Cutting the Cord

A few days ago my wife noticed that our local CBS station was missing from Direct TV. It seems that Nexstar, the troll that owns distribution rights to CBS (and other local stations) is holding AT&T up for ransom in order to get more money out of them for the right to carry the local stations. While we do have an antenna, and can bypass the satellite to receive CBS’s programming, we can no longer use the DVR feature on our Direct TV receiver. We were planning on cutting Direct TV’s cord when our contract ends sometime next year, at which time we’d get an OTA DVR. Thanks to Nexstar, I decided to get one now.

There are a few different options out there for OTA DVRs. Being a geek, I had thought of building my own MythTV box. There are several different Linux compatible TV tuners for this, with the SiliconDust HdHomeRun being the current favorite. However the Mythbuntu Linux distribution is no longer being supported, making it necessary to configure the Mythtv packages around one of the Ubuntu or Mint distros. Then I’d need to build up a micro ITX computer box to run the back end, as well as get the required tuner. An off the shelf solution wouldn’t be as versatile as MythTV, but I can always revisit the idea later.

Mention TV DVR’s and one of the first ones that comes to mind is Tivo. Tivo is a decent product, but it’s no longer the only game in town here. A quick Google search narrowed the options down to two different products, Amazon’s Recast, and Tablo. Both of these products are available in two or four tuner versions (meaning the ability to record two or four different channels at the same time). Both use a networked streaming connection to your TV, no HDMI cords. This of course, means that you need either a streaming device connected to your TV to watch the output of the DVR, or to use a ‘smart’ TV with a suitable app installed.

If you go with the Recast, you’ll need an Amazon FireTV or Fire Stick as the Recast ONLY works with Amazon branded equipment. The Tablo will connect to the FireTV / Fire Stick, but will also play with Roku streaming devices, Samsung and LG smart TV’s, Android and Apple devices, and computer web browsers.

As we have a Samsung 65” TV in one room, and a Fire Stick in another, the Tablo was the logical choice. We ordered a second Fire Stick for a third TV.

We got the Tablo Quad, which is the four tuner model. This is the latest and greatest version, which can use WiFi-AC, and has a built in SATA compartment to install the required hard disk. You can use any 2.5” hard disk (rotating or SSD) up to 8tb, but it must be 7mm or less thick to fit inside the unit. External USB hard disks can also be used (USB 2.0 or 3.0 are OK). I selected a Seagate 2tb Barracuda drive.

Setup was easy, I accessed the DVR from my Linux PC by setting my browser to my.tablotv.com to access the web app. From here I was able to scan for available channels, register the unit with Tablo, and start my 30 day free trial of their on line schedule subscription.
Yes, just like Tivo, they do charge you a monthly fee to access the schedule info (though if you’re OK with manually entering record schedules by channel, date, time, once-repeat, you can live without the subscription).   I’d have to pay for a similar subscription to schedulesdirect.org if I built a MythTV box.   Tablo does give you a discount for buying the subscription for a full year, or you can pay them $150 once and you’re good for the rest of your life.

The unit seems to work nicely. The FireTV app is rather slow, it takes about 4 minutes to start up after opening the app (including the amount of time the Fire Stick takes to boot up after tuning on the TV, selecting the HDMI port, and hitting the home button on the Fire Stick remote). But this is a version 1 Fire Stick, hopefully the new version 2 I have on order will be faster (dual core vs quad core). The Samsung TV app is much faster, it starts almost instantly, ditto for the web app on the computer. Once you select a channel to watch in the live TV section, there is a 5 to 7 second buffer delay before play starts (regardless of the device used to connect). Video quality is good, but not all of your OTA stations are in HD (mix of 480p, 720p, and 1080i). The default setting of the Tablo is 720p, but you can bump this to 1080 at the cost of eating up more disk space.

So FSCK-you Nexstar!  I wonder if I can get a reduction on my DirectTV bill by asking them to drop all of my local channels, since I don’t need them anymore to get them?

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