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Review: Can Tablo help you cut the cable TV cord?

DVR that grabs HDTV signal requires some additional elbow grease

Tablo HDTV set-top-box OTT

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The scoop: Tablo, by Nuvyyo, Inc., about $220 (for the 2-tuner model; 4-tuner costs $300)

What is it? For TV viewers looking to cut ties with their cable or satellite provider, the Tablo box can get them started with its ability to provide DVR functionality and grab free, over-the-air HDTV signals for live viewing or recording for later. The box attaches to a sold-separately HDTV antenna, a USB storage device (also sold separately) and connects to your home network router (either Ethernet or Wi-Fi). Content can then be streamed to a tablet (via an iOS or Google Play app) or a TV via an Apple TV (with AirPlay) or Roku device. The  app scans the airwaves to find which local channels are available with HDTV signals, as well as providing a program guide for TV shows, sporting events and movies available for recording (or watching live). Users can get a one-day program guide for free, or they can subscribe for a 14-day guide ($5 per month, $50 per year or $150 lifetime).

Why it’s cool: The Tablo does a good job at providing local HDTV channels for live TV streaming and recording, two items that cord-cutters are looking for. If you want to get rid of the TV part of your cable bill, for example, you could combine the Tablo unit for your local TV and DVR needs, and then stream other content via Netflix, Hulu Plus or other Internet services. I was surprised at the quality of the HDTV streams available during the live TV tests - viewing the live TV stream on my iPad was a lot better than I expected, considering I didn’t have optimal placement of the HDTV antenna. Because the unit doesn’t physically connect to a TV (remember, watching content on the TV requires either an Apple TV or Roku box), you can place the Tablo box closer to an area that will receive a better HDTV signal (near an upstairs window, for example).

Streaming the content via the Roku box was easy to accomplish (you could add the channel through the Roku website). This let me watch live TV and recorded shows on my larger HDTV instead of the smaller iPad.

Tablo rear Nuvyyo

The rear of the Tablo box includes an Ethernet port, two USB ports (for attaching storage for the DVR) and an HDTV antenna port (for grabbing the over-the-air signals from local channels).

Some caveats: In order to receive optimal satisfaction from Tablo, you need to buy a bunch of other devices. First, I needed an HDTV antenna to pick up the free, over-the-air local channels. Second, I needed to attach a USB storage drive (which the system re-formats, so you can’t have other items stored on it) for the DVR functionality. Third, I needed a Roku TV or Apple TV in order to get the content streamed to the TV. Fourth, I needed a tablet (iPad or Android) to watch on those mobile devices. You could even argue that the fifth requirement is a wireless router, but I’m assuming that you already have those. For the most part, people will have most of these items, but it would be cool to see Nuvyyo build a Tablo unit that includes the HDTV antenna as well as either an internal storage drive or bundled external USB drive.

The other big requirement for enjoyment of the Tablo is your home’s location, and the availability of over-the-air HDTV signals. In my tests, I was able to receive about five or six different local channels (the big four networks, a PBS station and the local CW network), plus a few other random ones (a couple of Spanish-language stations and some odd offshoots that didn’t show compelling content). Before you invest in a Tablo, you might want to buy an HDTV antenna first (I picked one up for about $18) and connect it to your TV to see what channels you can pull in (or see if you need to invest in a more expensive outdoor HDTV antenna). Based on my location and where I had the antenna set up (I connected it near a window, but it still probably wasn’t the best position), several of my recorded broadcasts and even the live TV offerings included pixel latency (those digital blocks that show up indicating a weaker or slower signal). This can get real annoying real quickly, requiring that you become a better TV technician than you want to.

Bottom line: The big question to ask yourself is how badly do you dislike your cable TV or satellite provider in order to get rid of their TV programming package, and whether you want to put in the work to get a quality over-the-air signal.

Grade: 3.5 stars (out of five).

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