Tablo review: A streaming DVR that finally liberates broadcast TV

A Tablo Dual Lite review unit supplied by Nuvyyo. (Photo: Matthew Keys/The Desk)

Like millions of other homes, ours is one that hasn’t subscribed to cable television in a while. The last time we had traditional cable service was in 2014 when Comcast made us a great offer for their digital economy tier — along with a handful of cherry-picked stations (Comedy Central, CNN, Discovery Channel), we got all of our local broadcast stations, sparing the need to install antennas throughout the home.

That ended when Comcast decided it wanted to start charging more for local stations through a little-known “broadcast TV fee.” When we started our service, it was around $3, but by the time our contract ended, Comcast had doubled the fee (it’s now $15 a month — and there’s no way to avoid it).

Why pay for broadcast TV when I can get it for free? I thought. It turns out, I wasn’t alone: In 2018, with the average household paying $100 for cable or satellite service, nearly 8 million broadcast TV antennas were sold and installed, offering millions of Americans the option to receive national broadcast networks like ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and PBS right out of thin air at the attractive price of free.

For an estimated 1 in 10 households who exclusively rely on broadcast TV, gone are the days of having to worry about service fee increases or carriage disputes resulting in the removal of their favorite stations. Just plug an antenna into the back of your TV set and — boom — free, digital TV that’s always available.

But broadcast TV has its limitations: You can only watch whatever a station is providing in real time, and each TV in a home must have its own antenna. With a conventional antenna-into-TV setup, there’s limited ways to record TV programs and no way to watch broadcast channels on devices that aren’t TV sets.

That’s a problem the engineers at Nuvyyo have given a lot of thought. Nuvyyo, based in Canada, has been called one of the top companies transforming the television industry. And once you get your hands on their flagship product, Tablo, it’s not hard to see why: Acting as an intermediary between an antenna and a TV set, it liberates the broadcast television viewing experience in more ways than one.

Around the time I dumped cable for good, I’d been considering buying a Tablo. Lucky for me, the folks at Nuvyyo — who are also readers of this blog! — were kind enough to lend me a review unit of their Dual Lite model. I enjoyed it so much that I wound up buying their upgraded Quad model because the Tablo solves a number of problems with broadcast TV:

1. Tablo makes watching broadcast television feel like a streaming app

Tablo is really two things: Hardware and software.

On the hardware side, Tablo is a streaming box that acts as a middleman between a user’s antenna and their TV set (and other supported devices — more on that in a second). There are two versions of Tablo hardware: The Dual Lite, a two-tuner version that is slightly larger than an Apple TV, and the Quad, a four-tuner variant that is smaller than a next-generation cable or satellite box.

The Tablo hardware requires a few things to get going: A TV antenna like this one, a broadband Internet connection, a router (if you have wireless Internet, you have a router) and an external hard drive for storing recorded movies and TV shows.

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If the hardware is the brain of Tablo, the software is its heart and soul: The Tablo app is how viewers watch live and recorded television, and it’s supported on a number of devices, including smart TV sets, streaming TV devices (Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Android TV), phones, tablets and even on a computer via a web browser.

The Tablo app will be extremely familiar to anyone who has used a cable or satellite DVR or a TiVo in the past: There’s a program guide that lists what’s on each channel and what’s coming on later, a section for recorded shows and movies, and a settings menu for adjusting Tablo’s various features.

Tablo’s Dual Lite model allows users to watch or record live TV on two channels at once, while Tablo’s Quad model allows users to watch or record live TV on four channels at once (on both models, watching a recorded program after it has ended doesn’t count against the channel limit). Having multiple tuners and support for most devices with a screen makes it easy for several people in a home to watch whatever they want at the same time — one person can be watching live sports on a TV through their Roku, while another person watches a show airing on another channel on their phone.

The Tablo app’s electronic program guide as it appeared on Apple TV. (Image: Matthew Keys/The Desk)

2. Tablo provides a low-cost way of recording TV shows and movies

At the heart of the Tablo app is the live electronic program guide, the feature that tells users what’s on each station and what will come on next. The guide is also where viewers tell Tablo what to record and how often (you can record one episode of one show, or an entire series of a show, as long as there’s enough space on your hard drive — though users can give Tablo permission to make space for new things by automatically deleting older stuff).

