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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2017: An Important Year for Cord Cutters

2017 was an important year for cord cutters. For starters, there are more of us. According to eMarketer, there will be 22.2 million cord cutters ages 18 and older this year – up 33.2 percent over 2016. In addition, the so-called “cord-nevers” – consumers who have never subscribed to cable or satellite TV – will top 34.4 million in 2017. That’s 56.6 million U.S. non-pay TV viewers.

In 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted core elements of the ATSC 3.0 standard as the foundation for voluntary implementation by broadcasters and manufacturers of Next Gen TV. 2017 saw the arrival of ATSC 3.0-capable broadcast products and technologies as well as the announcement of Phoenix as a ‘model market’ for Next Gen broadcast television. Sinclair Broadcast Group announced it intends to “fully deploy ATSC 3.0 on Sinclair’s stations nationwide.” ATSC 3.0 will not be important for a while (if ever), but it is here at last. For those not paying attention, ATSC 3.0 is a new version of the ATSC standards for television broadcasting created by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC).  ATSC 3.0 comprises around 20 standards covering different aspects including HEVC for video channels of up to 2160p 4K resolution at 120 frames per second, wide color gamut, Dolby AC-4 and MPEG-H 3D Audio, datacasting capabilities, and more robust mobile television support. The capabilities have also been foreseen as a way to enable targeted advertising and finer public alerting.

The dreaded Reverse Auction came and went and broadcast television is still fine. Much like Y2K, dread far exceeded reality. Some stations are moving, some are going away, but most of the dial was not impacted by the auction. Of course, the heavy lifting begins next year and the impact of lost bandwidth my make ATSC 3.0 implementation more challenging, but, so far, so good.

We lost some friends in 2017. Real Simple Software closed its doors. Their Simple TV DVR was an innovative whole house solution. Tablo TV got this niche right and RSS is gone. Channel Master has stopped production of its DVR+. The DVR+ was important for two reasons. With its PSIP powered electronic program guide, the DVR+ required no subscription or service, so it could be used in places without telephones or internet and will continue to operate as long as the FCC requires PSIP data be broadcast. At least as important, the DVR+ provided legitimate competition to TiVo. This year, TiVo sold the Roamio OTA with Lifetime service for less than $200. Hope you got yours because I do not think we will see prices like that again. Channel Master is going the whole house route with its Stream+ joining Tablo and SiliconDust (HDHomeRun) in an already crowded market. In 2017, my home became a TiVo home as we now have five Roamios and two Minis. BTW, that $200 TiVo and a $75 Plex Pass were my only television spend in 2017, so I really am enjoying Free TV.

Plex added support for live tv in 2017.  With Plex Live TV, you can watch and record broadcast TV. I expect this will be how ATSC 3.0 enters most homes.

OTT (streaming tv) became a real thing in 2017.  Vue, Sling, and DTVNow all offer legitimate alternatives to cable television.  You no longer have to pay Comcast to learn about Tiny Homes!

Net Neutrality is no more. I won’t comment on this except to say that it will likely impact quality of service and prices for streaming services going forward.

Reading over my notes, I guess 2017 wasn’t a very important year for television. Most people still rely on cable tv for entertainment, TiVo is once again the only player in the consumer DVR business, SiliconDust is still the gold standard for whole house streaming, Roku remains the most popular streamer, and you can still receive television via an inexpensive antenna. How about that.

Please comment if you are aware of an important development I missed.

Apple TV: My New Favorite Streamer

Last month I signed up for three months of DirecTV Now.  I thought my iBoy would like the included Apple TV.  He has an iPhone and an Apple laptop.  iBoy is blind to the obvious shortcomings of each — no reason he wouldn’t embrace this overpriced streamer.  He did.  No surprise.

