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! Out of all of these, my two recommended solutions are the Channel Master Stream+ and the Tablo.
Channel Master Stream+ – 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 now-discontinued DVR+. The Stream+ has more features and costs less, at $149.00.
When connected to the Internet, you get Google Play features as well as built-in Chromecast, plus a channel guide with no monthly fees! It’s not quite as polished as TiVo, but that has monthly fees which I hate!
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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 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!
I’d say the one downside of Tablo is that it takes a few seconds to change channels. Thus, it’s not good 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!
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
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: HomeWorx HW-150PVR
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 question. If you want advice on TV reception, leave your zip code. I'd also love to hear about how you saved money. I hope this article was helpful to you. - Brian