As I noted when I reviewed the 2017 Nvidia Shield, an annoying problem with the way Smart TV has evolved is that there is no single box that does everything. If you have a Smart TV, if you want to ensure full coverage - think the likes of iPlayer and Netflix, as well as your own media and even video games - then you probably need to have an array of devices plugged into your telly.
Brilliantly, the Shield almost solved this problem as it could do almost everything - even games. The only thing it really lacked was good, old-fashioned linear TV. If you want to watch whatever is on BBC One right now, using a TV aerial, then despite the slick interface and dozens of apps, you still had to reach for the TV remote and fiddle with the “HDMI SOURCE” button.
So it was very exciting then to get my hands on a TV Butler - a USB TV tuner made by DVBLogic. Designed to work with Android TV devices, the idea is that it seamlessly blends in traditional over the air Freeview channels with the rest of your home media setup, appearing as just another app on screen.
Easy Mode: TV Mosaic
Getting the TV Butler up and running is super easy, thanks to a new app that DVBLogic has created for the Android TV Google Play store. Simply plug in the tuner, download the app and set it running. Then it’ll walk you through tuning in the TV channels just like with a normal TV. After a few minutes of tuning… it simply works. Suddenly, you have TV, umm, on your TV.
It isn’t a completely seamless experience - when changing channels it’ll often take a few seconds for the pictures to appear properly. You’ll get a flash of a frame from the right channel and the audio will continue, but it’ll take maybe a second or two to be fully in motion again. But this is only like a TV screen going briefly blank when you change channel on a conventional TV.
One thing that I forgot to expect, but which was a pleasant surprise was that the interface is rather slick indeed. Approximately a billion times more so than your standard el cheapo Freeview HD box from Argos. Rather than clunk along, the menus and navigation glide rather than grunt as they scroll. It almost makes linear TV feel modern again.
Settings are basic but useful. You can add favourite channels, you can hide channels - so you can get rid of the adult channels or ITV2 or whatever.
If you’re a digital terrestrial completist, there doesn’t appear to be support for red button services, encrypted channels, or any of the weird channels that are delivered over an internet connection. But that doesn’t matter because a) No one has used the red button since 2005 and b) Let’s face it, if you own an Android TV device, you only want to watch actual live TV for sport and the New Year’s Eve countdown.
Hard Mode: DVBLink
So TV Mosaic works rather well. It’s easy to use, it’s easy to setup. Why would you want to make it more complicated?
Surely if you’re a regular Giz reader, then this question must seem pretty foolish. The side of the TV Butler box reveals that it isn’t just compatible with Android TV, but a number of other devices too - including Synology and Western Digital back-up drives, Raspberry Pi, and of course Windows.
The idea is clever: Why should we have access to YouTube and Netflix everywhere, on all of our devices, but have old-fashioned TV require us to be tethered us to one device in one room. Put more simply: Why can’t you watch Homes Under The Hammer on the toilet?
The way it works is clever: You plug the TV Butler USB into your backup server, and that acts as the central hub to which you plug in all of your apps. DVBLink will also turn your server into a DVR, meaning that you can make the high capacity hard disks inside work extra hard.
So I plugged it into my Synology drive and while it wasn’t as difficult as, say, painting the Mona Lisa, it wasn’t as easy as, say, painting a Rothko.
On the Synology, you first must install the DVBLogic package (straightforward), and then configure it (slightly trickier, and involving a web interface that looks like something from 2002). After selecting the DVB packages you need (which are different from Synology packages), it should then detect your tuner and you can go through the tuning process. This, like with TV Mosaic, is a fairly straightforward process. Once it has discovered a bunch of channels you then have to select which ones you want to make available over a network. And then.... You’re half way setup.
The next step is setting up the apps to watch the telly on your device. Apps are available on most platforms - or you can even get m3u playlist links to playback in a media player of your choice. Annoyingly though, some of these apps leave something to be desired: The iPhone app kept crashing for me, and only managed to stream for a few seconds before stopping. (And I was testing this on an iPhone 7 Plus connected over wifi).
Luckily, the DVBLink Android TV app was better. Connecting between the two over ethernet, it was able to autodetect my Synology running DVBLink so set things up automatically. Unfortunately, the app feels much clunkier than TV Mosaic - and looks a bit more rudimentary, as it has been built in a dull grey colour.
But functionally, it works rather well - tuning to different channels is straightforward (again, with the amusing sensation of having them buffer briefly). Crucially, you can also use the DVR functions and set and watch recordings. If you subscribe to DVBLink’s electronic programme guide service, you can scroll through programming in much more detail than the usual couple of days that Freeview allows.
There is one other option though, if you have an Android TV device, and that’s Google’s Live Channels app. This is Google’s attempt at a landgrab, and is designed to be a front end for a wide range of different channel sources - whether delivered over the internet or over the TV aerial. And if you have DVBLink setup, you can also access your channels live (no DVR functionality, sadly), using this much, much slicker app too.
Sadly getting it setup is much more of a pain. Annoyingly, Live Channels won’t detect the channels using the normal DVBLink app - instead you need another app, DVBLink Live. But what’s frustrating here is that this app isn’t even on the app store. Which means you have to be comfortable sideloading apps from sketchy-looking places. But the good news is that if you are ballsy enough to do this, live channels will pick up your DVBLink Server running on your home network and set your channels up an instantly.
So all in all, is it worth the hassle? I think it depends on how much linear TV you watch. If most of what you watch is still through traditional TV, in real time, and you don’t need a DVR, then TV Mosaic is an elegant way to dump the Freeview box and integrate fully with your Android TV setup.
And as for the much more complex DVBLink? It’s a great idea, and would work well for someone who watches most stuff on demand with only irregular live viewing, but if you’re regularly channel hopping it might become that little bit too infuriating. Here’s hoping that DVBLogic can give the apps some polish soon.
Read More: Our review of the 2017 Nvidia Shield TV