Tablo Dual Lite Review: Excellent value, Minimal setup
When it comes to picking an OTA DVR, a couple of stumbling blocks remain for would-be cord cutters.
How do you pick the right TV antenna and OTA DVR?
Cord Cutting is now saturating the mainstream. But there is still no one-size-fits-all solution for recording local NBC, ABC, FOX or PBS stations.
The only real distinction under the hood is that the Quad records up to four programs at once. The Dual can do half that. Both the Dual Lite and Quad requires you to add your own external hard drive for storing recordings.
It’s been a little over a year since Tablo Dual Lite debuted. There has been a number of software updates in recent months that makes the Dual Lite worth revisiting. They include a commercial-skip feature, and an expanded channel guide support for Roku.
Compatibility and picking a hard drive
Tablo DVRs work with pretty much any streaming device — Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, NVIDIA Shield, Xiaomi Mi Box, XBox One and Chromecast. Tablo says its DVRs are compatible with most LG Smart TVs (webOS 3.0+), Samsung Smart TVs (TIZEN OS), Smart TVs using Android TV software and Amazon Fire TV Edition Smart TVs.
(Check the app store of your streaming device or Smart TV to make sure a Tablo app is available.)
During my review, I used a 500GB hard drive that I plucked from an old desktop and put it in a Rosewill hard drive enclosure. (My cost for the hard drive case: about $22.50.) Tablo says you can add up to a 8TB hard drive.
5 facts about Tablo Dual Lite
- Records two programs simultaneously
- Removes commercials
- 14 day channel guide
- Widespread compatibility
- 802.11 ac WiFi
How I tested the Tablo Dual Lite
During my three weeks of testing, I watched live TV and recordings on a Roku TV, an Amazon Fire TV, my Android smartphone (Razer Phone 2) and a Nebula Capsule II projector, which operates on Android TV software.
I’ve been using some competing OTA DVR setups for the last couple of years. I own a couple of HDHomeRun tuners and a Fire TV Recast. This is the first time I’ve tested a Tablo product. Tablo sent me the Dual Lite for this review.
My WiFi system is pretty inexpensive: a Netgear R6400 router with a Tenda Mesh Network set up as a bridge network.
A primer on how Tablo works
In case you’re unschooled in the ways of the TV antenna: Local NBC, CBS and FOX stations broadcast digital signals in either 1080i or 720p that are free to tap into. These over-the-air signals are uncompressed, so the picture quality will look much better than what your cable TV provider delivers.
The Tablo Dual Lite has two television tuners. These tuners receive digital over-the-air (OTA) signals from the TV antenna plugged into the back of the Tablo. So you can record two programs at once, or watch one channel while recording another.
But a Tablo has another capability that makes it pretty appealing. It takes OTA broadcasts and makes them available on your home WiFi network. You use the Tablo app to watch live TV or recordings on a streaming device, smartphone or tablet.
You don’t need to pay for an extra Tablo box if you want to watch your channels on a second television. Just download the Tablo app to your Roku, Fire TV or whatever you use for a streaming device. Your channels and recordings are all there.
A Tablo doesn’t need to be near your television, or WiFi router. You can put the Tablo in a spot where you get the best antenna reception instead. Tablo isn’t alone with its ability to make free live TV available over a home WiFi network. HDHomeRun tuners and the Fire TV Recast do the same.
Setting up the Tablo Dual Lite is pretty easy because you’re connecting just a few things into the back.
Plug in the hard drive to the USB port. Connect the TV antenna to the jack. There’s a power adapter you need to plug in. And as far as Internet, you can either plug in an Ethernet cord from your router, or you can use WiFi.
I used an app from my Android smartphone to complete the set-up process. But if you don’t have a smartphone handy, just hop on a PC and head over to TabloTV.com to finish up with a channel scan.
During the setup process, you will also need to download the Tablo app to your streaming device. As far as TV antennas go, I used a ClearStream Eclipse . You can read my review of the Best Indoor TV Antennas to see why.
Using the Tablo app: Setting up recordings
The Tablo app is self explanatory as soon as you open it up. A blue column on the left side of the screen details your choices: Live TV, recordings, upcoming Prime Time events, TV shows, movies and sports.
The live TV section shows a channel guide familiar to anyone who has ever used a cable or satellite box. I used this for casual channel surfing.
I set up recordings a bunch of shows while perusing the sections showing Prime Time TV, Movies and Sports. The really nice thing about this interface is that you can quickly drill down on what shows are available on a channel by channel basis. So if you know you favorite TV show is on NBC, but you’re unsure of when it’s on, no worries. Tablo will let you filter prime time shows by channel. Same goes for sporting events and shows that are premiering.
There is a lot to watch, and being able to search by program or channel makes it easy to quickly track down what you want to record.
The NBA Finals on ABC, a MLB game on FOX, the Nightly News with Lester Holt on NBC, and Austin City Limits on PBS were just a small number of programs that I chose to record.
Before you start picking out recordings, you will want to choose the picture quality of your recordings under settings. To get to settings, click on the word Tablo above the live TV section.
Under settings, you can decide what kind of picture quality to set for viewing and recording.
I have a pretty solid WiFi setup. So I set my recordings at the highest quality possible — 720p at 60 frames per second, or 1080i.
Recordings can be set to delete automatically, or you can keep them until your hard drive is full. Zats Not Funny published a guide last year on how to offload Tablo recordings. I didn’t try this, but it’s an interesting project for anyone who wants to keep recordings long term.
Performance and Picture Quality
Being able to fast forward and rewind to a particular point in a show is simple to navigate because of the preview thumbnail that shows you where you are at in the recording.
