OTA DVRs

When my family fired Comcast, I did not think we needed a DVR.  We had a DVR with Comcast, but the only recordings on the box were unwatched episodes of Who Wants to  be a Millionaire and the Bonnie Hunt Show.  We soon found out that a DVR is much more than a digital video recorder.  Right away we discovered we had no idea what was on TV.  It turns out an Electronic Program Guide (EPG) is a very good thing.  Then the phone rang.  A lot of people pause television for phone calls, meals, and potty runs.  People ‘rewind’ television too — to see what was missed while the eyes were resting, to watch again an unexpected wardrobe malfunction, or settle for good whether or not it was a catch.

Fortunately, cord cutters have a lot of DVR options.  In fact, most digital-to-analog converters can be used as a DVR by simply plugging in a USB storage device.  For less than thirty bucks, you can add an EPG and a DVR to just about any television.  While these inexpensive devices are very limited, they are a great way to add functionality to a rarely used television.

DVRs take two forms — set top and whole house.  Set top DVRs sit on top of the television set.  They have an antenna input and some kind of television output.  Sometimes you attach a storage device.  They can have one or many tuners.  Whole house DVRs connect to an antenna and your network and stream programming to some other device.  Sometimes you attach a storage device.  They can have one or many tuners.  Set top boxes tend to perform better — faster channel changes and no buffering.  Whole house DVRs are great if you do not have coax close to your television set or have a lot of televisions you use from time to time.

TiVo is the premium set top DVR.  It’s  been around for twenty years and is the only DVR that might be the only box you need.  It’s also the most expensive set top DVR.  For cord cutters, TiVo offers a $399 Roamio/OTA which includes Lifetime Service (no monthly fees).  The 1080p Roamio has four tuners so you can record four shows simultaneously, watch one and record three, or even share tuners with televisions in other rooms (to a $179.99 TiVo Mini).  It streams Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Vudu, HBO Go, and apps like Plex.

TiVo also offers a 4K HDR Bolt that can use either (but not both) broadcast or cable as a source.  Broadcast television is limited to 1080p, but, for those who stream, HDR might be appealing and having both cable and antenna options mean you can cut the cord at will and change your mind back again.  With a $14.99 monthly fee, the Bolt costs $199.99 with 500GB (75 hours) of storage, $299.99 with 1TB (150 hours), or $499.99 with 3TB (450 hours).  You can purchase ‘All In’ Lifetime Service for $549.99 or pay $149.99 annually for service.

The TiVo Mini allows use of a TiVo tuner on a second television in your home.  There are no fees and no moving parts.  The experience is virtually the same as watching a TiVo.

What I like about TiVo..

  • Tivo is the only box you need.  It streams all the important services.  It doesn’t stream the cable alternatives like Vue, DirecTV Now, or Sling TV, but, if you have an antenna, you do not need those.
  • One remote is all you need.  The TiVo remote controls volume and power.  Its inactivity timer turns off signal to the television, so the television shuts off when I fall asleep.
  • Low total cost of ownership.  This is a recent development and may not last long, but the last two years, TiVo has routinely made the Roamio/OTA available for $199.99 and $299.99 with LifetimeService.  Right now, with a bigger disk, it is $399.99.  That is about half what TiVo has been historically, and less that the cost of setting up most alternatives.
  • The Mini does not feel like a remote client.  Except that it does not shut down the attached television after inactivity, it works just like its big brother.

Tablo TV is a ‘whole house’ DVR.  It is a box containing TV tuners, attached to a disk and the internet, which uses a service to present programming information (guide).  Tablo TVs have two to four tuners.  A two tuner Tablo TV costs $139.99 and requires an external USB drive to record/pause/rewind.  A two tuner Tablo TV with 64GB of memory costs $179.99.  A four tuner Tablo TV costs $239.21 and requires an external USB drive.  While the 64GB model is a neat little package, you can get a 1TG USB disk for $50 these days, so the less expensive dual tuner DVR is a better value.  For most people, $239.21 for the four tuner model plus $50 for a USB disk will represent the best value.

You do not need the service to use a Tablo, but most people will find the service adds great value FOR $4.99/mo, $49.99/yr, or $149.99 for Lifetime…

Feature Basic w/Subscription
Manual Recording (date/time/channel/show) X X
Live TV Grid View X X
Schedule View X X
Recordings View X X
Prime Time TV View X
Movies View X
Sports View X
Filters (genre, new, premiering) X
Series Info (plot, first air date, etc.) X
Cover Art X
Record by Series X
Advanced Recording Features X
Tablo Connect (out-of-home streaming) X

You will need a streaming device to view the Tablo TV output…

  • A Smart TV powered by: Roku, or Android TV, or most LG WebOS 2.0 and 3.0 operating systems; OR
  • A Set-Top-Box/Streaming Media Device: Roku, or Amazon Fire TV, or AppleTV, or Nvidia SHIELD, or Xiaomi MiBox; OR
  • A Streaming Stick: Roku Stick, or Amazon Fire TV Stick, or a Chromecast dongle (casting from an Android device or Chrome browser); OR
  • A Gaming System: Nvidia SHIELD, or XBox One; OR
  • An HDMI-enabled computer: Tablo web app in Chrome/Safari

What I like about the Tablo TV DVR…

  • It’s on a lot of devices.
  • It allows for wireless clients.
  • Lifetime Service is for YOU not the BOX.
  • I like the Live TV Grid Guide.

