Make no mistake: cutting the cord is about compromise. Giving up the endless channels and convenience of a cable or satellite subscription isn't painless, but the upside is you will save a good chunk of money.
Simple.TV ($150) is an over-the-air DVR for those with a high tolerance for compromise. It embodies a unique concept, recording over-the-air TV signals, then streaming them to compatible devices (including iPads, laptops, and Roku-connected TVs) both inside and outside your home network -- there's no direct HDMI or other video output on the box itself. In reality, there are a lot of caveats: it's single-tuner only, there's no built-in Wi-Fi, image quality is no more than adequate, it's less responsive than a standard DVR, you need to supply your own hard drive and antenna, and most of the good features require the $5-per-month Premier subscription.
That's quite a lot stacking up against Simple.TV, but the killer feature is really its cost. The next best alternative for cord-cutters is the TiVo Premiere, which has total ownership cost of $330 with a one-year subscription or $650 with a lifetime subscription; Simple.TV's total cost of ownership is $200 with a one-year subscription and $300 with a lifetime subscription. There's no doubt TiVo is better, but it's not hard to see why Simple.TV's pricing would appeal to buyers already looking to spend less on TV.
Simple.TV has quite a few limitations, but it's just good enough to be worth considering for early adopters, especially at its budget price.
The hardware: A simple white box
There's not much to the Simple.TV hardware. It's an unassuming white box with rounded corners that's smaller than a cable box, but much bigger than an Apple TV. The casing is made of plastic and the whole box weighs nearly nothing, feeling empty when you pick it up. There's a relatively large light on the front that glows blue when the box is on and red when it's recording.
Around back are Simple.TV's ports: antenna input and output, a USB port, two Ethernet ports, and the power adapter port. The antenna output lets the over-the-air signal pass through directly to your TV or another device, while the second Ethernet port allows you to connect another device to your home network. The USB port is for connecting a hard drive. The included power adapter has slim "wall wart" design; with a box this size, a built-in power supply would have been nice.
Bring your own hard drive, antenna, Roku
If Simple.TV's price seems too good to be true, that's partially because it is. While the Simple.TV box itself only costs $150, you need to provide some additional hardware to get it up and running. At the very least, Simple.TV requires an external hard drive and an antenna.
I already had a spare hard drive to dedicate to Simple.TV, but if you don't, budget another $80 for a 500GB external hard drive that doesn't need an external power supply, like this one. Similarly, an inexpensive Mohu Leaf antenna ($40) may do the job in your location, or you may need a more expensive, and more obtrusive, full-size antenna. It all depends on the reception in your area.
If you plan on watching Simple.TV on your living-room TV, you'll probably also want a Roku box. You can also get Simple.TV on your TV using AirPlay with an iPad and Apple TV, but at the moment only Roku provides the true "lean-back" experience you'd get with a traditional DVR. The bottom line is that you may have to budget an additional $180 for the Simple.TV experience, depending on what gear you already have.
Setup is, fittingly, simple. That's a major accomplishment for a product that could easily skew geeky. Hook everything up, fire up a browser, and it walks you through the process. An over-the-air channel scan took about 10 minutes and picked up 70 channels. Even more impressively, the software automatically hid not-terribly-useful subchannels and other less popular channels that you probably don't want to wade through.
Simple.TV's main purpose is to let you watch and record over-the-air TV pretty much anywhere. It works with free over-the-air TV signals using an antenna, as well as unencrypted basic cable (Clear QAM) -- although unencrypted cable won't be around for long. I did all my testing using over-the-air TV and all the standard caveats about over-the-air TV apply: only a few channels are broadcast over the air (basically major networks like CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, and PBS) and which channels you actually get is very dependent on your local reception. The bottom line is you can't get a lot of the content available on cable, like ESPN, AMC, Comedy Central, HBO, and Showtime.
The Simple.TV box sits on your home network (connected via Ethernet), diligently recording and storing your content. It can serve recorded content and live TV to devices on your home network (like a Roku box, iPad, or browser), as well as devices outside your network, enabling Slingbox-like placeshifting. Simple.TV claims it can stream to five devices at once, but a lot of that depends on the robustness of your home network.
In the living room, you'll most likely want to stream to a Roku box, which offers up the closest to the traditional DVR experience. The other option for living-room watching is using an iPad and AirPlay to stream to an Apple TV. (You could also use an iPhone, but the resolution is significantly limited.) It's a great setup, especially navigating your content using the iPad, but it's more strain on your local network since video needs to be streamed from Simple.TV to your iPad, then again to the Apple TV.
Storage space is determined by the size the hard drive you connect. I connected a 320GB hard drive, which can store about 140 hours of programming.
Limitations: Single tuner, no Wi-Fi
Simple.TV's two biggest limitations are its single-tuner functionality and the lack of built-in Wi-Fi.
Being single-tuner means that Simple.TV can access only one live TV show at a time. If you're recording a program, you can't watch another live TV show at the same time and vice versa. (You can, however, watch or record a show while playing back a recorded show.) Conflicts are certainly less of an issue since there's not as much to watch on over-the-air TV compared with cable/satellite, but the more people in your household who rely on Simple.TV, the more likely you'll miss being able to record two (or more) shows that air at the same time.
While it's easy to see why Simple.TV chose to require a wired Ethernet connection for the stablest performance, it really limits your setup options. Ideally, you'd be able to place the Simple.TV box close to an Ethernet hookup and your antenna location, but I bet many people will need to make either a long Ethernet run or a long antenna cable run. The lack of Wi-Fi is a hassle, especially now that excellent dual-band routers are more affordable.
Subscription options: Expect to pay for Premier
Simple.TV works without a monthly subscription, but all of its best features require a Premier subscription. Simple.TV breaks it down pretty clearly in chart form on its Web site.
If you opt for the free Basic subscription, you're more or less getting a glorified VCR. I wasn't able to directly test the Basic tier using my reviewer's account, but photos provided by Simple.TV make it clear that if you want to do anything more than watch live TV and schedule recordings for "Thursday at 8 p.m. on Fox", you need to step up to the Premium service. Aside from better DVR features like season pass recordings and better guide data, you also gain the Slingbox-like ability to access your DVR from outside your home network. If I were relying on Simple.TV as my main TV source, there's no doubt I'd go for the Premier monthly subscription.