DVRs - Recording Broadcast TV Jan 18, 2016 By Brian Shim
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 the Channel Master DVR+ comes mightly close!
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Channel Master DVR+ - My Pick for Single-TV Recording
The Channel Master DVR+ could be the DVR that cable cutters have been waitiing for. I use it myself and love it. It's $249 with 16GB internal storage, but it is expandable via external USB hard drive. If you don't want to mess around with an external drive, you can pay $399 for a version with 1TB internal drive.
The key feature is that if you connect it to the Internet, you get a channel guide with no monthly fees! It's not quite as polished as TiVo, but that has monthly fees which I hate!
Check out my DVR+ unboxing video if you're curious about what it looks like.
Tablo - My Pick if You Have Multiple TVs
If you need a whole-home DVR solution, then I would suggest Tablo.
Tablo hooks up to your broadcast TV antenna and requires an external USB hard drive for recording. To view your recordings, you have to use the Tablo app on a computer or Internet device like Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV box, Apple TV (via Airplay with an iPad), or Chromecast. If you already have one of these devices and like it, that might be fine. You can also watch TV on your computer's browser.
The great thing is that you can record on one TV, and watch it on any other TV, as long as it has a Roku, Amazon Fire, Android TV box, Apple TV, or Chromecast attached to it. Or, watch different shows on separate TVs. Thus, it is a whole-home DVR solution.
You get a free channel guide that goes 24 hours into the future. For $4.99/month, you can get a two-week channel guide, plus some other features.Read my complete review of the Tablo here. I like it and use it myself!
Here's where you can get Tablo:
TiVo Roamio - $14.99/month Subscription or $499 for Life
The base model 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 2015, 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. Just remember, only the base model (not the Plus or Pro models) supports recording from antenna. The higher-priced models require cable subscription (but if you have cable, why would you have an antenna??)
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.
Converter Boxes that Record - The Budget Option
I originally recommended the Mediasonic HW-150PVR as a converter box solution for folks who had old tube-TVs. But, this little box can also record to an external USB flash drive or hard drive in HD resolution! At around $40, it's a fraction of the cost of the other DVRs. The same thing can be said of the Viewtv At-163 ATSC Digital TV Converter Box.
So, what's the catch? Well, these boxes don't connect to the Internet, so there is no channel guide. Also, some people have said the user interfaces are not as refined as the other units on the market. The reviews are not as good as the DVR+, and you can't watch one channel while recording another. But, hey, these are SO much cheaper than the other options, it may be worth looking at if you're willing to tolerate these shortcomings. (Hey, we tolerated much worse when we were using VHS VCRs!) On the upside, you can take the hard drive from this unit and plug it into your computer and watch the recordings that way. You can't easily do that with the DVR+!
Here is the best one I've found:
Simple.tv - Watch TV on Your Internet-Connected Device
Simple.tv is a set-top box which makes recordings that you can view through an app, much like Tablo TV. You plug in your own antenna and supply your own USB hard drive to store the recordings. It does not have any kind of TV output such as HDMI. You need a Roku, Chromecast, or Apple TVconnected to your TV to watch recordings on your TV. Or, you can stream to your computer, iPad, and other Internet-connected devices.
Simple.TV is $199.99 plus $60 per year for the subscription, or $150 for lifetime subscription. You can also get it without the subscription with some limited functionality (for example, it won't automatically record a whole series for you). This might be OK for some people.
To me, the biggest downside of this is no TV output (it does have a TV "passthrough", but it simply passes the TV signal; it doesn't actually output Simple.tv recordings or anything like that). You need to have a Roku, Chromecast, or Apple TV to watch it on your TV, and an external USB drive to record. If this thing had an HDMI and composite video outputs, I would be all over it. But, if you already have a Roku, Chromecast, or Apple TV, or if you just want to watch on your computer, iPad or phone, this could be good for you. If you already have an external USB hard drive to spare, $200 for a DVR ain't bad!
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.
PlayOn - Requires 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. PlayOn is a service that lets you do this. Subscription cost starts at $4.99 per month. 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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