One device I have never warmed up to is the HDHomeRun.  I have a HDHR3-US and a pair of HDHomeRun EXTENDs.  They work fine, but without an annual subscription, you get a very limited guide and no DVR functionality.  You also have to run a PC or a NAS 7×24.  Too much work for me.  (Same reason my Plex server gets so little love.)

I happen to have purchased a couple TCL Roku TVs.  This television integrates streaming and broadcast television very nicely at really attractive prices.  If you plug a USB drive into the set, you can pause and rewind within a 90 minute buffer.  It’s not really an OTA DVR, but trick play and an Electronic Program Guide warrant an honorable mention.

Do you love a DVR I need to know about?  Post a comment below!

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6 thoughts on “OTA DVRs

  1. Great summary Len…

    We have a smorgasbord of different DVR “systems”

    TiVo Roamio with TiVo is our primary recording DVR…. Although the Mrs is not keen on the new hydra gui. What’s kind of cool you can put TiVo Roamio or Bolt in a utility closet and then just use TiVo Minus at your TVs, but you have to have a LAN either via MOCA or Ethernet to interconnect them

    Nvidia player, I have Plex running on that

    Win10 desktop pc running Plex and Emby

    Homerun Prime tuner (until we can cut the cord… We’re kinda stuck keeping with Spectrum due to email issue)

    Hdhomerun Connect

    WD NAS running Hdhomerun recording engine

    For clients we have a bunch of fire tv sticks and Google nexus players

    My fave?

    Google Nexus Player. You can pick these up off eBay for about $50 in great condition and the best software so far is Live Channels. The only downfall is you cannot run Amazon video app, hence the fire tv sticks.
    Streams all the way across the house 50 feet just fine via Wi-Fi without a hitch

    Live Channels ties into the homerun tuners above. If you want dvr, just add USB hard drive

    On the Nvidia I also like it but a bug in Live Channels doesn’t release tuners and apps continue to run after exiting, other than that the Nvidia can stream 3 streams concurrently

    I need to stream tv outside of house for my 82 year old mom in North Georgia, she likes Emby better than Plex, so we have kept the options above

    Regards,
    Preston

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    • Great comments…better than my post…as usual. You are the consummate hobbyist and your wife has my sympathies.

      I would have been very happy with the Channel Master DVR+, but, by the end, TiVo was actually less expensive. While I own two Minis, I definitely think a $300 Roamio is a better value than a $180 Mini. You get more disk space, more tuners, and can run the whole mess wirelessly. I’ve used both Plex and Emby. I have a Lifetime Plex Pass. Prefer to avoid ‘servers’ whenever possible. More so when I am recommending to someone who does not leave a PC on all day. (My desktop has 23t of storage and runs Plex and PlayOn.) Do you need a NAS for your Plex via Nvidia server? I have heard much goodness regarding Spectrum promotions. You should give them a call and see what they can do for you. I have given away most of my FTV sticks and Rokus. The Roamio is that good.

      I thought Google killed the Nexus player?

      You know what was really good at streaming outside the house? The Simple TV DVR!

      Any thoughts on OTT? DirecTV Now? Sling TV? Vue?

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      • Problem is we are locked into our old bright house email domain (cfl.rr.com) until we can transition over to hopefully gmail (We have a ton of business accounts that have to be transitioned). If we make any changes to Spectrum we lose our email, already called them to find out.

        When we do make the switch I want to have an OTT that offers hallmark, fox business, oxygen, Id, TCM and a couple of others. Not too concerned about ESPN

        We are paying entirely too much to Spectrum that’s for sure!

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      • We have AT&T for our cell service, so every time we call for anything, they hard sell DirecTV Now — three months at $10/month. I usually sign up. I spend a weekend watching cable news and surfing through the channels before I remember why I quit cable then cancel. I’m in a $10 month right now. I had it on over the weekend for a couple hours while I worked on my server. I can’t even remember which sitcom I was bingeing on. I’ve had my fill of tiny homes. I remember when cable arrived — it was really just HBO. About three movies a day looped. Salty language, side boob, and bums. It was pretty awesome. Of course, we didn’t have the internet then…

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  2. Oh and forgot…

    Google quit producing the nexus but they work fantastic and you can pick them up on eBay inexpensively. They tie in to live channels just fine.

    On the nvidia shield do not need a NAS. You just attach a USB drive

    SimpleTV was erratic for us, but we used it especially for my mom to use remotely. Now she is happy with Emby but do have to keep my server running all the time

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    • Not sure I want to invest in obsolete hardware. It was very difficult for me to landfill the five Simple TV DVRs that did not go to SiliconDust. I’ll have to look at the Shield/Plex combo.

      Like

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