DVRs – Recording Broadcast TV
For some people, one of the impediments to moving over to broadcast TV is not knowing how 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!
My recommend DVRs are the Amazon Fire TV Recast if you already own Amazon Fire TV devices, Tablo if you don’t own Amazon devices, and the Stream+ if you only want to watch and record on one TV.
Tablo – My Pick if You Have Multiple TVs
If you need a whole-home DVR solution, then I would recommend Tablo.
Tablo hooks up to your broadcast TV antenna and most models require 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 TV, 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.
If you have Amazon Fire TV sticks, you should check out the Amazon Fire TV Recast though.
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!
I’d say the one downside of Tablo is that it takes 5-6 seconds to change channels. While this is much improved from the previous generation, it’s still not great for channel surfing. But, the onscreen guide kind of makes it unnecessary to surf; you can see what’s playing on each channel directly. But, this is a minor beef, and I love watching TV on my computer and tablet, as well as my TV using the Tablo!
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Amazon Fire TV Recast: Recommended for Fire TV Users
The Fire TV Recast is Amazon’s broadcast TV DVR. It is a whole-home solution, in that the recordings can be viewed on any TV in your home that is connected to a Fire TV device.
The two-tuner version is $229.99 with 500GB hard drive (75 hours of recording), while the four-tuner version if $279.99 with 1TB hard drive (150 hours of recording).
The Fire TV Recast is a great choice for DVR if you’re already into the Amazon ecosystem with Fire TVs and Alexa-enabled devices. You’ll need a Fire TV streaming media player or Echo Show to view your recordings. If you already have one, then great, but if you are using Roku, I’d go with one of the other DVR options. Read my full review of the Recast here.
Channel Master Stream+ DVR – My Pick for Single-TV Recording
The Channel Master Stream+ is great for recording broadcast TV when you have one TV in your home. This replaces the discontinued DVR+. The Stream+ has more features and costs less, at $149.00. And yes, although the name is not indicative of it, it really is a DVR!
Like the previous generation, the Stream+ requires an external USB hard drive. These are commonly available and not too expensive. (It can also use micro SD, but that is a more expensive option)
When connected to the Internet, you get Google Play features such as YouTube as well as built-in Chromecast, plus a gorgeous channel guide with no monthly fees! It’s not quite as polished as TiVo, but that has monthly fees which I hate!
You can purchase the Stream+ directly from the manufacturer, or read my full review here.
TiVo BOLT – $14.99/month Subscription
The TiVo BOLT supports broadcast antenna input (as well as cable), 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, 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 2018, you can pay $549.99 for a subscription for the lifetime of the product (not your lifetime). 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?)
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
Many outboard TV converter boxes (or “tuner boxes”) also record to outboard USB storage devices. These usually run only about $40!
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 Stream+ or Tablo, and you can’t watch one channel while recording another. But, 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 Stream+ or Tablo!
Here are the TV converter boxes with USB recording capability that I recommend, if you don’t mind not having a channel guide:
Your Computer – For Advanced Folks Only
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 $2.50 per month billed annually, $7.99 per month billed monthly, or $49.99 for a lifetime subscription (not bad!) 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 several readers recommended it. Let me know what you think!
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If you have a question about this article, leave a comment below. I personally read and answer each one. If you want advice on TV reception, leave your zip code. I'd also love to hear how you're saving money on TV. Tell me your story! - Brian