My antenna OTA DVR adventure and recommendations

So… you have the great antenna and are receiving loads of free over the air channels. Wouldn’t it be great to record them so you can watch on your schedule and more importantly skip those dreaded commercials. Let me take you on show you what OTA (over the air) DVRs are available and what worked for us.

We obviously started with the great antenna which I will get to at some point but today I wanted to write about the DVR options.

Good news is that we have many options now and gone are the days when you had to build your own setup using the Windows MCE or Myth. You can still do that but I will focus on the solutions that are more user friendly. They are ordered according to the level of “tinkering” you are willing to undertake and that factor is directly linked with the price. Usually easiest solutions are most expensive and vice-versa.

Tivo Roamio OTA1.) Tivo Roamio OTA

Tinkering level – EASY – MSRP $399.99 – if you want the box that will do it all on a single screen and all you have to do is plug it in look no further. Tivo is by far the easiest and most reliable solution out there. If you can live with the price there is no better option. I know, I know it’s expensive but sometimes they can be had for as little as $200 all in. Most recent sale happened during the Black Friday of 2016 when you could get refurbished 500GB model with lifetime service for $199.99.

Tivo also has all of the streaming apps (Amazon Video, Netflix, Hulu, etc.) on it and it effectively becomes a single solution for all of your cord cutting needs.

Tivo MiniSo why isn’t everyone using Tivo? Quite simply the price especially without any discounts it is cost prohibitive for most. Adding each additional screen requires a costly Tivo Mini (MSRP $149.99).

PROS:
  • Easiest and most reliable setup
  • Subscription included
  • All streaming apps on the box itself
  • SkipMode – skip commercial breaks in recorded shows with a single button – this is an amazing feature
  • OneSearch – search broadcast TV and streaming content all at the same time – another great feature
  • Great for live TV and time-shifting
CONS:
  • Expensive
  • Adding screens requires additional purchase of Tivo Mini
Channel Master CM-7500TB1 Dual-tuner DVR with program guide2.) Channel Master DVR+

Tinkering level – EASY – MSRP $249.99 – $349.99 depending on the model

So you want the simplicity of Tivo setup but can’t quite afford it. Channel Master might be a good fit for your OTA DVR. There are two models 16GB one ($249.99)  which requires external hard drive and 1TB one ($349.99) which has the hard drive built in.  There are no subscription fees just like the Tivo Roamio OTA. Both of those boxes have a very serious limitation. They cannot be extended to any additional screens. If you only have one TV that is not an issue but households with multiple TVs should probably look elsewhere. I don’t have first hand experience with their offering but the word is that they are pretty solid.

PROS:
  • Easy setup
  • Subscription included
  • Great for live TV and time-shifting
CONS:
  • Unable to extend to additional TVs
  • No streaming apps
  • Price difference between this and Tivo OTA is minimal
Tablo OTA DVR3.) Tablo

Tinkering level – EASY/MEDIUM – MSRP starts at $219.99 + subscription fees + hard drive cost + streaming box (Fire TV, Roku, Apple TV, etc.)

I really wanted to like Tablo. On paper this is a great solution that was supposed to do exactly what I needed. Whole house OTA DVR that gives you ability to stream from practically every device. In practice it execution is average at best and in my opinion doesn’t justify the cost.

Lets start by saying that Tablo only makes sense if you are planning to play your recordings on the multiple TVs and devices. Startup costs are high but cover the whole house and outside of the house as well (this feature doesn’t work so well). There are two models 2 Tuner (MSRP $219.99) and 4 tuner (MSRP $299.99). Both have been discounted in the past by about 20-25%.

Subscription is not included and while Tablo will tell you that the box will work without it it is severely crippled on it’s own. Subscription costs $5 per month or $50 per year or $150 for a lifetime. Since subscription is linked with the user account it can be used on multiple Tablo boxes (some reports state that as many as 10 boxes can be linked at the same time). This is nice compared to Tivo and ChannelMaster where if the box dies subscription goes with it.

