DVRs - Recording Broadcast TV
For some people, one of the impediments to moving over to broadcast TV is not having a way to record shows like they did with their cable DVR (digital video recorder) box. Well, here are some solutions that allow you to record broadcast TV. None of these are perfect in my opinion, but they might be enough for you.
TiVo Roamio - $15/month Subscription or $500 for Life
TiVo Roamio supports broadcast antenna input, so you can use it to record free digital TV! TiVo has the best user interface in the industry, and their units are reliable, and offer Internet access to YouTube, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and other services. The Roamio series lets you watch what you record on your iPad or iPhone.
However, what I hate about TiVo is the $14.99 monthly fee. As a "free TV" purist, I really don't like having to pay a fee just get program information. As of this writing in 2013, you can pay $499 for a lifetime subscription to the service as an alternative. Although I love the TiVo hardware and interface, I just can't bring myself to pay these fees. But, some people swear by these boxes, and maybe it's right for you.
Use this link if the widget doesn't appear: TiVo Roamio HD Digital Video Recorder and Streaming Media Player (TCD846500).
Update: Reader Brent reports that you can indeed use a TiVo Roamio without a subscription, but the features are limited. You can record but not delete shows. TiVo could disable even this functionality at any time, so no guarantees on using it without a subscription.
Magnavox MDR - No Fees, My Pick!!
The Magnavox MDR series is a solid option for recording broadcast TV shows. The big downside is that it doesn't have program information, i.e., you can't just tell it to record "Big Bang Theory".. You have to program it using the old-school method of entering time and date to record on (just like in the 1980's). But, this means there is no monthly fee. So, if you don't mind programming in the recording times for your shows manually, this solution could work well for you.
These units also let you record to a DVD. However, that capability is getting a little outdated these days. I hope they make cheaper version without this feature some day.
Note that these units record in standard definition, not hi-def, so your recordings won't be as sharp as live TV, but they will look a lot better than VHS recordings.
Use this link if the widget doesn't appear: Magnavox MDR533H/F7 HDD/DVD Recorder
Your VCR - Requires Converter Box
Some of my readers have asked about using an old-school VHS VCR to record modern broadcast digital TV. Well, you can do it if you get a TV tuner box. This is a pretty ghetto option, but it's cheap if you already have the tuner box and an old VCR lying around. This will work with your tube TV in addition to a modern flat-panel TV. The diagram on the left shows how to hook it up.
Note that there will be some complications associated with using the external tuner box instead of your VCR's tuner. Namely, you won't be able to program your VCR to program shows on different channels unattended. You'll have to manually change the channels on your tuner box.
If you use this setup with a modern flat panel TV, you should get a splitter to split the antenna signal to your tuner box and to your TV. That way, you'll get hi-def TV on your flat panel TV when watching live TV, rather than having your live TV go through the low-res tuner box.
Your Computer - For Advanced Folks Only
Yes, if you are technically inclined, you can turn an old computer into a DVR. You'll need to install a TV tuner card so that it can accept a TV antenna. These are notoriously fussy and many have dubious-quality drivers and software, so beware. I had the best results when I bought a computer with the TV tuner card pre-installed. It worked with Windows Media Center like a charm, almost as good as TiVo, but totally free!
Then, I "upgraded" to a high-def TV tuner card (Pinnacle Systems PCTV 800i), and was sorry I did. It's never worked with Windows Media Center. It has it's own software but the user interface is vastly inferior.
If you don't mind messing with software, drivers, and so forth, this could be a good solution for recording broadcast shows. But, I wouldn't recommend this unless you are a pretty advanced computer tweaker. I've had problems with each of the tuner cards that I've tried, which is why I can't recommend any particular ones here.
Simple.tv - $50/year Subscription or $300 for Life
There is a new DVR that I want to talk about: Simple.tv. The device is a white set-top box which is a cheaper option than TiVo. You plug in your own antenna and supply your own USB hard drive to store the recordings. One big limitation is that it actually does not have any kind of TV output such as HDMI. You need a Roku connected to your TV to watch recordings from Simple.tv. It will, however, stream to your computer, iPad, and other Internet-connected devices, so it's kind of like a Slingbox in that respect.
The product is $150 plus $50 per year for the subscription, or $300 for the product plus lifetime subscription. This product is still in its early phase. Unless you like tinkering with new gadgets, I'd wait a little while for the kinks to be worked out of the product.
PlayLater - $40 for Lifetime Subscription, Records Internet Video, Not Live TV
This service lets you record TV that you get off of the Internet, as opposed to broadcast TV. For example, say you want to record a TV episode from Hulu, or a video from YouTube. PlayLater is a service that lets you do this. Cost is $39.99 for a lifetime license. You install the software on your computer and choose from channels to record from. Current channels include Netflix, Hulu, and many network and cable TV websites. I personally have not tried it, but a reader recommended it. Let me know what you think!
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Tell us about your DVR experiences. Which ones would you recommend?