As more of us give up our cable or satellite connections and turn to Internet streaming, we also give up our DVRs, which often came with the subscription. But most of us can still get old-fashioned antenna-based free television, and we still might want to record programs.
Simple.TV 2 offers versatile DVR capabilities with a networked twist. You connect it to your TV antenna (or basic cable), and to your network, but not to your television. To record a program, you go to the Simple.TV website, or launch the Android or iOS app. You can watch a program through the apps and maybe your computer. For full-size television viewing, you can connect a device or a computer to your TV, or use an Apple TV, Chromecast, or Roku.
You’re not even tied to your home. The Simple.TV 2 can stream programs over the Internet, so you can watch it away from home. You can even download programs to watch offline.
But the Simple.TV 2 has some serious shortcomings. Its ethernet-only connectivity limits where you can put it. Like most DVRs, it wastes power unnecessarily. And, at least in my experience, it might fail to stream video to your PC or a Mac.
The real price of the Simple.TV 2
The actual, physical Simple.TV 2 box costs $200. That may seem outrageous compared to its most obvious competitor, the $50 Tivo Roamio OTA.
The box takes up barely any space it’s a lot smaller than a TiVo.
But in the long run, it will cost you less. The Roamio OTA requires a $15-a-month service charge, which comes to $180 a year. Simple.TV’s Premier subscription costs only $50 a year if you buy it with the hardware, or $60 a year if you decide to buy it later. After two years, a Simple.TV 2 will have cost you $300, but the Roamio OTA, $410. You can even get the Simple.TV 2 with Premier service for life for a one-time cost of $350. Tivo doesn’t offer a similar lifetime subscription on the Roamio OTA.
What’s more, you don’t actually need a subscription for the Simple.TV 2. The device works without one, but in a limited way. You won’t be able to automatically record a series, just individual episodes. Also, without a subscription, you’ll be able to stream video over your local network but not over the Internet, and there will be no option to download recordings for offline viewing.
One more caveat: Simple.TV 2 doesn’t come with a hard drive. You’ll have to supply your own external USB drive.
Finding a location and setting it up
You don’t have to put the Simple.TV 2 in the same room as your TV. But it does need to connect to your antenna or basic cable. And, since it lacks Wi-Fi, it also needs ethernet to connect to your router. If you don’t have coaxial cable coming from your antenna or cable service and ethernet connections in the same room, you’ll have a problem. (Luckily, I have these two connections in the same room.)
The Simple.TV box connects to your OTA antenna and/or basic cable, plus ethernet. If you don’t have both of those in the same room, you’ve got a problem. You also need to attach your own external hard drive.
There are multiple solutions to this problem, all of which have their own time-and-money costs. You can run cable through or under the house. You can buy a new TV antenna and keep it in the same room as the router. Or you could buy a Wi-Fi-to-ethernet or Powerline-to-ethernet adapter.
The Simple.TV 2 is small enough to fit almost anywhere. It measures less than 6 inches wide and 5 inches deep, and stands a little over an inch tall. The only connectors on the back are power, ethernet, USB, and coaxial. The small but noisy fan, visible if you look down into the box, spins annoyingly loud most of the time.
Browsing my local channel offerings on an iPad.
Once everything is plugged in, you set the Simple.TV up through a webpage wizard. For the most part, it’s simple and obvious, but I ran across a confusing problem when trying to set up channels. For the provider, the Simple.TV 2 gave me two options: “Local Over the Air Broadcast” and “Local Over the Air Broadcast.” I figured I could pick either one. But the first option found only stations I didn’t get. The second one, on the other hand, was perfect.
Recording and watching what you record
Whether you use an app or your browser, it’s easy to set up recordings. The Guide offers the usual channels/time grid, with a title search. The mobile apps also offer ways to browse through genres for something you might want to watch. When you select a show, you get options to record that episode, or all future episodes.
Setting up recordings is a piece of cake.
When you want to watch a show, you go to the My Shows section of the app or website. There’s a bit of name inconsistency here in the iOS app, you have to tap the word Library .
In either app, the program comes up without fail. But I ran into a brick wall when I tried to watch a show on a computer. Using both Chrome in Windows 7 and Firefox on a Mac, all I got was a black video frame with a circling wait icon and the word “Loading.” This continued until I gave up, from 6 to 8 minutes after clicking Watch. I was successful on another PC, also running Windows 7 and Chrome.
Filters in the sidebar make it easy to zero in on content like sports and movies, and the settings help you fine-tune Simple.TV’s recording behavior.
A Simple.TV product manager could not explain the cause of the problem, saying, “This isn’t something that is common.” He was not able to reconstruct the problem in the lab. At this time, the Simple.TV 2 uses Silverlight for browser streaming, although the rep says the company is “looking at moving away from” that technology. I had no problem running Microsoft’s Silverlight demo on one of the problem machines.
But what about watching the recorded shows on your TV? Both mobile apps support Chromecast, so you can easily go big screen if you’ve bought one of Google’s $35 streaming sticks. There’s also a Simple.TV channel for Roku. Both worked flawlessly and easily for me. The iOS apps can also AirPlay the content to an Apple TV.
To download a show, first you click the green arrow…
Downloading a show to your computer can be confusing. When you click a program in My Shows, you get a download icon next to the Watch button. Click it, and you get three quality options: Mobile, Tablet, and Full. Then you wait a few minutes while “Our video elves are hand stitching your video.”
and then you pick your quality in the pop-up shown here at left. But nothing appears to happen. You have to click the download arrow again, then you’ll see the “Ready for download” link, shown here at right.
But when the “elves” are finished, you’re back where you started, without a downloaded file. The trick: Click the download icon again. You’ll get the same options, but below them, in tiny letters, you’ll find downloading links. The downloaded videos, in MP4 format, play just fine.
Power consumption: Good when on, wasteful when off
When recording or playing a show, the Simple.TV burns a tad under 12 watts. That’s excellent and admirable.
You can watch your recorded shows on your tablet or phone, and send them to your TV via Chromecast, the Roku channel, or by AirPlay-ing from an iOS device to an Apple TV.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t burn much less when it has nothing to do about 9 to 12 watts. Not that it never does nothing. There’s no option to put it into standby mode. The connected hard drive is always spinning, and the fan usually is too. I suspect those add a lot to the wasted power. My tests estimated that it would burn more than 8 kilowatt-hours over a month of no real use.
And you can’t just pull the plug. By its nature, a DVR can’t be shut down completely and still do its job. It must be able to record at odd hours, and in the case of the Simple.TV, also to respond to network commands. But when it’s not working, all it really needs is enough power to know the time and to monitor the network. That doesn’t take 9 to 12 watts.
To be fair, this is a common problem with DVRs. I’ve never tested one that didn’t burn excessive power when not in actual use. And many of them burn far more than 12 watts.
If you’ve given up cable, and you’re looking for a way to timeshift broadcast television, the Simple.TV 2 makes a very good choice. At least it does if you can get Ethernet and an antenna connection in the same room, and you don’t intend to stream recorded shows to your computer. You can always download them.