Next you will need the external hard drive for the recordings. Here you can choose the size and cost depending on your needs. Recordings are in further compressed (h264) which is nice compared to both Tivo and ChannelMaster. 1TB drive at native resolution of 1080i will give you about 200 hours of recording. Not every channel is broadcast at 1080 so this would be the worst case scenario. You can also adjust the quality and record at different resolution to save space. More on this topic here.

But wait it’s not over yet. You still need something to play those recordings with. Any type of streaming device will do here: Fire TV, Roku, Android TV, Apple TV, Xbox One, Chromecast, LG WebOs TVs and last but not least the wonderful Kodi. Chances are you already have one or two. Tablo supports all of them so choice only depends on your preference.

So let’s say we want to replicate Tivo OTA features. We’ll need the 4 tuner model ($299.99) + lifetime subscription ($150) + 1TB hard drive (approximately $50). We are already at $500 and we haven’t accounted for the streaming device. I’m assuming everyone has one but at the very least you would have to add $40 (Fire TV or Roku) for each TV.

So what makes Tablo a viable solution. If you want to play your recordings on many TVs you won’t have to pay for each of them as is the case with Tivo. You can simply stream via the device you already have. You can also watch your recordings via portable devices like phones and tablets. Recording options are also great. It allows you to choose shows, movies, kids programming or sports and it will show you what is coming up in the next 2 weeks. You don’t have to go through the grid to find what you want to record.

There is one large problem with Tablo though. Watching live TV is delayed by about 10 seconds which they explain is due to the fact that the stream has to be encoded to mp4 on the fly. This is only noticeable when you switch channels but is there and as such “channel surfing” is extremely painful. Guide update and navigation is pretty slow too.

We might have overlooked live TV lag if it wasn’t for the fact that the whole solution was not 100% stable. We’ve encountered different issues which when you consider the price are not something you should see in the product that carries such a high price tag. In the end we returned it.

PROS:
  • whole house DVR server
  • plays on as many streaming devices as you’d like
  • plays on portable devices on iOS and Android
  • works well for recording
  • lifetime subscription covers multiple devices and is linked to user
CONS:
  • expensive
  • worthless for watching live TV – too much delay and lag
  • not 100% stable stable solution
Android TV Live Channels DVR4.) Android TV 7.0 with Live Channels DVR

Tinkering level – EASY/MEDIUM – MSRP varies since only requirement is to have the Android TV 7 device, USB OTA tuner and sufficient storage. Guide data is free.

NVIDIA SHIELD TV Streaming Media PlayerCurrently on the market we have an Asus Player (discontinued) and Nvidia Shield which recently got updated to Android 7.0 but apparently Live Channels is still an old version. That is supposed to be resolved soon.

USB OTA tuners supported are:

If you have the Asus Player or Nvidia Shield (support soon) and the cost is the factor this one is for you. Xbox One tuner can be had for as little as $40 and all you have to add is an appropriate storage (1TB drive is about $50) which you might have laying around as well.

This is the solution I am currently using. Since I already had all the pieces I was able to put it all together as soon as it was released and it has been running at our house ever since.

It works very well and guide data is free. You can record series and sports by type. So for instance if you want to record NFL games you can tell it to start recording every game moving forward. Unfortunately there is no search and you can only select your recordings from the guide which only shows you about 48 hours ahead. Once you select the series to record it will add all instances for the upcoming 14 days. It is also currently limited to single tuner models.

I’ll have the full write up on this soon along with the video.

PROS:
  • inexpensive
  • free guide
  • fairly easy to setup
  • works for live TV and time-shifting
  • great fit for people who bought Xbox tuner in the anticipation of DVR functionality – myself included
CONS:
  • only one device supports it at the moment – Asus Player – Nvidia Shield should be added very soon
  • recordings need to be selected from the guide
  • single TV solution – no way to extend to other TVs
Plex PlexPass DVR5.) Plex DVR

Tinkering level – MEDIUM – PlexPass license and HD Homerun ($100 – $180) tuner needs to be purchased. You will also need to provide a server to run the Plex software and a streaming box to attach to your TV.

