Monday, November 24, 2014

Tablo TV : Stream From Your Antenna

Tablo reinvents the way to watch OTA TV

Cordcutting hit Canada in record numbers last year with pay TV subscriptions falling flat and a surge of interest in alternative options such as internet streaming services and digital over-the-air TV. So wouldn’t this be the best time for Canada’s innovative tech industry to launch its own cordcutter hardware into the mix? Ottawa-based Nuvvyo thought so and introduced their new product geared at cordcutters, Tablo TV.

Tablo is classified as an over-the-air (OTA) DVR, but fact is it’s more of a “cloud DVR” than a typical set-top product. Don’t think about a conventional DVR that you would get from a cable company; with no remote control and no way to connect directly to a TV, Tablo is best described as network-attached storage powered by dual or quad OTA tuners with one heck of a high-end software interface.


Hello, Tablo! Promotional photo provided courtesy of Nuvvyo.

Tablo definitely comes in with cutting-edge technology and is by all means not targeted at the traditional OTA crowd as having an antenna is not the only pre-requisite. You’ll need a fairly modern home network, a spare hard drive and a Roku, AppleTV or a Chromecast and to get Tablo up and running on your big screen.
So is Tablo worth taking the plunge? Here’s what we think based on our trial:
Model: Tablo 2-Tuner OTA DVR
Size: 7" wide x 4 1/2" deep x 1 3/8" high
Package includes: TabloTV, power supply, ethernet cable, owner’s guide
Inputs/Outputs: RF connector (F-type coax), Ethernet, USB x 2, Power, Dual band WiFi
Pros: Robust and innovative software, beautiful user interface, bulletproof program guide info for two weeks (requires subscription), good OTA tuner, true “whole home” and cloud DVR functionality, excellent streaming quality even over busy networks, free apps for most devices, one subscription covers multiple Tablo devices with several payment options available, works well with all the most popular streaming players, excellent customer support, remote web access and Wifi capabilities already included.
Cons: Pay subscription required for full functionality, interface only available in English, no live signal strength data or ability to tune / add channels in real time, unit runs warm, limited search functionalities.
The Tablo unit is a discreet black box, a mix of matte and glossy black finishes with no buttons (including ON/OFF) or switches present besides a discrete reset button recessed on the back panel. All connection ports are lined up in the back and easily accessible. The look is clean and sleek, the base is solid metal with what looks like a black powder-coated finish, the top and sides are a high-quality plastic. A blue LED in the front center is the only signs of life the unit will display when powered up, and can be turned off if so desired via the Tablo web browser interface or app.  The LED also acts as indicator of when the unit is doing something special, such going into tech support mode.
Tablo is compact and good-looking; it is compact enough to be used almost anywhere and with its cool look, fits in great with any high-end home theatre setup.
Build Quality
The unit comes well packaged and is solidly built, no flimsy components or cheap finishes here. The I/O connections are tight and the chassis fits well together with close tolerances.  Early units had an issue where the internal RF shield could come loose, resulting in a rattling sound inside the unit, but the issue was promptly addressed by Nuvvyo and the design was changed on newer models. The unit we received had excellent build quality.
Made in Canada: When buying a Tablo you’re not just signing up for excellent quality workmanship, you’re also supporting the local economy.
The setup of Tablo requires a few steps but is easily accomplished. The first step is adding a USB harddrive and be warned; not all harddrives will work and you can find a detailed list of them in the Tablo Community Forum thread. The basic requirement is that the hardrive must not exceed 2TB and that it should not be externally powered. For purposes of our tests we stuck with the recommended Seagate model. Although there are two USB ports, the current firmware allows only hooking up one hardrive. Tablo mentions that future developments may allow a second drive to be added and even for hard drives to be interchangeable between units (which would be a cool feature for sharing recordings with friends or archiving recorded series).
There are plenty of compact HDD options that work with Tablo.
The next step is to connect an antenna to the RF input and then power on the unit. Although each Tablo comes equipped with dual-band WiFi, it is recommended that it is hard-wired to a home network Ethernet port using the provided 3-ft cable. 
Step by step, Tablo's awesome start-up guide is easy to use and well-illustrated for an easy and fast setup.
Now that the unit is powered on and communicating on the network, setup is done through the free web interface or the free apps available for iOS or Android devices. As advertised by Tablo, the web interface will work best with Google Chrome – we tried Internet Explorer and FireFox and the system would hang or not display properly.  The setup steps are easy and user-friendly, and will require formatting your hardrive, obtaining your location for guide info and other basic home network setup properties.
The one speedbump we found was that the Tablo software does not provide real-time signal strength information from the antenna, except when running a full setup scan. This made it a bit difficult to aim the antenna as we had to keep running re-scans, and becomes somewhat annoying when trying to find the right balance / compromise between several stations coming in from different angles. Another drawback is that there is no way to manually add a single channel; a whole re-scan needs to be done if you somehow missed a weaker station.
Signal strength is only captured once, during the initial scan. It is not live (real-time), making it difficult to use when aiming your antenna.
Once the initial scan is done, guide data will begin downloading and the Tablo interface will start populating. By default, each Tablo unit comes with 30-day trial period, after which you can make a decision on purchasing the subscription packages. Without the subscription, Tablo’s functionalities become significantly crippled. In our opinion, if you’re not going to go with the subscription, you may as well forego Tablo altogether for many of the awesome features we will describe below (that make it totally worthwhile) will not be active.
For testing purposes, we ran Tablo on an iPad (iOS 7) and a Roku 2. We chose the Roku 2 since our initial research showed that Tablo runs like a breeze with the Roku 3, but there could be Roku 2 as that would really give us the worst case scenario.
On the iPad, installation was easy as we downloaded the free app and merely synched it with the Tablo on the network. Everything simply auto-detected and worked like a charm. For Roku 2, we used the custom Tablo channel provided on the Tablo website. Again, things worked beautifully and once added to our Roku account, our Tablo channel popped up in the menu like any other Roku channel. The Roku channel does not have any setup options as opposed to the iOS app which does. Both instances work well, respond quickly and are very easy to use and user-intuitive.
Free Tablo apps  are available for most devices (top), while a custom Roku channel (middle) adds Tablo to your Roku menu (bottom)
Of course, we were also able to watch Tablo programming on our PC using the Google Chrome Tablo web portal we used for the initial setup.
Features and Performance
First and foremost, let us re-iterate that Tablo is not a conventional set-top DVR; you’ll be scratching your head for a long time looking for the HDMI-out. Tablo is essentially a local area network “cloud” DVR, and with that comes a plethora of cool superpowers which we will discuss below.
But before we jump into that, let’s talk about what really sets Tablo apart from the pack, its distinct and innovative user interface.
The Tablo UI
Tablo reimagines the way to view OTA TV. Traditionally, OTA TV watchers were ruled by the programming grid – what is on what channel at what time. Tablo redefines OTA TV by turning its user-interface and program guide into essentially a Netflix-style concept. Instead of thinking about what is on at what time, Tablo will show what content is available via your antenna.