Once I started watching live TV, I kept on cruising through a smaller version of the channel guide to see what else was on. Just press the up or down button on your remote to get the mini-guide to pop up on the left side of the screen.
Overall, I was very happy with the picture quality of my recordings and live TV. Tablo added support for Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound about a year ago. And the audio piping through my sound bar was excellent. (Just be sure your streaming device or TV supports surround sound as well. If it doesn’t, then you’ll need to disable it under settings to get audio.)
While watching on a Roku TV, I noticed the picture quality is not quite as crisp as plugging an antenna directly into your TV. But the difference is so small that most people won’t be able to tell the difference — especially people who are transitioning from watching local stations on cable.
What’s the slight difference? Tablo DVRs can’t display interlaced channels at 1080i or 480i at 60 frames per second. For the trained eye, it can be slightly noticeable during fast-moving sporting events. Most people aren’t going to recognize the difference.
I was really impressed with Tablo’s mobile app. Being able to watch OTA TV in my backyard with a smartphone is a true pleasure. It’s something that I’ve enjoyed for a while with other OTA DVRs.
Tablo’s mobile app is polished and delivers a high quality image that’s bright and clear. I had zero issues with stutters or lag. It’s great to be able to catch up on the weather, news or a ball game when I’m outside grilling or away from a TV. If you subscribe to Tablo’s guide data, you can also watch TV outside of your home.
One other cool thing: While testing out the Tablo Dual Lite, I was also reviewing a new portable projector called the Nebula Capsule II. The Capsule II operates on Android TV software. So I figured, what the heck, let’s see if I can watch some OTA channels on the projector.
I tuned into Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals and felt like I was out on the town somewhere catching the game. Being able to watch free, live television on a 100” screen is on par with drinking free beer. It’s really that good.
Tablo Channel Guide
There are two ways you can use a Tablo: with or without a subscription to its channel guide data.
Without a subscription, you’ll still get the live TV channel grid. But non-subscribers only get one day of data.
Going with just the basic version guide data means you’ll lose the dedicated menus for sports, movies and TV shows. You won’t have access to Tablo Connect, a feature that lets you watch recordings outside of your home.
Searching by genre, new programs and premieres will also be out along with cover art. Essentially, a lot of the polish and fine tuning on the menus will be gone. It will not limit your ability to record whatever you want.
Subscribers to Tablo’s guide data service pay $4.99 per month, $49.99 per year or you can get a lifetime pass for $149.99.
If you upgrade to a new Tablo down the road, the subscription sticks with you. So you’re not into a cycle of paying again and again. Tablo also lets you cancel and rejoin at will. There are no sticky contracts, hidden fees or commitments familiar to cable TV subscribers.
Tablo’s newest ability to skip commercials within recordings is pretty nice, but not yet perfect.
The feature debuted in April and remains in beta.
Tablo says that commercial skip works for the majority of programs. The commercial removal process happens after a recording is complete. I found a number of instances where the feature didn’t work, or said that commercial skip wasn’t available. This is a brand new feature that just rolled out. So I anticipate that commercial skip will only get better with time.
Competing OTA DVRs
For most people fleeing from cable TV or satellite TV, a Tablo Dual Lite is an excellent piece of hardware for watching and recording live over-the-air channels. Being able to watch live TV on a smartphone, iPad or even the right projector will add a lot of value to your entertainment setup.
If you’ve already figured out how to connect your TV to a Roku, Fire TV or Apple TV, adding a Tablo will be just as easy.
The channel guide is self-explanatory. And if you decide to subscribe to Tablo’s channel guide , it will reveal movies, TV shows or sporting events that you may not be aware of otherwise.
Here are a couple of things to consider.
Roku users: The Tablo really feels like the perfect fit for Roku users. The Tablo app was responsive and took only seconds to pull me into the main menu. Once I started watching TV, I forgot that I was actually using a streaming device and DVR. That’s really the biggest compliment I can give to a piece of hardware. If you’re not distracted by the hardware, then you’re really enjoying your TV.
Fire TV users: If you’re already heavily invested in Fire TV or Fire Sticks around your home, a Fire TV Recast is going to make more sense. The entry-level Recast is a dual-tuner DVR, comes with a 500GB internal and requires no subscription for a channel guide. The Recast’s channel guide also integrates OTA channels with live feeds from Amazon Channels, and a few live streaming services. They include Philo, PlayStation Vue, Hulu with Live TV and the free service Pluto TV. The Fire TV Recast comes in two models with either two or four tuners.
For the OTA purist, who can only stand for 60 frames per second on channels broadcasting at 1080i, a HDHomeRun and Plex Media Server setup might be more satisfying.
Advantages of Tablo Dual Lite
The Tablo Dual Lite has advanced quite a bit in the last year thanks to a number of software updates. Commercial skip, the in-picture channel guide and 5.1 surround demonstrates that Tablo is investing in customers who already own their devices. I’m impressed with any company that continues to improve a product that I already own compared to one that’s trying to sell me new hardware every year.
Buying an OTA DVR with an internal hard drive usually comes at a higher cost.
The Dual Lite gives you flexibility and some potential cost savings on that front. You decide how much storage you want by adding your own external hard drive. I ended up using a hard drive that I had around the house, and so far, I don’t plan on unplugging it or the Tablo Dual Lite anytime soon.
MENTIONED IN THIS REVIEW:
Founder and Editor of The Cord Cutting Report. Before launching the site in 2016, he worked for more than two decades as a staff writer or correspondent for a number of daily newspapers, including The Boston Globe. His enthusiasm for tech began with the Atari 2600. Follow @james_kimble