Here’s the surprise: I like it too.  The PRIMARY reason for my affection is that it has a sleep timer that powers off the display which powers off my television.  This is a feature which is lacking in the Roku and Fire TV devices I own.  But there’s more…

  • ATV’s remote controls the volume on my TV
  • ATV’s CEC switches TV input
  • Single Sign-on minimizes relentless re-entering of credentials

These features have been on my streamer wish list for a LONG TIME.  The Apple TV works like a TV accessory should — pick up the remote, touch a control to switch HDMI input, adjust volume, and enjoy.  Single Sign-on means you only need to enter credentials for your premium provider once for all the ‘go’ apps.

Apple TV has most of the important apps.  For cord cutters/trimmers: ABC Live/News, CBS/News, Crackle, DirecTV Now, HBO Go/Now, Hulu, NBC, Netflix, Showtime/Anytime, Sling TV, Snag Films, Sony Vue, Starz, Tubi TV, and YouTube plus all of the expected ‘Go’ apps.  There is a Plex client.  There are hundreds of games for the Apple TV.  All are required to work with the included remote, but you can associate a console quality controller for better game play.

AirPlay lets me stream from iPhone apps not supported on Apple TV — Amazon Instant, Simple TV, and Vudu, for instance.  It works as advertised.

Security is pretty complete.  I like that I can require a password to buy apps but download free apps without entering the password.  You can also control what devices can use AirPlay and what apps use location services.  Not really a security issue, but Siri works well entering passwords — even if you have upper case letters and special characters.

I got the Apple TV as part of a DirecTV Now promotion.  DirecTV Now has been a mixed bag for me.  At times, buffering has made DTN unwatchable.  It has gotten better — much better since I began using the Apple TV.  That may be stuff happening behind the scenes, better hardware, better software, or a combination of all of these things, but DirecTV Now is better with an Apple TV.

Finally, there is that funky remote control.  I don’t care for the touchpad.  I’d rather have a D-pad.  I find myself pulling up menus or changing channels fishing around for the remote.  I overshoot letters typing in passwords and sometimes the cursor moves when I am trying to press the pad for OK.  iBoy says it takes getting used too (unusual criticism of anythig Apple), but I suspect I will get used to Siri first.

Regardless, this is an excellent streamer and I highly recommend it.

 

Plex for TiVo Gets Apps!

I just noticed that the Plex app for TiVo has channels.  This is a welcome development.  Cord cutters can get their cable news and entertainment fix by streaming episodes and clips from web sites.  Simple TV and Tablo apps make those DVRs’ recordings available via the TiVo or Mini.  For me, though, Twit.TV is the main attraction.

Not a Good Week for Channel Master

May 7th Channel Master posted this to their Facebook page…

Next week is going to be a good week.

As ‘next week’ winds down, I will opine that the week was, indeed, a good week, but not for Channel Master. The week was a good week for ME.  Me and OTA-first cord cutters who have been waiting for that single box which would do it all.  It was good for us because we learned that Plex is coming to TiVo June 8th.  The TiVo Roamio OTA is the first set top box to provide…

  1. A channel guide
  2. Program recording
  3. Trick play (rewind, pause, fast forward, etc.)
  4. Premium streaming media (Amazon Instant Video/Prime, Vudu, Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, MLB.tv)
  5. Whole house support
  6. Plex

At $299.99 including Lifetime Product Service, the TiVo Roamio OTA is the best set top box for an OTA-first cord cutter. Unfortunately, TiVo has pulled their $299.99 promotion and the Roamio OTA now costs $49.99 plus $15 per month.  Let me do the math for you: Y1=$230, Y2=$410, Y3=$590, Y4=$670, and Y5=$850.  At $300 with a 1t disk, the Channel Master DVR+ is less expensive by the end of the second year. TiVo has nailed the technology, but needs to fix their pricing.  OTA’ers don’t like monthly payments.  At $299.99 or even $399.99, I think TiVo wins.  At $15/month, The DVR+ is good enough.

Also, TiVo needs to match Channel Master’s one year warranty.  Who pays $400 for something with a 90 day warranty?