Tablo uses the Nielsen-owned Gracenote for its guide data and distributes it to users at various hours of the day (as well as a bulk update late at night — typically between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.). One full day of guide data is given to users for free; a premium guide subscription is also available for $5 a month, $50 a year or a one-off payment of $150 that gives users extra features, including two weeks of guide data; cover art for movies and TV series; and powerful discovery filters for finding upcoming sports, movies and prime-time TV shows.

Tablo is not the only company to charge for premium guide data — cable and satellite companies bundle this cost in with their subscription prices, and TiVo charges anywhere from $10 to $20 for its guide data — but it is one of the few companies to offer some of its guide data to users for free without restricting access to features, like TiVo does.

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Last year, Nuvyyo started offering a second premium subscription that allows users to skip commercials in most shows and movies. The feature works by uploading a portion of the recording to Nuvyyo’s servers where it is analyzed by algorithms for commercials. Information is sent back to a Tablo device about where commercials live in a recording, and the Tablo app automatically skips them when a recording is played back.

The feature comes at a cost of $2 a month or $20 a year and requires an active premium guide data subscription as well. Tablo’s commercial skip feature has received mixed reviews — it’s great when it works, but it isn’t perfect (a Nuvyyo spokesperson said the commercial skip feature has drastically improved since earlier reviews were published) — and due to bandwidth limitations as well as a data cap imposed by my Internet provider (Nuvyyo says it will require uploading 100-200 MB of data per recording), it wasn’t something I felt comfortable testing given my ever-building library of shows and movies on the review Dual Lite unit and the Quad that I eventually purchased. But if skipping ads is something that’s important to you, both Tablo models can do it.

The inclusion of Ethernet and built-in WiFi makes it easy to put a Tablo anywhere in a home. (Photo: Matthew Keys/The Desk)

3. Tablo makes it easy to find the best signal

TV sets are typically installed based on a room’s layout, design and convenience. But that location may not be the best for receiving broadcast signals with an antenna, which can be a big problem if certain channels can’t be reliably picked up.

Tablo solves this problem by allowing users to install an antenna wherever the signal is best, then distribute that signal via Tablo to TV sets and other devices throughout a home. If the best place for an antenna just happens to be near a router, Tablo offers an Ethernet port for quick and easy setup; if not, Tablo has built-in WiFi antennas that can wirelessly connect to a network no matter where it is placed (as long as it’s within WiFI range). As long as a compatible device — like a TV with a Roku or an iPhone — can pick up an Internet signal, it can stream live and recorded broadcast TV via Tablo.

It also solves the problem of needing multiple antennas for multiple TVs. Just one antenna plugged into the Tablo is all that’s needed for multiple TVs and other devices to receive broadcast television.

Retail boxes for the Tablo Dual Lite and the Tablo Quad. (Photo: Matthew Keys/The Desk)

4. Upgrading Tablo hardware is simple and affordable

Both the Dual Lite and the Quad do many of the same things: They allow users to watch broadcast TV on multiple devices, including smart TVs, streaming TV devices, phones, tablets and computers.

But there is a difference between the two models: The Dual Lite allows users to watch and record two separate live TV channels, while the Quad allows users to watch and record four.

That difference may not seem like much, but it could quickly turn out to be a big deal. While reviewing the Dual Lite model, I frequently ran into a couple of issues, and all of them were linked to the limitation of just having two tuners.

The first problem had to do with the way Tablo uses its tuners to record shows. If two shows were recording at once, I couldn’t stream live TV from a different channel — I had to watch whatever the Tablo was recording at the moment.

The second problem had to do with multiple people accessing Tablo while a recording was in progress. More than once, while watching a live channel, Tablo kicked me off when another person in the house launched Tablo on their device and tuned to a different station.

The third problem involved scheduling conflicts: Where I live, we’re blessed with nearly a dozen stations pumping out 40 digital channels, and there’s often enough interesting things to record to fill an entire day. Problem is, some of the shows and movies that I wanted to watch came on when other shows and movies that I also wanted to watch aired. Sometimes, there’d be three or four programs coming on three or four different channels, all scheduled in the same hour. Tablo told me I couldn’t have it all — I had to narrow down my choices to two.