Although Tablo has traditional OTA guide capabilities, the beauty lies in how it categorizes and shows you what content is available out there. It’s like a Netflix-style layout for your OTA channels content. Note how available episodes are organized by seasons.

To be honest, we were at first taken slightly aback by the concept. Where are my channels? What’s on at 7PM? In playing with the unit over several weeks we realized that Tablo is right on track with the way people and cord-nevers (the younger generation that will watch AppleTV instead of cable) are currenty using the ol’tube.
Save for live sports, more and more people are watching TV via recording or on-demand content, either for binge-watching or to skip commercials. Tablo basically gives that power now to OTA users by showing them all that is available via antenna and allowing them to identify the content they’d like to record, and then watch it when it’s most convenient for them.
By having programming options presented to you by content rather than time/channel, it’s easier to sort and categorize. Tablo can filter and show you all the programs over the next two weeks that are identified as sports, movies, premiere showings or fall into genres that range from agriculture to westerns.
As a bonus, this type of user interface actually allowed us to discover interesting shows that we didn’t even know aired by browsing through the titles in the Tablo guide, usually because it was at certain ungodly hours of the night or morning.

Although Tablo commands, menus and the overall UI is only available in English, programming synopsis and descriptions will display in their native language, like French (above).
For example, the teen music-video show Juicebox is a hit with the kids – but usually only available via cable. With Tablo’s interface, we stumbled upon a 2-hour recurring session that airs at 6AM on a local CTV affiliate, making it perfect to record and playback when the kids are actually awake to appreciate it.
Watch Live OTA TV
Tablo allows you to watch live OTA TV to streaming boxes like Roku and Apple TV as well as your iPad, Android tablet or PC web browser. Think of it as streaming from your antenna instead of the internet, saving you quite a bit of internet cap space, and giving exceptional picture quality considering most DTV signals come in uncompressed at 19Mbps at a quality of 720p or 1080i. With the hard drive attached, you can also use Tablo to pause live TV or rewind back.
The Tablo guide for live TV on tablets is a traditional layout with a large preview pane that provides more program details. Unfortunately, the guide only goes 24 hours into the future, even with a full subscription. On streaming boxes like Roku, it is reduced to merely a list of shows currently airing.
Tablo’s Live TV guide on tablets (above) resembles a traditional layout but leverages Tablo’s excellent guide info. Only drawback (like all the other Tablo menus) is that you can’t browse and still watching live TV in the background. Unfortunately on Roku it is reduced to a list of programs that are currently airing.
Now about that “live” TV - there is actually a short buffer delay on live TV which we measured at about 11 seconds behind the live feed. This buffer helps give good quality streaming and for the most part doesn’t really impact your TV watching. Well, maybe those of you with thin walls may want to tell the neighbours on the other side to tone down the goal celebrations during the hockey game (spoiler alert, please). Overall we found the streaming quality excellent, with hardly any artifacts, lagging or ghosting. Fast-moving images and action sequences were on par with other streaming devices we’ve seen in the past. In cases where there was lagging and such with live TV, merely pausing the feed for a few seconds to allow the buffer to fill would resolve the problem.
The streaming quality from Tablo is excellent; one of the best we’ve seen.
Tablo comes in dual and quad tuner models, meaning it can receive two four live OTA TV channels at a time. Streaming is basically dependant on your network, as long as your network can handle it, you can have many devices accessing Tablo at the same time either for live TV or recorded programming. The best part is that if you do go for a Tablo subscription, you’re covered for that unit and not dependent on the number of devices you use to access it (since the apps/channels are all free); so whether you’re streaming to one or ten devices it’s all the same subscription price.

Whole Home DVR
The main advantage to having Tablo as a network DVR over a set-top box is the whole-home capability. Start watching a recording on the big screen, pause and resume on a tablet without missing a beat. Tablo has this feature ready to go right out of the box, no need to pay more for extra hardware or a special subscription package.

