When it comes to over-the-air TV, you've got a couple of choices. One is to run an antenna directly into a TV with a tuner. That's fine, and it should work great. For that single TV.
This is the 21st Century, though, and we have better options. Specifically, we've got tuners that will take that OTA signal and fire it out over your Wifi network, enabling you to watch OTA television over multiple things at once. Two TVs. A TV and a tablet. Phones. Computers. Whatever. Really the only limitation is the signal itself and the number of tuners you're working it.
When it comes to this sort of thing, there are a couple major players in the space. There's HDHomerun from Silicon Dust, which is the more basic of the two. It takes that OTA signal and lets you watch it all the places. It's got an optional cloud-based DVR if you need to record things.
And then there's Tablo. It does the same thing, but also throws in a (sort-of) built-in DVR — as in you'll be storing video on a local hard drive, and not the cloud.
Which one's right for you? Let's rap.
HDHomerun vs. Tablo: Price, and do you need DVR?
HDHomerun is less expensive than Tablo. But these are two different products. Let's start with the simplest question. Do you need DVR? And, specifically, do you need a locally based DVR?
Tablo is far more expensive, but ridiculously easy to use as a DVR.
If you're going to want to record local, over-the-air TV, then Tablo is the way to go. Local DVR is going to be easier than cloud-based DVR, because you don't have to worry about streaming all that data. That means fewer possibilities for hiccups, and less data used.
And that means Tablo wins this round, hands down. But a quick caveat: Of the three Tablo boxes, only one — the Tablo Dual OTA DVR — actually has a hard drive built in. And even then it's only 64 gigabytes. Your smartphone may well have more storage. All three boxes can handle an external hard drive, though. So in addition to the price of the box, you might well have to pay for a hard drive, if you don't have one laying around. (And we're talking an actual hard drive, not a flash drive.) The good news? External hard drives are pretty inexpensive these days.
Another big caveat is that the transcoding definitely means the video quality takes a hit. You'll notice.
With that out of the way, let's look at the pricing for Tablo:
- The basic Tablo Dual Lite with two tuners (so you can watch on two devices at once) and no built-in storage is $139 at Best Buy.
- A Tablo Dual with two tuners and 64GB of storage built in is $208 at Amazon.
- A Tablo with four tuners and no built-in storage is $252 at Amazon.
- Tablo Engine App, Tuner Adapter (works with NVIDIA Shield TV for DVR storage) is $69 at Amazon.
And here's the pricing for HDHomerun:
- HDHomerun Connect Duo (two tuners) is $99 at Amazon.
- HDHomerun Connect Quatro (four tuners) is $149 at Amazon.
- HDHomerun Connect (previous generation, two tuners) is $64 at Amazon.
- HDHomerun Extend (two tuners, transcodes to h.264 so it's easier on your network) is $179 at Amazon.
HDHomerun has a DVR subscription license — $35 a year — that works with network attached storage devices as well as hard disk drives. (Tablo doesn't work with NAS boxes.)
Using HDHomerun as a local DVR isn't anywhere near as easy as Tablo.
(Also: HDHomerun is coming out with the Connect Duo+ later this year, and it'll sport a 250GB hard drive for recording. The price hasn't been announced.)
But here's the thing: There are a number of ways to hook up a DVR with HDHomerun. You can tie it directly into a Windows box. Or into network attached storage (aka NAS). Or — and this probably would be the route I go — you can use the cloud-based DVR with the excellent Channels app.
I was not impressed at all by HDHomerun's support pages when it comes to setting up a DVR. I spent the better part of a day trying to configure my NAS box, and I'm a fairly literate nerd. The bottom line is if you have to ask a consumer to SSH into anything in order to get it to work, it's not a consumer-level product. Period.
The guides, and the subscription
Once upon a time — way back when over-the-air TV was still really popular and cable boxes were barely a thing — we had to watch TV without having any real idea of what was on. At least not without consulting TV Guide, or the one that used to be included in newspapers. That wasn't a big deal when there weren't too many channels. But as our options grew and the technology progressed, on-screen guides became a thing. And they're still a thing with OTA TV today.
Here's the thing: HDHomerun has a free guide, with 24 hours of information. You buy the box, install the app, and it just works. You can pony up $35 a year for HDHomerun's DVR service, which includes a two-week guide, or not.
Another option for HDHomerun is to use the excellent Channels app (available on Apple TV and iOS, Android and Android TV, and Amazon's Fire TV). It's $25 for Android, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV, $15 for iOS.
Tablo also has an on-screen guide, of course. And it's excellent. It's also free for the first month, with a optional subscription available after that. It's $5 a month, $50 a year, or $150 for a one-time, lifetime fee. (And you can have multiple Tablo boxes tied to a single subscription, which is nice.) If you decide to go the free route, you'll still get a 1-day guide, and you'll still have be able to record everything. But you'll lose show info and art, advanced recording features (like recording by series), and out-of-home streaming.
That's an additional expense on already not-inexpensive hardware. But it's also very good.
In order of guide awesomeness, I'd say Tablo wins, then the Channels app, and then HDHomerun's included guide.
The bottom line
Let's just make this simple, shall we?
If all you care about is watching occasional over-the-air TV, HDHomerun is the way to go. It's less expensive and easy enough to set up, and plenty easy to use. Plus the video quality is better.
If you're at all serious about recording broadcast content, go ahead and get Tablo. Yes, it's more expensive. (Don't forget you'll need an external hard drive!) But it's ridiculously easy to set up. The on-screen guide is gorgeous, and it's easy to record and play back shows.
HDHomerun is largely the simplest of the three options. The basic Duo box has two tuners and uses your home network to share the OTA content across pretty much any device, save for Roku. There's a cloud DVR available for $35 a year (and you can set up local storage, but it's not easy). There's also a four-tuner box, another for slower networks, and one for CableCard use.
And new boxes are coming in 2018 — one with 250GB of DVR storage built in, and a six-tuner box for CableCards.
Tablo is an easier solution if you want to have a DVR with local storage. Well, sort of easier. The cheapest of the three products is meant to plug in to an NVIDIA Shield TV, using it for storage. The full boxes — one has two tuners, and the most expensive has four — require you to provide your own hard drive on which you'll save OTA content. Drives aren't expensive these days, but it's still an extra cost.
It's not a bad box at all — but it transcodes the video stream on the fly, which means laggy channels and lower video quality. But it's simple to set up.
In other words, this is what you want if you just have to have easy DVR access with an over-the-air antenna.
The best over-the-air antennas
Who doesn't like free TV, right? And it turns out that in 2018 there's still plenty to watch — free and legal — if you've got a decent enough over-the-air antenna. For the cost of a decent meal at the Sizzler you can get an antenna that pulls in stations from dozens of miles away, piping free 1080i content straight into your TV.
All you have to do is pick the right one for you.
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