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Tablo 2-Tuner Over-the-Air DVR Review: Too Much Hassle

The Tablo requires considerable effort and equipment to enable HDTV recording. Cord cutters should look elsewhere.

Our Verdict

The Tablo requires considerable effort and equipment to enable HDTV recording. Cord cutters should look elsewhere.

For

  • Less expensive than TiVo options
  • Offers serious cord cutters DVR capability
  • Basic program guide and scheduled recordings possible without subscription

Against

  • No video or HDMI output for TVs
  • Awkward setup
  • No smartphone app support

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.

Design: Spartan

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.

The design is very basic.

The design is very basic.

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.)

MORE: Best Streaming Players: Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV & More

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.

The iOS app allows you to manage your Tablo.

The iOS app allows you to manage your Tablo.

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.)

MORE: Your Guide to Cord Cutting

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.

The iPad app makes it easy to find shows to watch.

The iPad app makes it easy to find shows to watch.

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.

Bottom Line

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

  • JCSNH
    I've replaced my Comcast Xfinity X1 whole house DVR (4 TVs) with a TabloTV 4 tuner($249 at Newegg), Mohu Leaf antenna($54, receiving 42 OTA stations), a 1TB drive ($64 at Newegg) and 4 Rokus(Roku 1, $39.50 ea, Roku 3 $79). The cost of the equipment you've shown is full price. Who doesn't look for a sale these days?

    I put together a spreadsheet of my cost savings over Comcast. In the first year, amortizing the hardware, I will save about $1200. Subsequent years I will save about $1800, assuming Comcast doesn't raise prices.

    The setup is not difficult at all and our Tablo connected first try, no hiccups.

    My opinion is that your verdict is off base and that cord cutters should seriously consider the Tablo.
    Reply
  • iamkinghenry
    I've been using the TabloTV 4 tuner at my house and my parents have the 2 tuner. Both have been working without major issues with the Roku. Yes, it's expensive but is the ultimate setup for cord cutters.

    I'm not sure why this is difficult, you connect it to your router and boom, all your Rokus have OTA with a DVR,
    Reply
  • Papertrumpet
    Haven't bought mine just yet, but I'm getting ready to. I've been researching this for almost 3 months. Tablo is very clear in all its website info that you WILL need extra stuff for its unit.
    Typically, the first piece of hardware to fail in a DVR is the hard drive, so I'm not real concerned about needing an external HD for the unit. If the HD ever goes bad, it isn't a bank-breaker to get another.
    Second, by using WiFi in my home, I don't have to split the antenna signal into multiple sites (I have 7 rooms in my home with TV access, but with digital cable have only opted to pay for 3 boxes since each box costs MORE than $5/month). Every split of the antenna's signal means signal loss, but with the Tablo I really only need one feed from the antenna. I already own two Apple TV units, and a Roku box isn't that big of a deal to me compared to the multiple HUNDRED $$$ of other household DVR systems.
    Finally, while many will say that Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Hulu (whichever version of the day is now out there) should solve all your major network viewing needs, but they don't really carry local news, weather, and sports. Sure I can look at my iPad or SmartPhone for the info, but some old habits die pretty hard.
    The $5 per month ($50 per year) software guide would simply replace one of my 3 current Cable boxes. So with an initial outlay of $300-$450, my payback period on my cable cutting is only 4 months. That's not a bad ROI!
    Reply
  • ScoJo
    This article says that besides sports and news, "most" other entertainment options are covered by Netflix and Hulu with less hassle. The problem is that Netflix carries exactly zero new or even next day episodes of broadcast shows. So Netflix is out. And Hulu only carries some shows, not nearly all. On the other hand, OTA signals carry EVERY single episode broadcast shows in real time. Subscrition streaming services cannot hope to compare.

    It also says that the user MUST buy a $100 Roku or Apple TV box. But it fails to inform the reader that a $35 Chromecast or $50 Roku Stick could serve the same purpose for playback and a free browser accesses all features.

    The product is an OTA DVR which inherently has features not available on any other product except cable. And comparing its efficacy to streaming service makes no sense as they have entirely different functionality.

    I am just not grokking your POV in this review. Is the intent of this review to act as a hatchet job because as a product review it is invalid given the conclusion that it is not an elegant solution for cord cutters to watch TV when it ignores the key aspect of the product which is to RECORD and watch TV. No streaming service exists that does that.
    Reply
  • RonCo1953
    I have to say, it amazes me that someone with the wherewithall to maintain a website could consider setting up a Tablo too much hassle. If you're purchasing a Tablo, you must first have a television & some sort of antenna to capture OTA broadcast. Then, you're not going to consider a Tablo if you don't already have internet. Yes, you additionally need a Roku, Apple TV or Chromecast to access it, but they're up front about that. Beyond that, if you can connect your tablet or smartphone to your wifi, you have the skills necessary to install your Tablo. I have one, I installed it and I look forward to years of television without paying for cable tv or satellite. I say Get ONe! This is the way to go!
    Reply
  • ding88
    I think your negative review is off base. I just bought the 2 tuner tablo and love it. Most people who are considering the tablo already have the OTA antenna installed. I already had the Roku3 and a spare unused hard drive so extra cost was not that bad. It was easy to set up and now I can even access my tablo when not at home. It's great. And your con is my plus. Yes there is no HDMI. But now I just need to buy another Roku or Chromecast and my other TVs in the house can get my OTA channels and recordings too. No need to attach those other TVs to the external antenna which would require drilling holes to access the antenna and losing reception due to splitting the signal. I did buy a splitter and split the antenna - one to my tv and one to the tablo. So I still have normal access to the antenna if I don't want to go through the tablo/roku. This also allows me to essentially have the 2 tuners on the tablo to record and I can still watch a 3rd show on the tv directly. Frankly, the tablo is my ideal solution. I couldn't have asked for better.
    Reply
  • Elprez
    I just ordered the 4 tuner model from Amazon. I have 5 TV's and plan on placing Roku's at each TV. I have about 7 months left on my AT&T Uverse commitment and I hate them so bad I don't mind paying an early termination fee to avoid giving them money. Between the 3 cell phones and Uverse I give them about 300 a month. All is soon going away. :)
    Reply