Paused recordings can be resumed on any connected device.
Recording can be done automatically (with a guide subscription) or manually. Recordings are smart enough to only record new episodes and will extend most live event recordings (sports) in case they run late. The recordings are easy to find in a dedicated recording menu and episodes are automatically grouped by program, which means you won’t be scrolling around trying to find your shows. Settings allow older shows to auto-delete if you start running low on hard disk space, ensuring your new shows record and helping you manage free space on your hard drive.
The playback interface is easy to use and the functionalities are on par with standard DVR offerings. On the web and tablet interface, you can easily fast forward or rewind back by using the sliders. Conventional skip fwd / skip back buttons are provided as well for jumping commercials. On Roku, the DVR works directly off the remote control commands. Overall, a good offering of standard playback functionalities.
Make your own replays and scroll back in time during live TV, especially easy and fluid on tablets (above)
Cloud DVR
Tablo also can be used as a “cloud” DVR when away from home. By setting up TabloConnect, another pre-loaded feature ready-to-go out of the box, you can access your Tablo remotely via a secure web portal. Impress your friends with cable by streaming your OTA feed directly to your smartphone at their house. Hey, maybe they can actually watch some of the real SuperBowl commercials?
TabloConnect can be enabled in the settings menu and allows streaming anywhere there is an internet connection and a suitable web browser.
One caveat is that TabloConnect may not be easy to set up on certain home networks, but that isn’t Tablo’s fault. Many “out-of-the-box” LAN setups with the big internet providers come with default firewalls and other imposed security features that may not like the idea of remote access to an attached device, so buckle yourselves in for a fun evening of playing around with port mappings and other modem router configurations before getting the feature up and running.
Menus and Navigation
The menu on the tablet interface is very well done and consists of a sidebar that has the most popular options and the advanced settings required to configure Tablo. This sidebar is always accessible through an icon in the top banner area and all menu selections respond and load quickly. The menus and the items are glossy, fluid and fun to use.
Glossy, full-coloured illustrated menus take full advantage of touch-enabled tablets; this interface is what truly makes Tablo stand out from the rest.
On streaming boxes, the menu is fairly standard and there are no advanced settings. The simplified menu makes it easy to navigate to the important and most popular features, especially with reduced remote controls like the 12-button Roku. Due to this simplicity, you will always need the web interface as a minimum to be able to configure Tablo.
On streaming boxes such as the Roku 2, a simpler menu allows for easy navigation using remote controls.
The guide information is rich and detailed. Each show is grouped by its title, which contains a brief description of the series. In each of these groupings, available or recorded episodes are grouped by seasons. Each episode contains a fairly detailed synopsis. Programming in other languages, such as French, will have French descriptions and episode synopsis. While great for providing the user with a very visual and detailed description of programming content, the only disadvantage we saw was that sometimes grouping by seasons made it harder to find certain episodes. Ideally, it would have been great to have a setting that would list all episodes in one list. For example, with many episodes of Seinfeld recorded from various seasons, it takes a bit longer to find the “Soup Nazi” episode for playback (Geez, was it season 7, 8 or 9? Guess I’ll have to look through all the pages.). Having the option to also show the episodes as one recorded list and then sort by season or title could have made these pages a bit easier to navigate.
If there was one area of Tablo that we found could use improvements, it was its search functionalities. Currently there is basic categorization such as sports, movies and show premieres. A search function allows to search by title, but it seems that’s about it. This is a bit unfortunate because seeing as the end user is paying good money for the guide subscription and that the guide is so rich and detailed, it would have made sense to allow users to search by things such as actor names, synopsis keywords or dates (i.e. let’s search for Clint Eastwood movies). When asked for comment, the team at Tablo said this is something they may work on improving in future firmware releases.
Tuner Sensitivity
Our testing showed that Tablo is equipped with a very good ATSC digital TV tuner. We noticed that it was fairly sensitive: don’t expect it to pull in extra channels, but it will keep a stable lock on the channels it does receive. Due to the sensitivity of the tuner, you are better off providing a good, clean signal rather than an over-amplified noisy signal, especially in situations where co-channel interference or multipath could be present. We noticed the tuner would sometimes balk at signals if this type of interference was prevalent.
