In the short span of six months, no fewer than three new set-tops have set their sights on your home theater: the Channel Master DVR+, the Tablo DVR, and, most recently, the second-generation Simple.tv. These boxes aim to replace your dusty VCR with a modern DVR, one that’s not beholden to extortionist cable and satellite providers. The content arrives old-school, over the airwaves, without a price tag attached.
Compatible with most mobile devices and set-top streamers. Supports account sharing and offline viewing. Doesn’t occupy a valuable HDMI port.
Noisy fan. No Wi-Fi. Virtually useless without premium subscription. Mobile apps can’t download recorded shows directly. No quad-tuner option.
Alas, while the content may be free, recording it will still cost you. The dual-tuner Simple.tv box costs $200, while a Premier subscription (optional but essential) runs $60 annually or $150 for lifetime access. Then there’s storage: You supply the USB hard drive in whatever capacity you want. But plan on another $50-100 for that unless you’ve got a spare drive lying around. Oh, and you’ll need an antenna, too.
The Tablo DVR has a similar pricing structure, but Simple.tv offers some added perks. Unfortunately, they’re balanced out by a few annoyances. So what’s the better choice for cord-cutting fans of network television?
Functionally, the two boxes are almost identical. The Simple.tv requires you to connect an antenna or ClearQAM cable feed, a hard drive, and an Ethernet line from your router. The unfortunate lack of Wi-Fi may make positioning more difficult, but it ensures the best possible streaming performance.
Like the Tablo, there’s no direct connection to your TV, and no remote. The Simple.tv is a DVR island unto itself, streaming live and recorded shows to mobile devices and other set-top streamers: Apple TV, Chromecast, and Roku. It also supports Plex for the more hardcore cord-cutter. However, whereas Tablo has just one dedicated app (for the iPad), requiring users of other devices to navigate a browser-based interface, Simple.tv offers apps for Android, iOS, Kindle Fire, and Windows Phone. And it’s a polished, easy-to-use app, with an interactive program guide and simple series-recording options. Too bad the Roku interface has the same clunky arrangement as the Tablo’s.
Although you’re limited to two tuners (Tablo offers a four-tuner option), the Simple.tv can stream to up to five devices simultaneously. It even allows you to “invite” others (friends, family members, etc.) to share your account.
Another big perk: You can download shows for offline viewing. In fact, Simple.tv will encode them in one of three sizes: mobile, tablet, or full. Alas, this option requires a browser, meaning you can’t download recordings directly from within the apps. So if you want shows to go, you have little choice but to save them to your PC, then manually transfer them to your phone or tablet. Still, neither Channel Master nor Tablo offers anything comparable.
Anyone seeking a traditional TV-viewing experience may be somewhat disappointed, though, especially when skipping from one live channel to another. On an iPhone, for example, this involves tapping Done to end your current stream, returning to the program guide, choosing another channel, tapping play, then waiting for the new stream to start. The whole process can easily consume 30 seconds. Things go a bit faster on a Roku, but it’s still a process.
The Simple.tv suffers from one unfortunate mechanical problem, and that’s noise: its fan is audible when idling and downright loud when you have a couple streams going. If you’re able to place the unit inside a cabinet or tuck it away in another room, this shouldn’t be an issue. But if the box lives where you watch TV, you may find the noise intrusive. The Channel Master DVR+ and Tablo DVR are almost completely silent by comparison.
That gripe aside, the Simple.tv offers perhaps the best OTA DVR experience currently available. It’s far from perfect, and the subscription fees are a slap in cord-cutters’ faces. But if you want to sling live and recorded local TV just about anywhere, it’s hard to argue with the simplicity of Simple.tv.