For consumers trying to cut the cord and rely solely on the Internet for television entertainment, there are still some issues. Mainly, the problem is that local channels aren't accessible through existing streaming methods, outside of the some clips or news shorts from a website. Are there other options out there for people that still want to see their local news or sporting events without maintaining a cable subscription? Yes, thanks to Simple.tv. But does the device work in a manner that is consumer-friendly, or does it cause more problems than its worth?
Simple.tv is a device that accomplishes a few things in a small box. Acting in part as a receiver and a digital video recorder (DVR), the 5.63 x 4.88 x 1.25-inch box becomes a central device for those that want to access aerial television from any device in the home. The black device allows only four connections, all of which are important to its operation. Power, coax, USB and Ethernet all play a role in how signal is recorded and delivered. The lightweight box has a fan to cool it, but it gets quite loud.
Instead of acting like a typical DVR, Simple.tv is closer to a Slingbox, since it allows television shows to be viewed from anywhere with an Internet connection. It's somewhat different, though, as it can capture over-the-air signals that are picked up with an antenna without altering the content. It doesn't have the capability to capture satellite signals as it stands. The Simple.tv isn't a device like an Aereo, either, that would use a bunch of small antennas to connect services together. Instead, it uses an single home-based antenna, which can be positioned indoors or outdoors, a connection to a home network, and some kind of USB storage to act as a television server.
By capturing over-the-air signals, users can record shows on-the-fly or through a scheduler. It doesn't act like the Slingbox-integrated Hopper system through Dish Network either, as the television shows are captured as they air. This means that all advertisements are in place. Users can still fast-forward through commercials, but it isn't automatically done.
Installation of the device is as easy as connecting all of the cables and then running a wizard. Simple.tv recommends that everything is attached prior to the power being plugged into the device, which the wizard will indicate in the instructions. The process is fairly simple, as it walks users through the entire process of setting up an account, formatting the USB storage and scanning for television stations in the area.
If there is going to be an issue using Simple.tv, it's going to come when adding in the television channels in the area. To be blunt, if a consumer interested in the device doesn't have much in the way of antenna signal or channels available, it may not be worth it. The Simple.tv website offers a tool to check for stations available in the area through zip code, but it isn't a guarantee of signal.
When setting up the device, the user's zip code is used to find which channels are available, then checks if the signal is being picked up on the channel it's indicated to be on. A false zip code can't be used to pick up channels from other areas either, as the Simple.tv is using the antenna connection to check. If a potential user lives in an odd market or has physical issues to overcome to achieve signal, it could result in a frustrating experience. Without the signal, the device doesn't really do much. In the end, an antenna could still require adjusting to pick up a desired channel. However, it does work with digital cable (ClearQAM) for those that have a subscription.
On the note of a subscription, Simple.tv offers two ways in which to use the device. The first is to use the free method, but it comes with limitations. The free service allows users to watch and pause HD video on any machine connected to the same network as the device, as well as recording on-the-fly. With a subscription, that's sold in yearly or lifetime packages, up to five people can stream from anywhere. They are also given access to the guide in the Simple.tv web portal, and can schedule recordings. A free trial of the premium service is offered when an account is created. It's recommended to try the trial to see if the scheduled recording is a feature that is needed, especially if a user is accustomed to DVR convenience.
Recorded or streaming content can be viewed in a number of ways, including through a browser, Android and iOS apps, Chromecast or Roku. Recorded episodes can be downloaded in three different formats for mobile, tablets or full HD. This gives Simple.tv owners some flexibility in how they watch shows. A browser appears to be the easiest option, as Chromecast still depends on an app to send it over to the device. Roku is said to have its own channel to connect to, according to the company. The iOS app has a few issues, especially if there are more than one Simple.tv in the home.
Unfortunately, there was an issue with the first device we tested, but a replacement worked without issue - other than some signal hiccups, most likely tied to the area in which it was being reviewed. Since the first device was registered to the account, it was the only Simple.tv detected by the app at first. There doesn't appear to be a way in the app or the web portal to remove it, either. After playing with it for a few minutes, it did finally detect the active device. It didn't help that the app crashed twice within 10 minutes on an iPhone 4s.
The app itself doesn't feel as polished as the web portal, even though the same information is there. It feels responsive other than the detection issue, but it feels like it isn't completely refined. Between using the mismatched promotional images from shows and the lag time to load them in the live option, it's not the best visual experience. Shows can still be accessed and triggered to record from the app. The only option that appears to be missing is the ability to download a previously-recorded episode.
Image quality of the shows will depend greatly on the grade of the signal coming in. Even with less-than-optimal reception in the testing area, the shows, streaming and recorded, looked as good as they would have on Hulu. However, this means that if the signal breaks up, viewers are going to see it. This translates to a recording as well.
When accessing a show the signal strength is indicated, or users are informed that the signal is too weak to pick up. There appears to be a threshold that the device must be required to reach in order to connect. After plugging the same antenna into a television when the weak signal notification was received, the station in question was able to be viewed. There is also a catch with the channels, as trying to scan for new ones could result in existing ones being lost.
The Simple.tv is a great device for consumers that don't want to shell out to a cable company, either to rent a DVR or to even subscribe to services. It fits a niche need in the media viewing market. If antenna signals are good enough, then consumers should be able to find a use for the small TV server. If not, then the Simple.tv won't be of any use.
At $150 through Amazon, that's a decent investment for something that might not work as intended. It isn't necessarily the fault of the Simple.tv, but rather a multitude of factors relating to signal. Simple.tv may not be the cheapest option, as consumers still have to provide storage and an antenna, but it gives users some flexibility that isn't tied into one spot in the home.