movie” with only its description as a hint. Example: “The legendary outlaw brothers of the Jesse James and Cole Younger gangs rob banks.” What’s the movie? Check the file name for the graphic on the right side if you’re stuck.

One way that the T-Pod is different than most DVRs is that it’s possible to unplug the T-Pod and bring it along to stream to tablets away from home. The battery will work for several hours on a single charge, but not overnight. As a practical matter, the T-Pod needs to be positioned near a window for good reception and within range of its power supply cord.

Once Tablet TV fixes its recording problems and its guide, that will still leave the question of what is its niche. The OTA DVR market is already getting a little crowded with the TiVo Roamio OTA, Simple TV, Tablo, DVR+, and even the venerable Windows Media Center. The Tablet TV T-Pod is portable, but so is a portable digital TV. Tablet TV won’t charge a subscription fee, but neither does Windows Media Center or the DVR+, and it’s pretty easy to get a lifetime subscription for Simple TV. Tablet TV’s competitive advantages might be its lower initial cost (just $90), local broadcaster promotion (if that happens), and a reduced dependence on the internet. But first it needs to just work right. We’ll return to the Tablet TV when there’s more to report.

Update: I noticed that The San Francisco Chronicle reviewed Tablet TV in January. Even with the home-market advantage, that slightly earlier version of the service didn’t impress those reviewers.