Tablo's tuner is very good, but will not magically solve issues related to antenna performance such as multipath or co-channel interference. As with any sensitive ATSC OTA tuner, use a good quality antenna, aim it properly and ensure distribution of your TV signal is as noise-free as possible.
The unit is completely silent when operating as there are no cooling fans; the internal components are passively cooled using the metal bottom plate as a heat sink. In testing, the unit got quite warm but never exceeded the published value of 48C, with values under stress-testing (streaming to two devices at the same time for prolonged periods) peaking at 46C. If you’re packing Tablo in a tight or filled-to-the-brim cabinet with other electronics that require convection cooling, you may want to make sure the enclosure is properly ventilated for the sake of your other boxes.
Customer Support
Tablo is blessed with a great support team and, in general, a really good customer support system. Besides being available through contact info on their website, the customer support team is also active on Twitter with a dedicated account and Facebook. On top of that, there is a great Tablo community forum available on their website where a Tablo owner can consult the existing knowledge base for common issues, receive updates or simply ask questions to other members. The best part for Canadians? With Tablo being based in Canada, there is excellent support for updating and correcting guide info for Canadian broadcasting chains and Canadian postal codes.
Prices and Where to Buy
There are many different options available to Canadians to purchase Tablo. Best Buy and Future Shop sell Tablo online in Canada. All models can also be bought directly off the Tablo website. Other online retailers such as and may offer better details from time to time. For the uber-frugal, Tablo also sells factory refurbished units on its website at a discount which may make the price-point more interesting for certain people. Shop around and compare shipping fees as prices will vary; and if you are truly interested in owning a Tablo, be sure to follow them on social media as Nuvvyo will have promotions or contests advertised through their Facebook and Twitter accounts.
In general the hardware prices make sense, in particular seeing that the device comes fully loaded without the need to buy additional accessories such as a Slingbox for streaming or other dongles just to access your WiFi network. Whether you go for the 2-tuner or 4-tuner model depends on your viewing habits; if you are a family that watches lots of network and live TV, and/or you will be using Tablo as your primary source of TV you may want to have those extra tuners on the 4-tuner model available. For most casual TV viewers or people that stream specialty programming rather than watch network shows, dual tuners should do the trick.
Now for the big question – what about the subscription fees? Many cordcutters ditched cable because they didn’t like monthly fees, so signing up to pay for guide data seems somewhat contradictory to the cause, no?
Well, first and foremost we do not recommend Tablo without a subscription. One day of guide info is OK, but nothing special considering most OTA stations will sometimes send out almost a week worth of guide info via PSIP (data passed along with the TV signal). Also, being able to only set manual recordings and losing most of the nice Tablo interface features isn’t really setting you up for a great user experience. On top of that, there are many other devices that can do those things and be more const-effective.
The good news is the cost of the subscription is fairly low, it is per user and not per device which means you don’t need to double up your fees if you double-up your hardware and if monthly fees really bother you, a one-shot lifetime subscription is also available. The price of the Tablo subscription is also considerably less than its prime competitor, Tivo, which is generally 3 times more expensive, in particular for its lifetime subscription at a whopping $500 USD.
Tablo is sleek, it's sexy, and you will never look at OTA TV the same way again - but is it right for you?
So what's our recommendation? Well, if you already have a streaming box, the choice as a no brainer – check the number of free channels in your area and see if it’s worth adding some OTA via Tablo. Trust us, your internet streaming cap will thank you. If you’re a new cordcutter, grab yourself a deal on the hardware (Tablo + a HDD + OTT box) and factor the cost of a lifetime membership in the equation. With the nearest option of dual-tuner OTA DVR that can sort of (but not really) match up to Tablo, coming in around $400, you may find it’s worth taking the plunge with Tablo for all the extra features that come with it.
Tablo delivers the goods in terms of overall quality and end-user experience. Tablo performs well and is easy to use, and will only get better with future firmware updates. While the cost is a considerable investment, this product will be a hit with current streamers and new cordcutters alike.
Overall rating: 8.5/10
For more information or to purchase a Tablo unit please visit the Tablo TV website.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Channel Master FLATenna (CM4001HD)