All of these problems were resolved when I bought the Quad: No more maxed-out tuners, no more choosing certain programs over others to record, and no more being kicked off the Tablo app when others in the house start watching TV.

But that convenience comes at an expense: The Tablo Dual Lite is priced attractively at $149 (though as of this writing, Amazon is offering it for $122), and it frequently goes on sale for as little as $99 around certain times of the year. The Tablo Quad, on the other hand, costs $200 and rarely goes on sale, though Nuvyyo sells refurbished Quad units for $30 less (I purchased a refurbished model — it works just fine).

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When a user upgrades their hardware, they’re able to transfer their external hard drive from their old device to their new one — which means a user isn’t without their previously-recorded movies and TV shows. And Tablo users who pay a one-off $150 fee for a lifetime premium guide subscription can transfer their lifetime subscription to a new Tablo device without having to pay the fee again — a nice perk.

(Photo: Matthew Keys/The Desk)

5. Tablo users generally don’t have to worry about Internet data caps

Cable and satellite are facing increased competition from streaming cable replacements, including Google’s YouTube TV, Disney’s Hulu with Live TV, AT&T TV and Dish Network’s Sling TV.

Delivering pay TV shows through the Internet is great from the standpoint that it allows people to watch what they want on whatever device they want. But none of these services are cheaper than free broadcast TV, and since they require on an Internet connection, they count against certain broadband data caps imposed by Internet service providers.

Tablo doesn’t have either problem: There’s no fee associated with receiving broadcast TV (and only a nominal fee if users want more than 24 hours of guide data) and no reliance on broadband Internet to watch live and recorded programs within a home network.

That’s because Tablo uses the network router — not the Internet — to distribute live channels and recorded programs to devices on a home’s network. That means shows and movies tend to start up faster using Tablo than a streaming service (though not quite as fast as using an antenna plugged directly into a TV set — but the delay becomes less noticeable over time).

With one exception, Tablo only connects to the Internet in certain cases: To set the time, to download guide data and firmware updates, and to talk with Nuvyyo’s servers for other issues.

The exception is out-of-home streaming. Using a feature called Tablo Connect, users can access live channels and recorded shows over the Internet when they’re away from their home network. To keep things legit, out-of-home streaming is mediated by Nuvyyo’s servers, so the company requires an active premium guide data subscription to use the feature.

 

6. Tablo users don’t have to worry about local stations being dropped

This is, by far, one of the biggest perks of owning a Tablo.

Once rare, disputes between cable/satellite companies and programmers are becoming increasingly common. Chances are, if you’ve had cable or satellite in the last 10 years, you’ve found yourself without a local station or a handful of cable channels for a few days or weeks because of a carriage dispute.

These issues crop up whenever programmers ask cable and satellite companies for more money or other terms in exchange for the rights to carry channels and networks. Though cable and satellite companies have resisted these efforts, disputes are almost always quickly resolved — and generally result in higher bills for customers, since the increased cost gets passed on to them.

Cable-replacement streaming services were largely thought to be insulated from these types of disputes, but in recent years that’s proven to not be the case: Sling TV dropped Fox channels in 17 metropolitan areas last September due to a carriage dispute, and similar issues have been experienced with other streaming services.

Only once was there a serious discussion about yanking free network television off the airwaves. The threat involved just two networks, and it quickly petered out.

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Considering the increasing number of households turning to antennas for free TV, it’s unlikely broadcast TV will go away anytime soon. If anything, free over-the-air TV will only get better: Broadcasters are investing in new technology that will allow for clearer, sharper images; higher-quality audio; and better use of the broadcast television spectrum for more channels and features, like hyperlocal emergency alerts.

That commitment indicates broadcasters are invested in the long-term future of free, over-the-air TV — which is good news for cordcutters who invest in buying a Tablo, a device that unlocks the full potential of broadcast TV by freeing it from the confines of the television set.

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Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified one model of Tablo hardware. It is the Dual Lite, not the Duo Lite.

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