Simple.TV: A DVR for a Connected World
We were recently asked what DVR we would recommend for someone who wanted to cut the cord or simply connect a standalone DVR without paying additional fees to their cable or satellite company. We struggled to find anything we could enthusiastically recommend. But we had overlooked this year’s Best of CES Home Theater Winner: Simple.TV. At $149 it seems to fit the bill exactly.
The Simple.TV set top box is a single-tuner DVR that plays back recorded content via 1080p HD video streaming throughout your home. The single tuner supports ATSC digital broadcasts or Clear QAM basic cable. It doesn’t have any built-in storage, so you have to add your own USB hard drive to hold recorded content. That’s both a good thing a a bad thing; you can’t record out of the box, but you can expand storage at will.
The device is a fairly small white box that appears to be slightly larger than an Apple TV but not quite as big as a Logitech Revue. It doesn’t support WiFi, but we assume the potential is there in the future via the USB port. For some reason it has two Ethernet jacks, perhaps functioning as a local hub so you still have an Ethernet connection available for another device if you need it, but we aren’t sure. As an added bonus, it actually includes a mini digital antenna that works within 10 miles of most broadcast towers.
Playback for Simple.TV recorded content is done using your favorite video streaming box. There’s a native app for the Roku and iPad and they’re working on the HTML5 front end that will allow you to access your shows using Boxee, Google TV or pretty much and device with an HTML5 compliant browser. It supports adaptive streaming to ensure best quality on any connection in the home.
At $149 the Simple.TV is a very cost effective way to add live video playback to an otherwise Internet only player like a Roku or Google TV. Live TV is the one huge feature we constantly come back to as the missing piece we need before we can truly cut the cord. The one gotcha is that to get the features you really want, like electronic program guide and the ability to record shows automatically, you have to pay a $4.99 month fee to upgrade to Premier service. Certainly less expensive than cable service, though.
We’d like to see Simple.TV add a few features, or maybe introduce a slightly more advanced, higher priced unit to address what we see as some shortcomings in the first release. First of all, it only has one tuner. Ideally you’d want to have at least two so you can record multiple shows at once. Simple.TV offers the solution of putting multiple units on your network to add more tuners. But that is a somewhat expensive and heavy handed solution, plus you’ll need more hard drives for each unit.
Another great add would be a CableCARD version that allows you to record even the encrypted content from your Cable subscription. This would provide a nice compromise for many cable subscribers. You could eliminate all the DVR and set top box fees but still have access to the live, cable-only content like ESPN and CNN. Hopefully soon channels like ESPN, and Fox Sports will allow you to get access to their content via the Internet for a small monthly fee, allowing all of us to build our own a la carte systems.
The Simple.TV website claims support for 1080p streaming, but there’s a serious lack of technical details along with that. According to an article at GigaOM.com, they’re testing 5 Mbps for their highest quality 1080p stream. That’s good, but not great. If it has to go over Ethernet, and not over the Internet (at least not yet), we’d like to see a bit more bandwidth used for the stream. There’s also no mention of audio support. Hopefully it’ll have support for 5.1 surround.
Along the lines of “nice to have,” access to your content via the Internet, and built in support for Internet video apps like Hulu and Netflix would both be big pluses. Since all of the boxes you can play Simple.TV recordings back on already support the Internet apps, that probably isn’t that big of a deal, but the ability to access your recorded content from anywhere would be nice.
There isn’t much you can do with the Simple.TV that you can’t already do with a plethora of other devices, but Simple.TV really appears to live up to its name. It doesn’t require a Mac or PC, so there’s less IT required to set it up. That also makes it a less expensive solution. It also has a lower monthly fees than other options, but it doesn’t quite stack up, feature-wise, with many of those more expensive units like TiVo. But if you want to cut the cord and are looking for a good, low cost DVR solution to get your broadcast TV fix, Simple.TV will be worth a look when it ships this Spring.
In our example of cord cutting from Episode 518, we could save a bit of money per room by using a Roku instead of an AppleTV. But we’d actually need to spend a bit more money upfront to get enough Simple.TV boxes to provide the equivalent number of tuners and the hard drives to store recordings. All in all, the Simple.TV solution would probably be slightly more expensive upfront. But monthly the Simple.TV would be much less expensive, dropping the fees from $50 for TiVO to $5 (or maybe $15 or $20 if you can’t share one Simple.TV premier subscription with multiple tuner boxes, we couldn’t find an answer to that question on the website).
Posted by The HT Guys, March 8, 2012 11:45 PM
About The HT GuysThe HT Guys, Ara Derderian and Braden Russell, are Engineers who formerly worked for the Advanced Digital Systems Group (ADSG) of Sony Pictures Entertainment. ADSG was the R&D unit of the sound department producing products for movie theaters and movie studios.
Two of the products they worked on include the DCP-1000 and DADR-5000. The DCP is a digital cinema processor used in movie theaters around the world. The DADR-5000 is a disk-based audio dubber used on Hollywood sound stages.
ADSG was awarded a Technical Academy Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2000 for the development of the DADR-5000. Ara holds three patents for his development work in Digital Cinema and Digital Audio Recording.
Every week they put together a podcast about High Definition TV and Home Theater. Each episode brings news from the A/V world, helpful product reviews and insights and help in demystifying and simplifying HDTV and home theater.