This one is hard to compare apples to apples. PlexPass which is a requirement for the DVR gives you a lot of other options and might be worth it to a lot of people even without the DVR and having a Plex server is also a requirement. More on Plex in other articles.

If you already have a Plex server and love it then this is the one for you. All you will need to add is the PlexPass and one of the HD Homerun tuners (Connect, Extend or Prime). You can have multiple tuners added to Plex which will allow you to record more simultaneous programming. Even mix OTA and Cablecard recordings.

EPG has 14 days of data and recordings can be scheduled via search or genre. All completed recordings are categorized inside Plex and available to watch alongside all of your other media.

So let’s go through a scenario with the least tinkering required. You could buy the Nvidia Shield Pro which already has the hard drive built in ($300) to run your Plex server and add lifetime PlexPass ($5 per month, $40 per year or $150 for lifetime). Then you need one of the HD Homerun tuners, let’s say Connect which retails for $100. This would give you a full single TV solution and additional screens could be added with any Plex capable device. This is already in Tablo price range but it gives you much more with Nvidia Shield and Plex. Obviously you can build it for much less and you can also scale it to be much more expensive. This is the beauty of this setup. There is a lot of flexibility and it will adjust to whatever your needs and budget is.

In this setup live TV has to be done with either a 3rd party plugin for Plex or with a native HD Homerun View client. This is a one major weakness that there is no way to watch live TV from within the same interface. Hopefully future releases of Plex will resolve this.

Now Plex DVR is still in beta so it’s not a finished product but it has a lot of potential and in my opinion has already surpassed the Tablo offering.

PROS:
  • flexible with streaming apps for every possible device
  • centralized with all recordings alongside all other Plex media
  • start small and build into a larger system
  • PlexPass gives you a lot of other options, DVR is just one of the perks
  • if you already have Plex this is for you
  • subscription is linked to your account not the device
CONS:
  • still in beta
  • can be expensive especially if you are starting from scratch
  • no native Live TV or time-shifting (can be accomplished with 3rd party plugins or HD Homerun View app)

SiliconDust HD Homerun DVR software. 6.) HD Homerun DVR

Tinkering level – MEDIUM – $60 for software license and 1 year of EPG ($30 per year after that), HD Homerun tuners (Connect, Extend or Prime) ($100 – $180) and a recording device (Windows/MacOS/Linux or one of the NAS systems from Synology, Qnap or WD).

This one is very similar in it’s architecture to Plex DVR offering above. You are using the same tuners and you still need the storage device. Major difference is that this supports live TV natively but on the other hand Plex gives you a lot more features outside of the DVR.

PROS:
  • flexible – clients on a lot of streaming devices (not as much as Plex)
  • subscription is linked to your account not the device
  • works for live TV and time-shifting
CONS:
  • still in beta
  • can be expensive especially if you are starting from scratch
SUMMARY:

As you can see from this article the solution you choose will be dependent on multiple factors primary ones being your budget, technical ability and number of screens you’d like to play the recordings on.

  • If budget is not an issue and you don’t have the technical skills or just don’t want to tinker then Tivo Roamio OTA is probably the best fit for you. You will be able to just plug it in and go. If you can pick one up on sale then that’s even better.
  • If you are a current Plex user or have a lot of local media and would like to try Plex then that’s probably the best way to go. It’s not cheap but it is extremely flexible and allows to centralize your Plex media and recordings.
  • If you are one of the people (like yours truly) that were burned by Microsoft when they scrapped their plans for Xbox One DVR but you already purchased the USB tuner then Android TV Live Channels might be an option for you. You could also start here with the Nvidia Shield (as soon as Live Channels are updated). Then you still have the option to install Plex add HD Homerun tuner and start recording via Plex. This is my plan and I am sticking to it…




 

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