Still at it. The TV overlords have raised my rates to nosebleed heights and I am bound and determined to find alternatives to the price gouging ridiculousness of cable TV. One of the biggest things I would miss from the land of cable? A DVR. A time-shifting, show-recording, never miss an episode DVR. Once you've had a DVR its hard to live life without one. At times while in the car, I miss something that was said on the radio and find myself looking for a rewind button that doesn't exist. Yep, a DVR is a must. The trick; DVR without cable.
Enter the ring; OTA DVR technology. OTA? Over The Air. Yes sir, they make DVRs that use antennas instead of cable leads. Just remember OTA = FREE! Reading a many articles I found a few contenders for my interest but only Tablo had the right combination of what I was looking for. Watch out for high "subscription" fees tacked on to some OTA DVR offerings. What's the point of ditching the cable company if you're just going to replace it with a high-priced subscription to channel data?
The Tablo DVR is an over the air DVR that comes in two real flavors; two-tuner and four-tuner with a soon-to-be-released "metro" variation of the two-tuner that has two internal digital antennae for "urban living". For myself, I landed a great deal on a four-tuner Tablo. With four tuners I will be able to watch or record up to four things at once. Sweet. Now all I had to do was wait for UPS to drop of my DVR.
Tablo Four-Tuner DVR < Editor's Choice
Tablo Two-Tuner DVR
Once my Tablo arrived I knew I would need to hook it up to an antenna. I won't go into a plethora of antenna options as they are so many possibilities for so many situations. I myself am not horribly far from most of the TV towers in my area so no need for heroic measures and outside antennae. This nice little antenna works great for me. It is very inexpensive, small and blends nicely with my home decor, most importantly; it works! If you live further outside of the city you may need something a bit more robust. Any antenna you choose you should first hook up directly to a TV to test reception and adjust orientation for best results. Don't forget to switch the TV to antenna mode, cable mode won't work. Once you're satisfied with your TV reception, then you can hook it to Tablo.
The second thing you will need, and I'm a little disappointed with Tablo, is a hard drive. I'm not wild about products that ship without critical items. An antenna may have a million options, but hard drives are not only required but Tablo has very specific "suggestions" and requirements for the hard drive you use. Now this is important; if you already have a USB hard drive just laying around, maybe give it a try. DO NOT just buy the cheapest hard drive you can find as many Tablo users have reported various issues and buying the suggested hard drive will go a long way with your happiness, my USB drive I had laying around was not exactly 100% when testing. Do not use a flash drive, they don't transfer data fast enough. NAS is unsupported too because of the variance in network conditions. Remember, we need smooth, fast, reliable data connection for the onslaught of data coming and going through the Tablo. Tablo recommends the Western Digital Elements line of external hard drives.
Western Digital Elements Portable 2 Terabyte USB Hard Drive < Editor's Choice
Western Digital Elements Portable 1 Terabyte USB Hard Drive
Western Digital Elements Portable 500 Gigabyte USB Hard Drive
The relatively low price of the drives when compared to a monthly cable bill inspired me to go with the 2 terabyte version, but with two USB ports for easy expansion you can always buy small and add on later.
Setup for the Tablo is dirt simple; plug in the antenna of your choice, your USB hard drive, your network connection (needed for guide data) and power. Viola, Tablo is online. But wait....no TV connection? No HDMI? Yeah, that threw me for a loop too, my DVR is no longer under my TV but in my office no where near a TV. Tablo is a network device. It uses your home network to connect your programing to your TV, computer, laptop, etc. Pull in programs from the air, store them on a hard drive and let you access them over the network....simple but very different.
Once you have everything hooked up, the first thing you will want to do is take any computer on your home network and surf out to http://my.tablotv.com/. This will install the Tablo app in your browser, discover and connect to your Tablo. Most likely you will be prompted to upgrade the software in your Tablo, do it for stability and functionality purposes.
When the software updates are complete and your Tablo has rebooted, go into the settings section of the Tablo web app. Find your hard drive and select the format option. I love this part, the Tablo guys were quite cautious here; the popup to confirm formatting insists you not just click a YES/NO prompt but actually type in the word "FORMAT" to accept that you will be wiping the hard drive clean. Please note that "FORMAT" is case sensitive and must be typed in all caps. There is IMHO, no way to wipe your hard drive on accident.
With your hard drive formatted and ready to go, we need to setup the recording quality. I tried 1080p at first, but since my plans are to go wireless I lowered it to 720p for bandwidth issues and to match the devices I plan to use. A few more points for using 720p; it uses less storage than 1080p still looks great and most OTA channels are not broadcast in 1080p anyway.
Just below the recording quality settings you will see the guide section. Just put in your ZIP code (edit location) and do a channel scan. It takes awhile, but be patient. When the scanning is complete you will be presented with a nice list of the channels found along with the resolution they are transmitted in. If there are any channels you don't want to see just click "edit channel lineup" and remove what you don't like. As you can see, I found quite a few in my area, the cable company only gave me access to about seven of these.
While you were on the settings screen you may have noticed I skipped over the subscription section. The subscription it is talking about IS NOT a subscription to TV shows like cable, it is a subscription to the channel data, or what-show-is-on-when so you can record your shows easier. You can use a Tablo without a subscription, but it really hobbles its use as you won't have show names, descriptions, series info, etc. Tablo recordings can be setup by time and date but that's too much like setting a VCR from the 80's for me. When you are first trying out your Tablo it comes with a free 30-day subscription, but don't let it expire or you're back in VCR land. Subscriptions come in monthly, yearly and lifetime rates and can be upgraded at any time. I grabbed a lifetime subscription for $149USD, again comparing it to my cable bill; What a steal. An interesting thing about Tablo subscriptions; you can use them on as many Tablos as you own. If you want another Tablo at the lake house, use the same subscription. If you upgrade your Tablo in the future, use the same subscription. If you add a second Tablo to your house (his and hers?), use the same subscription. This practice is not only legal, but encouraged by the folks at Tablo.
The Tablo interface is very colorful and informative, much more like a Netflix or Amazon interface than a traditional DVR.
Traditional DVRs have just begun to get the feature of "whole house DVR", the ability to use DVR functions in other rooms away from the actual physical DVR itself. Those other rooms usually cost a hefty penny too, usually at least ten or fifteen bucks a month per additional room. Tablo, not being hooked up to any TV is by its nature a whole house DVR. Anywhere you connect to Tablo, you have full access to the DVR functions. What could possibly be better than whole house DVR? How about whole world DVR! By checking the "remote access" setting under "Tablo Connect" you can take a paired device from your network out on the road and still connect to your DVR. Note the public port\private ports that must be open on your home router to allow access. If you are unsure of how to set up a port forward on your router just check out the guides at portforward.com for some assistance. Once you have your router setup, click the "re-test port mapping" button to check your work. As you can see, I got one working and two that received red exclamation marks (doh!). Well, looks like I need to work at that a bit more but as soon as I have it working, I can ditch my Slingbox!
The Tablo isn't perfect by any means, but with semi-frequent software updates it just keeps getting better and better. The Tablo forums are full of user suggestions and improvement requests, and the Tablo people really seem to be listening. It takes a bit to get over the idea that my DVR is in the office and not the living room and the Netflix-ish interface that is so very different from the DVRs I have had in the past. All in all I think Tablo will do nicely. Next up...let's get our Tablo talking to a TV...