CORRECTION ADDED, RATING REVISED 12/30/2014.
Described as an over-the-air DVR for those abandoning cable and satellite subscriptions, the $220 Tablo 2-Tuner Over-the-Air box connects an HDTV antenna and storage device (like a hard drive) to a home network, so you can watch and record shows on a PC or tablet. It can record two shows simultaneously. (Tablo also offers a 4-Tuner model for $300.) There are no HDMI or analog A/V outputs, so the only way to connect it to a TV is over your home network through another set-top box such as a Roku.
Tablo doesn't offer an all-in-one bundle, either, so buyers have to purchase the antenna and hard drive for the recordings separately from another source, adding roughly $120 to the total cost — plus the monthly $5 subscription fee for Tablo's TV guide. Competition in this space includes Simple.TV, which is $20 cheaper but has many of the same limitations.
The Tablo is a black box about the size of a small hardcover book, and acts as a simple hub. There's no LCD display to indicate tuning or recording information, just a blue LED under the front edge to indicate its network connection status. There's no remote control, either. Everything works off of an app for iPads and Android tablets. It can also be controlled using a PC or a smartphone but only via the Chrome browser.
Inside the box are two ATSC tuners and dual-band Wi-Fi support (for 2.4- and 5-GHz channels). On the backside are two USB ports for attaching hard-drive storage devices, but Tablo supports only up to 2TB of storage — enough for roughly 300 hours of HDTV recording. There's also an antenna input and an Ethernet port.
Installation: Not As Promised
To set up the Tablo, you'll need to purchase some extra equipment, specifically an HDTV antenna, such as the $90 Winegard FlatWave Amped FL5500Y (see review), and an external hard drive such as the $100, 500GB Toshiba Canvio Connect, to store recorded shows. If you also want to stream live or recorded TV to an actual TV, you'll need to use an additional streaming media player, such as the $100 Roku 3, that can stream the Tablo feed. (It's also compatible with the $35 Google Chromecast.)
To connect the Tablo to my network, I initially used the free Tablo iPad app. Typically, the iPad first connects directly over Wi-Fi to the device: The owner enters network and security information, and then switches back to the primary home network to which the device is also now connected. It's a common method for connecting wireless devices, such as Google Chromecast, these days.
Unfortunately, in my tests after multiple attempts — including updated Tablo software, different iOS and Android devices, and different Wi-Fi networks — I was unable to connect the Tablo to the network in this fashion. I attempted this with two different Tablo boxes to no avail. In some cases, I was able to make a direct Wi-Fi connection to the Tablo from a tablet but then found the Tablo app would freeze while scanning for available Wi-Fi networks. A full reset of the Tablo would sometimes — but not in all cases — solve the problem. On one attempt, the Tablo did manage to begin the setup process over Wi-Fi, only to freeze before the full installation was finished.
Ultimately, I had to use the Tablo's Ethernet port to connect it to the network's router. Then, I was able to set up and control the device wirelessly using a tablet. Relying on an Ethernet connection also meant that the box had to be near the router, making placement of the HDTV antenna connected to it problematic at best.
Help from within the program during installation was also hard to come by. In the iOS app, for example, seeking help at one point only invoked a missing-page 404 error. At another point, when the Tablo failed to find available networks, clicking the Help option only elicited a warning that the Android tablet was not online — because, of course, it was still directly connected to the Tablo at that point in the installation.
Tablo does offer toll-free tech support, Monday through Friday, 9:30 am to 5:30 pm EST.
DVR Features: Intuitive
To schedule recordings, you need access to an electronic program guide from Tablo. The company offers a free 30-day trial. After that, you still get free access to a guide showing — and allowing you to schedule recordings for — the next 24 hours. You'll need a subscription for advanced features including a 14-day program guide, scheduling recordings of an entire TV series, or viewing your recordings online, outside the home. The service costs $5 a month. There's also an annual $50 option and a $150 lifetime option. So, even though you may cut the cord, you won't be completely eliminating subscription fees. Still this is a far-better deal than the $15/month subscription for the TiVo Roamio OTA, another device that records over-the-air TV. See Tablo's website for a complete list of what the subscription includes.
Once the device is connected, the attractive Tablo app makes it easy to find shows. There's a tile display of prime-time shows, genre listings (ranging from paranormal to parenting), new shows and a complete electronic program guide. Tap on a show's icon, and the recording option pops up. You can record all episodes of The Blacklist, for example, or just new shows. The one hiccup in my test is that the program guide did not include advanced show listings for the Cozi retro TV channel in my area. (The number of available over-the-air HD channels is completely dependent upon where you live. Rural areas will not receive any channels over the air; major metropolitan areas will have dozens of channels available.)
Performance and Content: Solid
You can search recorded and upcoming shows from the Tablo guide. With two tuners, you can also schedule two simultaneous recordings or watch one show while recording another. Both features worked without a hitch in my tests. Depending on the HD broadcasts available in your area, you can set the Tablo to record at up to 1080i resolution. (No networks or stations broadcast at 1080p.) The quality of the video depends both on the quality of the broadcast signal you're able to receive and the speed of your network to play it back. I had mixed results, with some stations that broadcast at full 1080i resolution appearing sharp and crisp, and other secondary channels (digital subchannels offering additional niche content) only broadcasting at lower 480i resolution.
Additional features include standard DVR options, such as pausing live TV and skipping commercials. Once you've recorded a program, you can watch it on up to six devices, such as an Apple or Android tablet or a PC connected to your network. And although it won't connect directly to a TV for viewing, Tablo content can be streamed, using Apple's AirPlay, to an Apple TV box or viewed using a Roku device after installing the Tablo Roku channel.
The utility of a personal over-the-air DVR in a world of multiple on-demand streaming options is questionable. It can prove handy for recording sporting events and news, but most of the other entertainment options are covered by the likes of Netflix and Hulu Plus, with a lot less hassle. Furthermore, the fact that you have to buy an additional $100 Roku 3 device or a $99 Apple TV to watch recordings from the Tablo on a big-screen TV means it's not a very elegant solution for cord cutters who primarily want to watch TV — well, on their TV.
Tablo has some rough edges, to say the least. The iOS app's failure to connect to my network proved frustrating, and having to connect the Tablo over Ethernet made it difficult to hide the device. Over-the-air HDTV DVRs like this one may prove useful in the future, but for now, their complications exceed their potential benefits.
This article has been corrected to specify the services available without a Tablo subscription and to raise the star rating from 2 to 2.5.
John R. Quain has been reviewing and testing video and audio equipment for more than 20 years. He is currently a contributor to The New York Times and the CBS News television program. Follow him @jqontech.