Flat-Out Economical TV Reception

Channel Master is no stranger to antennas with over 65 years of experience in the North American TV industry.  For a company used to successfully delivering high-quality, large, outdoor antennas, the surprising announcement of a new indoor FLATenna model in late August made a few waves for three main reasons:

1)      Channel Master went full tilt into the so-called “thin-tenna” market, already heavily saturated by the likes of the Mohu Leaf, Winegard FlatWave and dozens of imitation antennas.

2)      They put the price at $10US (including free shipping to continental America) whereas the products mentioned above usually retail for three times that amount

3)      The antenna was targeted specifically at people looking to try OTA for the first time. Also, the non-prohibitive price of $10 would be refunded should any users decide to subsequenctly purchase a more powerful CM antenna product or its flagship OTT box, the DVR+

Image courtesy of Channel Master

So how does Channel Master’s foray into the flat antenna market stack up? Have a look based on our testing:

Model: CM4001HD FLATenna
Size: 32.5cm W x 23cm H x 1mm T (12mm at hub) (13” W x 9” H x 1/32” T, ½” hub)   Cable: 6ft

Package includes: FLATenna, English /Spanish/French installation guide, one extra adhesive mounting strip

Output: One female F-type connector at the end of 6ft cable

Pros: Unbeatable price, good build quality, paper thin, reputable manufacturer, surprisingly omni-directional, reasonable performance and as advertised.
Cons: Considering the price and the fact it is credited back if you decide to upgrade… none!

