One of the best things about streaming services like Netflix is that you can watch them anywhere: on your TV at home, on your phone during the commute, or even on your PC at work (hey, I won't tell if you won't).
Basic and even mid-tier cable packages, by comparison, still force many viewers to set an alarm just to catch the evening's episode of Jeopardy. Sure, broadcasters like Comcast and Time Warner now provide rented DVR boxes to customers, but accessing that content on a device besides your TV is not a high priority. I'll take Inconvenient for $800, Alex.
Cable's slow demise comes alongside the rise of more convenient streaming services that give users access to content from multiple locations (and allow for the ever-popular binge-watching). But with the recent ruling that Aereo's middle-man broadcasting service is illegal, it seems like over-the-air free HDTV is doomed to the realm of "be on the couch at 8pm sharp or else."
Enter Simple.TV, a $200 personal DVR box that captures over-the-air broadcasts and stores them on a hard drive. Setting it up is, ahem, quite simple. You'll need an antenna (like the Mohu Leaf, about $70 on Amazon), an external hard drive, and an ethernet (LAN) connection. Then just make an account online and you're done. Your account communicates with the actual DVR box to pull available channels and programs, and you can schedule recordings right in the browser.
Now you're probably thinking, "So I get, what, three channels?" Not so. Like most of the rest of the world, over-the-air (terrestrial) TV broadcasts are still very much alive and kickin' in the USA. On Simple.TV's website, you can plug in your address to get an idea of which channels you'll receive. I plugged in my zip code and found that I've apparently had access to about 15 networks—including NBC, FOX, CBS, PBS, and ABC—for many years.
While you can get a lot of those networks' most popular shows via Netflix or Hulu Plus, you can't get things like local news, sports, and untargeted advertisements.
Just imagine: any network sporting event—right on your tablet or smartphone.
And if you're concerned that streaming broadcast-quality TV to your tablet is just way too much data, fear not. The Simple.TV box automatically creates multiple versions of each show you record at different bitrates, from big-screen-worthy 720p (HD) down to the super-compressed files your smartphone likes to snack on.
Depending on your connection, your DVR content will automatically scale to the best bitrate. You'll just want to make sure you have a pretty spacious external hard drive; every hour of content takes up about 2 gigabytes of space.
So, what's the catch here? Some features, like accessing the Simple.TV DVR from any device, or recording TV shows simultaneously, require a subscription to Simple.TV Premium. Fortunately that's only $60/year, or a single lifetime fee of $149.
But in case you're still on the fence, let's do some math.
Right now Comcast offers 80 channels for $50/month. You'll have to pay extra for DVR service and for each DVR box you rent, however. Comcast also offers a service called Xfinity Streampix that you can access from a connected device, but that's another $5/month. Let's be generous and say it's $75 a month for the cable package, DVR capability, and access from connected devices.
Now, say you drop Comcast and hop aboard the cord-cutting train (but still want access to all the best programming). The price-of-entry is steeper, which might be discouraging at a glance: a Roku 3 costs $70 right now, the Simple.TV box costs $200, a good antenna will be another $70. That's $340 up front—pretty steep, but bear with me.
With this setup, you'd get access to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Simple.TV via the Roku app. You'd be able to watch on multiple devices around the house, out and about, or halfway across the world, ostensibly. The monthly fee for just those 3 services is only about $25 a month, meaning that the initial hardware (which you own, by the way) will have paid for itself in just six months (when compared to a Comcast subscription).
While not perfect, Simple.TV presents previously untapped opportunities for consumers to make the most of what's available to them. It puts over-the-air content and DVR control right into the hands of individuals, and—because this is the 2014 equivalent of recording free over-the-air content onto a VHS tape—it's probably safe from the allegations that recently brought down Aereo. Unlike Aereo, Simple.TV subscribers actually own their own antennas.
Okay, so the cost of entry is a little steep with Simple.TV, but consumers can save a lot over time with a little planning and setup. If you've been on the fence about cutting the cord for fear that you'll miss local broadcasts, news, sports, and live events, Simple.TV might be the service you're looking for—assuming, of course, it remains untouched by judicial oversight.
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