Back to Basics in 2015

If you ask me to help you cut the cord in 2015, I will simply advise that you put an antenna in the attic and a Channel Master DVR+ on each television.  That’s really all you need.  No need to get on the roof.  No need to worry about grounding your system.  You don’t need internet access at all.  The cost is $0.00 per month.  That’s a measurable, meaningful savings.  Add up the cost of installation and divide by your current cable or satellite monthly bill to determine your break even point.

You will likely be surprised at the number or channels and the quality of programming available via an antenna.  In the five years I have been doing this, my dial has swollen with new channels — very good channels.  Right now, my lineup looks like this…

ABC (WCVB, WMTW, WMUR, MeTV), BOUNCE, CBS (WBZ), COZI (WMFP), CW (WLVI, ZUUS), Escape, Fox (WFXT, Fox Movies!), getTV, Independent stations (WBIN, AntennaTV, Grit, WSBK), ION (ION, IONLife, Qubo, QVC), MyNetwork (WSBK), NBC (WHDH, This TV), and PBS (WENH, WGBH, WGBX, Create, Explore, Kids, World).

I have a total of 47 channels in Boston.  BOUNCE,  COZI, Escape, Fox Movies!, getTV, AntennaTV, and Grit have been added since we quit Comcast.  CBS Decades is supposed to launch this month.  Broadcast television gets better every day.

You can run directly from antenna to your digital televisions if price is your top concern, but I think a DVR with a grid guide makes a big difference.  My choice for a set top box is the Channel Master DVR+.  For $250, it allows you to pause, rewind, fast forward programming, has a pair of high quality tuners, includes a cable quality, grid style program guide, and can store 140 hours of HD on an inexpensive 1t disk.  If you do have internet access, the DVR+ adds a two week program guide, streaming programs via Vudu, streaming music via Pandora, and lots of fun with a YouTube app.  Bloomberg, Al-Jazzera America, WGN, WeatherNation, Daystar, Almavision, NASA, BBC World News, Sky News, France 24 (France), NHK World (Japan), CNN World, QVC, Home Shopping Network, TV Mas (Mexico), Vevo TV, 360 North (Alaska), Outdoor Cooking Channel, DW (Germany), and JewelryTV  will stream to this box later this year.

Let’s chat about the things that I’m no longer recommending.  Probably have to start with the whole house DVRs.  I have a bunch of Simple DVRs.  They are pretty amazing.  I really like that I can watch my antenna and recordings on a tablet by the poor or at an airport.  I like that I can schedule recordings across time slots and channels — if I want to.  Tablo demo’d a really impressive Roku channel at CES.  Still, I cannot recommend either Simple or Tablo for watching television.  When things work as intended, the tuners are hobbled by the internal splitters and too slow to change channels.  When you pause, rewind or fast forward, neither has visual cues.  When things go wrong — and they do go wrong — it is difficult for a less technical person to troubleshoot.  If you really remote access to your antenna, keep your eye on woot.  Woot recently sold the dual tuner Simple DVR with lifetime for $105.  It $350 for a pair of tuners plus lifetime, I can’t recommend a Tablo at all.

I’m not recommending streamers at all.  Most of the country lacks sufficient bandwidth to reliably pull HD video.  I know this stuff works great at CES and CNET, but a lot of people are having problems.  I can’t see this getting better as 4k, Sling TV, and Linear OTT come online.  Things only get worse inside your home.  Roku and Amazon offer inexpensive wireless sticks.  These seem to have problems due to television interference.  Chromecast and the FTV Stick come with hdmi extenders.  Roku will send you one.  Biggest concern is ‘other’ devices on your wireless network  Every Roku update is like playing the lottery — lots of losers.  I recommended the Roku 2 XS to a lot of people who no longer use them.

Streaming is no bargain, anyway.  By the time you pay for uncapped, unthrottled, high speed internet, Hulu, Espn, and Netflix, Comcast is competitive.  If you want to stream, I recommend a wired device.  Get the most stable device that supports the apps you want to stream.  Just don’t expect support from the streamer, the hardware manufacturer, or your ISP.