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.

Diginova TV antenna

Diginova OTA TV antenna displayed at the Televes booth at CEDIA Expo.

Do you remember the CEDIA Expo, that showcase for folks who install high-end electronics equipment for high-end customers? I visited the latest version earler this month and found surprising encouragement for the future of free TV.

Mind you, I’m not talking about free-to-air satellite TV, the hundreds of quirky channels that got this blog started. This is plain old terrestrial over-the-air TV, and I’m happy to say that even the folks who can afford anything they want are still seeing the value in it.

Last year, if you’ll recall, I found exactly one booth that promoted anything to do with OTA TV. This year, there were at least four. Last year, TiVo announced a new line of Roamio DVRs, and they were the company’s first that didn’t include OTA inputs. This year, TiVo announced a new OTA-only receiver for cord-cutters, although technically that announcement was a couple of weeks before the CEDIA Expo and the Roamio OTA didn’t make it to the show.

I also found OTA two antenna manufacturers (Winegard and Televes) at CEDIA, and way in the back was Tablo, an OTA DVR designed with tablets in mind. Yet another OTA specialist, Antennas Direct, had a trailer set up across the street from the convention center. Consider that the Expo was chock full of super-high-end speakers, room-sized golf simulators, and Blu-ray movie management consoles, then it’s refreshing to learn that the customers who buy such high-end frills still care about OTA TV. Maybe they can help us work to support free TV for everybody.


Man scratching the head and choosing remote control

© Depositphotos / Nomadsoul1

For years, a la carte, the notion that pay-TV viewers could subscribe to individual channels instead of big bundles, has been a thought experiment as likely to become real as soup on a stick. Now there’s something similar brewing in the US Senate Commerce Committee, and it has already prompted interesting revelations from broadcasters and pay-TV operators.

Quick Background: To allow Dish Network and DirecTV to retransmit local stations to their markets, Congress had to pass a law; the most recent version of that law is named STELA, for Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act. That law expires every few years, forcing Congress to pass a new version or renew the old one, as it did in 2010. That extension expires on Dec. 31, 2014.

In July, the House Judiciary Committee quietly passed an essentially unchanged version. In August, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and its ranking minority member tacked on “Local Choice,” a bipartisan, cunningly simple plan to overhaul the retransmission consent system. Under this plan, each local station would offer its signal to pay-TV subscribers for a given price. Each subscriber could choose whether to purchase each local channel. This way, stations would get market-based value but viewers would avoid pay-TV blackouts from retransmission contract renewal disputes. The senators also released a dull slideshow explaining this relief from “one of the fastest growing items on cable and satellite bills.”

Local Choice’s status is still uncertain, partly because it’ll be difficult to get such game-changing legislation passed by the end of the year. What I find most interesting are the unusual, revealing comments that it has sparked from both sides.

First off, Local Choice is strongly supported by the pay-TV industry, as you might have guessed. That stance refutes a common pay-TV argument against full a la carte – cable and satellite companies have no problem handling the billing and logistics of individual subscribers choosing individual channels. Keep that in mind when you hear the industry claim that separate charges for MTV and Comedy Central would be too difficult to manage.

On the other side, broadcasters hate Local Choice. Robert C. Kenny, in his blog for TV Freedom, a broadcaster-backed group, wrote that “the Washington pay-TV lobby is manufacturing a crisis regarding broadcast TV blackouts when, in reality, hundreds of deals are quietly reached each year through free-market retransmission consent negotiations.” Broadcasters often claim that their deals with pay-TV companies are “free-market,” but they’ve actually got them over a barrel; how many subscribers will stay with a service that doesn’t include the local CBS channel? Local Choice provides an unusually frictionless example of free market economics, and that scares the heck out of broadcasters.

Just yesterday as I watched football, I switched from my Dish Network feed to the sharper OTA signal sent from my local broadcaster to my rooftop antenna. If I had the option to save a dollar or two, I’d drop some of my satellite-delivered locals and use OTA instead, but that’s because I’m hip to the fun of free TV. In the unlikely event that Local Choice passes, it could launch a renaissance as more people discover the power of the antenna.

NimbleTV screen shotOur old friend NimbleTV, the streaming TV service that supplies New York City broadcast TV channels and more to its subscribers, has expanded into Chicago. Only active cable-TV subscribers in the Windy City will get the opportunity to subscribe to NimbleTV’s watch-from-anywhere Chicago streams.

“We’re delighted to offer Chicago residents a new way of viewing their TV that’s on their terms,” Anand Subramanian, founder and CEO of NimbleTV, said in a press release. “By allowing them to ‘Nimble-ize’ their cable subscription, customers can change the way they access their TV while also respecting the existing TV ecosystem that pays creators for their content.”

As with the NYC cabler package, the Chicago offering for Comcast subscribers appears to offer mainly the over-the-air broadcast channels and digital sub-channels, along with a collection of little-watched news and shopping channels. NimbleTV forces viewers to validate their cable subscriptions before viewing the OTA channels, which would verify that those viewers are indirectly paying some kind of retransmission consent money to those stations.

NimbleTV is also still offering that collection of mostly news and shopping channels for free to just about anyone, but the lineup has changed since May. Gone are Antenna TV and the movie channel This, ending my speculation that NimbleTV cut a deal with WPIX. Also gone is Al Jazeera, replaced by five other international news channels: Russia Today Documentaries, SkyNews, i24 News, Deutsche Welle, and France 24. Those aren’t as good as Antenna or This, but what do you want for nothing?

American Sports Network logoHi there. I’ve been holding off on adding a new post until I had some good news to share, and that’s taken longer than I would hope. Aereo is trying to go down’s path, and we know how that ended even without the Copyright Office getting snitty about it. Several movie studios are pursuing criminal charges against some Koreans for the offense of adding subtitles to their soap operas. And my Fourth of July trip to Mount Rushmore found it hot and crowded with overtired children pleading, “Why are we going outside?”

We need some seriously good news, and this installment comes from a most unlikely source, the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Every for-profit broadcaster has two responsibilities: to its shareholders, and to the viewers it serves. I think I know which responsibility weighs most heavily on Sinclair’s mind, but I digress.

Sinclair announced (PDF) yesterday that it had launched the American Sports Network, which will include “an extensive slate of live, local sporting events, including football, basketball, soccer, and other sports with the opening of this year’s college football
season” including over 50 schools. Different regions may see different games simultaneously. Sinclair’s stations will carry the games either on their primary signal or on a digital sub-channel.

As much as I would like this to be a 24/7 digital sub-channel a la One World Sports or, especially, Universal Sports Network, I think ASN looks more like Raycom Sports, syndicating college games to mostly independent stations. Oh well. Anything that spreads more live sports over more over-the-air broadcast stations sounds like good news, and at this point, I’ll take it!