Build Quality

The antenna comes in minimal packaging (clear bag); it was essentially shipped in a padded envelope in our case. Considering that shipping is free, there was not much to complain about and the antenna did not appear to be in any danger of being damaged.

For a product retailing at $10, the build quality exceeds expectations. Our expectation were quite low given that it is priced lower than clone brand name knock-off antennas and we were presently surprised.  The main part of the antenna is reminiscent of a thin plastic document cover, with the hub well –bonded together. The self-adhesive mounting square on the antenna is a high quality 3M product.
The cable is a bit thin in diameter but of good quality and flexibility and properly terminated.

Assembling the Antenna
No assembly is required; the antenna is ready to go out of the package.

The antenna is a sleek matte black with no visible hardware and is uber-thin. The main hub is nicely tapered and there are no ostentatious markings or logos on it besides a tastefully embossed glossy “Channel Master” in the bottom right corner. You can also make out the traces of the antenna pattern if you look closely enough under the right light.


 Side view shows the FLAtenna's razor-thin profile.

The installation instructions are well written with useful tips and proper alignment instructions. The instructions also take the time to promote Channel Master’s outdoor products for improved reception results as well as the merits of the DVR+.

Despite being a “simpler” product, the instructions for the CM4001HD are clear, professional and easy to read / follow.

The self-adhesive mounting square appears to be a semi-reusable 3M product. The paper peels off easily and once pressed in place sticks on well. We were able to remove the antenna for repositioning about three times. In all cases the adhesive mounted firmly and peeled away from the substrates (melamine, a painted wall surface and glass) without leaving any adhesive remnants or damaging the surface. We strongly recommend following the instructions and temporarily mounting the FLATenna with tape during initial positioning and aiming. 
For a small application pressure, considerable more force was required to pull it off. The adhesive square never peeled off the antenna during removal / repositioning, showing good quality bonding. A second “sticky pad” is provided in the event the first one becomes damaged or unusable

Aiming the Antenna
The instructions show that the antenna should be mounted vertically and facing the transmission towers with its flat. We can confirm this is in fact the best scenario we found during testing with the antenna being fairly omnidirectional (roughly 80 degrees beamwidth on the front face).  We found the antenna performed best near the windows and away from other electronic devices, including the TV.

The FLATenna is completely passive and is listed at a decent 6dB of max gain on both VHF-Hi and UHF. The antenna was tested against a baseline main brand indoor passive VHF/UHF antenna available at most major Canadian retail stores. For comparison purposes on signal strength, the values from an outdoor antenna for the same test location are provided.    

Station (RF)
Distance (mi)
Baseline Indoor Antenna ($50)
CM 4001HD FLATenna ($10)
Baseline Outdoor Antenna Setup
No signal
No signal
No signal
No signal
No signal
No signal
No signal
*Unstable reception; image macroblocking and drop-outs

Overall, the CM4001HD pulled in all the locals as advertised and was able to lock in some long-range signals coming from beyond its listed 35 mile range. Very good performance for an antenna of its price range.

Prices and Where to Buy
To date, the CM4001HD FLATenna is only sold from the online CM Store. Shipping to a US address is free of charge, whereas shipping to Canada will about double the price. Even with this shipping, it is still reasonably priced given the price of the competition from domestic sources.

As mentioned above, the price of the antenna is credited back to you (and you get to keep the antenna) should you upgrade to a more powerful antenna or buy the DVR+. So for $20 CDN or less, there isn’t very much to lose.

When Channel Master announced the FLATenna, they announced as part of their press release: “it’s not our intention to build a profitable business model around FLATenna … we want to help people discover free broadcast TV, and if they like the experience we want to introduce them to our DVR+ platform.” This, they have done. In return, consumers get a very reasonably-priced antenna with good local TV performance.

And at $10 retail, Channel Master has essentially crushed the flat antenna market with a product that undermines the established players and knockoff clone products alike.

Final Score: 9.5/10

More information on the FLATenna is available on the ChannelMaster website.