Updated September 29, 2014 - added "More AV Details" section
The digital video recorder (DVR) has freed us from the shackles of watching our favorite TV programs on the broadcasters' fixed schedule. The DVR has enabled TV enthusiasts to capture their escapism and enjoy it minutes, hours, or weeks later – and pause playback at anytime, for any reason. When people think about DVRs, most envision a remote controlled set top box connected to a display device. The Tablo differentiates itself from other DVRs by connecting to a home network and delivering over-the-air (OTA) HD television goodness directly to smartphones, tablets, PCs, and popular streaming appliances connected to traditional televisions.
The Tablo is made for cordcutters that want receive a TV fix on the screen of their choice anytime and anywhere. The Tablo experience included a few quirks but no showstoppers, and steady updates have added new features and improved performance.
Size, style, and setup
The Tablo's compact black chassis measures about 7 inches wide by 4.5 inches deep and 1.5 inches high. The unit's matte finished top helped hide dust and fingerprints while glossy sides and a brilliant blue indicator light added a bit of bling - the latter was easily tamed (if desired) in the settings menu.
Setup is simple: connect an antenna, add up to two external hard drives (up to 2TB capacity each) via the USB ports on the back of the unit, decide between Ethernet or WiFi networking, and connect the power. Tablo's WiFi setup requires a direct connection from another wireless device in order to select a local network – once completed, my mobile device automatically reconnected to my local wireless network.
Controlling Tablo depends on the viewing plaform. Dedicated apps are available for newer Android and Apple tablets. Roku users can add a custom channel, and a browser-based app that is optimized for Chrome and Safari is for all other mobile devices and PCs.
Tablo includes 30 days of its custom channel guide data service that features high quality cover art and episode synopses. This data also enables recordings that may be scheduled by time, episode, or series. After the trial period, guide data subscriptions cost $5 a month, $50 a year, or $150 for the lifetime of the units associated to a user account. Without guide data, the Tablo offers only basic manual recording.
The Tablo hardware is available in a 2-tuner and 4-tuner configuration. Its OTA tuners are from MaxLinear and a ViXS transcoding chipset converts broadcast MPEG-2 transport streams into h.264 video for expanded compatibiltity of live and recorded video delivery. Tuner sensitivity appeared good as all of my local HD channels reported full strength reception using a quality indoor antenna – distance and local topography have the greatest influence on OTA channel reception. The Tablo defaults to displaying only HD channels, but it's easy to edit the channel lineup however you see fit.
Up to six devices may access Tablo tuners and recorded content simultaneously. Live program viewing is limited by the number of available tuners, but multiple devices may watch the same tuned channel(s) and recorded content – the channel guide highlights in-use live channels as well as potential recording conflicts. Even on a relatively busy home network, I was able to cleanly stream video to four devices simultaneously. I also found that an Ethernet-connected Tablo was generally more stable when streaming to multiple screens than when using the DVR's WiFi connection – your mileage may vary.
One of Tablo's most impressive features is its ability to deliver an OTA DVR experience outside of the home – aka Tablo Connect. Setup of this feature involves forwarding three ports to the Tablo's local IP address and selecting a remote streaming quality preset (an auto-quality option is reportedly coming soon). Mobile devices must first connect and sync to the Tablo on the local network, but after that, I enjoyed Tablo's live and recorded programming on my 4G LTE smartphone anywhere I could receive a cell sevice or WiFi. Impressively, the Tablo Connect experience functioned identically to being connected to its local network.
More AV Details
The Tablo's current audio configuration is for stereo output only, but the company is considering support for surround sound as a possible future update.
Also, whatever recording quality level is configured in the Tablo settings menu is how the video is stored on the hard drive. When configured for 1080p recording, all content is transcoded and stored in the 1080p format - including SD (480i) broadcasts.
Playing beta tester
My experience with the Tablo over the last few weeks wasn't all perfect, but regular firmware updates have improved usage to the point were I would recommend it to interested cordcutters. However, even with the latest firmware update (v2.1.16 at the time of this article) that incorporates a Chromecast/Roku streaming quality preset, I continued to experience occasional freezing with Google Chromecast playback. Also, choppy full-screen playback plagued my HTPC's admittedly aging Intel HD 2000 graphics (windowed playback was fine) – I did see this as a good excuse to upgrade the system's GPU.
Mobile performance with an iPhone 4S running Safari on iOS 8 was flawless, but an Android smartphone (OS v4.4.4) required the use of Chrome Beta (v38.x and later) for full functionality.
The Tablo browser interface could use a few tweaks as well. Keyboard cursor support for channel guide navigation is missing, and the mouse cursor remains visible during playback unless moved into the control bar at the bottom of the screen. When selecting a recorded program to view, the large cover art required scrolling on 720p/768p screens to reach the play button next to each recorded episode.
The above issues noted, Tablo has implemented numerous tweaks and improvements related to stability and video quality with every firmware update. Given the complex nature of this network-enable DVR, I appreciate the company's timely response to feedback, community support, and apparent desire to improve their product.
Compared to other OTA DVR options, the Tablo is a good deal. A Tablo with lifetime channel guide data starts at $370 (2-tuners) and $450 (4-tuners) without necessary storage – a new 1TB external drive is less than $65. The Channel Master DVR+ (read review) with an integrated 1TB hard drive is $400 and that includes lifetime guide data, but it lacks the Tablo's useful ability to record only new programs in a series as well as its network/remote streaming features. The TiVo Roamio OTA features four OTA tuners and 500GB of integrated storage for $50 plus $180 a year for channel guide service, or $590 for three years of use. There is no lifetime guide option with the Roamio OTA. Adding a TiVo Stream for downloading and streaming recorded shows to Apple iOS devices adds another $130 – Android support is reportedly coming soon.
If you want to get rid of an expensive cable, fiber, or satellite subscription and you happen to live near free-to-air broadcast towers, cordcutting becomes an increasingly viable option. The Tablo is a uniquely capable multi-tuner DVR that can feed a decent sized household live and recorded television entertainment throughout the home or on the road. Tablo also keeps things simple by focusing on being a good DVR while avoiding the urge to pile on unnecessary or unwanted apps – at least so far.