I bought a Tablo DVR just over a month ago and have been using it a lot. Here are some early impressions I have of the device (TL;DR I like it a lot). I will do a more detailed write up later on when I have used the device over the long term.
What Is A Tablo?
A Tablo is a whole-home DVR (Digital Video Recorder). The Tablo allows me to take TV broadcasts off the air and either stream them to a device or record them to an attached USB harddrive.
The one main differentiator between a Tablo and a Tivo (or a cable company supplied DVR) is that the Tablo does not hook up directly to a TV set. You will need another device that hooks up to a TV set to watch the video on a TV – something like a Roku or Apple TV. Some may find this a drawback for the device, I find it very convenient. This allows me to put the Tablo anywhere I want, I am not stuck putting it in the TV stand with all the other TV related equipment (it currently lives on a shelf with server related stuff). The other benefit is that if I wanted to have multiple TVs with OTA TV service, all I have to do is get another set-top box for each TV. I don’t have to run coax everywhere. Each split of the coax coming off the antenna cuts the signal in the coax by half, giving that I am 50 miles away from the broadcast tower, I need every bit of signal I can get. Also, since most set-top boxes (Roku and Apple TV and Nvidia Shield) have built-in Wifi, there aren’t any extra cables to be run at all.
Because the Tablo is built as a whole-home DVR, there’s no more equipment to buy if you want to watch TV on a portable device or when you’re away from home. The Tivo requires a Tivo Mini ($150) per TV set. If you want to watch Tivo remotely, you’ll need a Tivo Stream ($130). The Tablo will stream to any device without extra hardware. Remote streaming is built-in (though, you’ll need to pay for the Guide Data to get the remote streaming functionality).
- Setup: Super easy. I chose to hardwire my Tablo into the network, there are other ways of setting up that include using the built-in Wifi. I plugged in my USB harddrive (1.5TB), plugged in Ethernet cable, plugged in power and plugged in antenna. I downloaded the Tablo app for my iPad and launched it. It found the Tablo and went into the setup process which consisted of picking a zipcode, scanning channels and formatting harddrive. That was it. After it downloaded a day’s worth of guide, I was already watching TV.
- Picture Quality: The Tablo device does not record or stream the native MPEG-2 stream that comes OTA (Over-the-Air). Instead, it transcodes the stream into H.264 and then records/streams that. Depending on the setting chosen, the picture quality will vary. The default is 720p, I bumped mine up to 1080p/720p@60fps. The picture quality is great, though not as great as the raw MPEG-2 feed from the antenna – the transcoded stream is good enough that a casual viewer would not see any difference.
- Audio Quality: I knew this ahead of time, so I was not totally disappointed: The Tablo down-mixes the incoming audio to two-channel PCM. A lot (most) shows today come with a 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track, this all gets down-mixed. For some people this will be a deal-breaker. I can live with it, I would love for Tablo to implement some sort of pass-through for the native audio stream, but two-channel PCM is fine.
- The Guide: The Tablo comes with a 30-day free subscription to their guide service. This allows for recording series and bringing pretty pictures for display along with recordings. The initial download for one-day of data took a few minutes, after that the Tablo is ready to use. But, in the background the Tablo goes and fetches the other 13 days of data so that it has two weeks in total. This process takes a few hours, be prepared. The guide data comes from gracenote and is accurate. There are some things that have missing artwork which is annoying – a prominent one at the time of this writing are the Rio Olympics. The guide data is a subscription service that costs $5/mo, $50/yr or $150 for lifetime. The lifetime subscription (unlike Tivo) is not covering the lifetime of the device, but the lifetime of the account. A Tivo lifetime subcription goes away if the unit dies. The lifetime subcription for a Tablo can be used to cover multiple devices (up to ten).
- Device Support: I have tested watching TV, both live and recorded with multiple devices and they all work perfectly. For settop boxes: Roku 3 and Apple TV 4 work fine. For Android: Sony Tablet Z and a Dell Intel-based 8-inche tablet both work fine. iOS includes an iPhone 6 Plus and an iPad Air 2, both work great. The client for Android devices seems to be the best and works fantastic. The iOS clients are good. The Roku client has some extra features like “Upcoming recordings” that do not show up in any other client. The Apple TV client is the newest and the one with the least amount of features (I can’t even setup recordings past the next 24-hours, nor can I do any sort of setup on the Tablo). But, given that it’s a first version, it works surprising well.
- Channel Surfing: There is no channel surfing on the Tablo. Switching between channels requires backing out of what I am currently watching into the schedule grid and picking something else to watch. Switching between channels also takes a few seconds (between 10-20 seconds) because the Tablo needs to pull the MPEG-2 stream off the antenna then start transcoding to H.264. This may well make some people return the Tablo. I can live with it as I don’t usually watch TV live, nor do I channel surf. It is the price to pay for a whole-home DVR which transcodes video into a format that most all devices can play.
- Tuner: The tuner in the Tablo can pick up and hold onto signals much better than my Vizio TV’s internal tuner, the old HD Homerun that I have and also the crappy Homeworx STB that I had to play with a while ago.
- Fun: Not directly related to the Tablo, but wow, the sub-channels that are usually not found on cable or streaming services like Vue are fantastic. There are cool old shows to watch like: Quantum Leap, The A-Team, CHiPs, The Commish, 21 Jump Street, Hunter, Knight Rider, Spin City, Murder She Wrote, Star Trek (original series), Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Enterprise.
Final Thoughts For Now
The Tablo is fantastic for cord-cutting as long as you get good reception. There are definite downsides to it, like the two-channel PCM, but I can live with that. There are some stability issues, but Tablo Support has been very responsive about getting back to me when I have contacted them. So, if you have good reception (check here and here) and want to save some money each month by cutting the cable TV bill, the Tablo is a great easy way to do it.