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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Let’s Talk About It

Just wanted to let everyone know I have created forums for FreeTVForMe.  I you want to talk about cord cutting, hardware, reception, or just about anything else, please visit the forums…

http://freetvforme.freeforums.net/

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.

 

Review: Sony Vue

When WBZ went off the air this weekend, I figured I would trial Vue which includes WBZ in Boston.  I sampled the Ultra Slim package which is $64.99 a month and includes HBO and SHOWTIME live and on demand, thousands of hours of movies from EPIX Hits, FXM, MGM and more, plus local sports and popular live TV channels — more than 100 channels (their description).

I’m using Vue on a first gen Fire TV stick which has the same interface as the PS4/3 and a Roku 2 XS which has a simplified tile interface.

I trialed Vue to watch an NFL game because my local broadcaster was having problems.  I was disappointed to discover that Vue uses an  over-the-air source.  FiOS and Comcast were unaffected by the broadcast problem and are immune to weather issues, for the most part.  On a couple occasions, I have had channels break up continuously — kind of a large block mosaic with chunks of the screen not updating properly — but, for the most part, stream quality has been excellent absent any kind of buffering or noticeable degradation.  The Roku spontaneously rebooted on one occasion.

If you have not had cable for a while, it is surprisingly bad.  At 6:00 am, AMC, Discovery, DIY, E!, Food Network, Esquire Network, truTV, HGTV, Comedy Central, National Geographic, FX, FXX, WEtv, POP, Travel Channel, TVLand, Spike, and NBC Sports Network are all running infomercials.  NESN is off the air.  20% of the ‘dial’ has no programming!  My local channels are limited to WBZ (CBS) — so no Fox Football or Sunday Night Football or Thursday Night Football.  No local ABC, Fox, NBC, or PBS.  No Bounce, Buzzer, Comet, Decades, Escape, GetTV, GRIT, Heroes & Icons, ION, Laff, MeTV, The Works, or ThisTV.

That’s the bad.  There is plenty of good.  At the Access level ($29.99/month), you get national sports, cable news plus, AMC, and nearly 50 other cable channels.  For another $5/month, you get regional sports channels.  For $65/month, you get the full cable experience including HBO and Showtime.

On both the Roku and Fire TV, the user interface is slow.  There are a lot of programs to browse, but you can set up favorites.  After a couple days, I found the ‘recent’ channels row pretty useful.  I also found myself using the search function a lot.

Typical Vue Screen on a Roku

Typical Vue Screen on a Roku

The Roku experience is a very pretty and modern looking tiled interface.  I hate it.  The tiles contain too little information.  Often, you get season, episode, and the first couple words of a title — not helpful if you are browsing Friends (The one…).  There is no indication of start or stop time.  You have to drill down using the suddenly very slow interface to see if a movie is just starting or ending.

Sony Vue on a Fire TV Device

Sony Vue on a Fire TV Device

On the Fire TV, things are much better.  For starters, the tiles are bigger and contain more information.  There is also a grid style guide (though the guide only seems to have a vague idea of what time it is).  There is an Explorer mode which filters listings — Movies, PG, etc.

Fire TV Stick App Includes Grid Style EPG

Fire TV Stick App Includes Grid Style EPG

What’s the verdict?  I think PS Vue is a pretty slick supplement to over-the-air programming.  The Access level of service will satisfy cable news junkies.  Sports enthusiasts will find Core gets the job done.  Assuming $50/month for high speed internet, $90 to $115 per month for five concurrent streams is a lot less than many spend on cable.  I recommend the Fire TV stick, but Vue works just fine on your Rokus — even the older models.

Review: Stellar Labs 30-2476

This is more of a ‘look what I found’ than a review.  I don’t have sophisticated measuring equipment — just an HDHomerun, the meters in my DVRs, and my eyes.

wmtwfool

Background: I love Heroes and Icons.  The closest station carrying HI is WMTW in Portland Maine.  WMTW is REAL channel 8 — a VHF station 68 miles and a single obstruction away.  I have been pulling it in using an Antennacraft Y10-7-13 in my attic, but only during the late fall, winter, and early spring and with frequent dropouts — especially during the day.

StellarLabs302476

Project: I decided to use information in this article and this Yagi designer tool to build a better VHF antenna.  Rather than buy raw materials, I bought four Stellar Labs 30-2476 antennas.   The plan was to extend the antenna’s directors by attaching additional front sections.  If that was unsuccessful, I would start cutting directors and drilling holes.

On April 18 I was having trouble tuning WMTW.  I hooked up my HDHR3 and headed up to the attic.  This was the first time I saw the Y10-7-13 and the 30-2476 side by side.  The Y10-7-13 is built on a sturdier beam and has two antenna elements but the 30-2476 has a more substantial vertical reflector.  Another important distinction is that you can still purchase the 30-2476.

wmtwhdhr

Replacing the Y10-7-13 with the 30-2476 changed nothing.  WMTW was in and out just as it was with the Y10-7-13.  I removed the front-most director from the 30-2476 and attached a second front section.  Reception improved dramatically.  Dropouts persisted, but were less frequent.  I added a third section and the dropouts were gone.  The HDHomeRun indicated 85-100% signal strength, 55-70% signal quality, and, most importantly, 100% symbol quality.

signal

Epilog: It’s been nearly three weeks since I installed Frankentenna and I have been watching WMTW on my television every day and monitoring signal quality using the HDHomeRun Config Utility 24/7.  Reception has been excellent — even during a very heavy rain.

Conclusion: The 30-2476 is an inexpensive Yagi antenna which performs as well as a Y10-7-13.  If you want to target a deep fringe station and have room in your attic, the 30-2476 can easily be extended to improve gain.  I highly recommend this antenna.

Kodi for FTV (UPDATED: 11/11/2015)

On a tip from aftvnews.com, I decided to install FireStarter and Kodi on a Fire TV Stick.  As I type this out, I am repeating the process on a second stick because my WIFE has taken custody of the first one.  Yes, WAF for this enhancement is very high.  Here’s why…

After installing in this manner, the FTV Stick still comes up as it always did.  Jumping into Kodi is as easy as pressing the home button.  Double pressing the home button returns to FTV mode.  Adding sources is fairly simply as well and navigating the sources is intuitive.  Once inside a source, you often have the option to Play From Here which plays every file at the source beginning with the selected file.  So, navigate to Food Network, scroll down to Barefoot Contessa, and Play From Here for hours of fun. Continue reading

Enhanced Remote for the DVR+

I have been using a DVR+ Enhanced Remote for a couple weeks and I like it a lot.  There’s not much wrong with the remote that comes with the DVR+ (I would not spend $30 to replace that remote with this one), but, if your remote fails or you want a second one, this is the remote to get.

CM-7500XRC2-2

DVR+ Enhanced Remote CM-7500XRC2-2

For starters, it’s inexpensive.  The Enhanced Remote is only $29.00.  For that price you get a remote that controls your DVR+ and television — no need for a universal remote or side click.  It’s pretty difficult to point this remote the wrong way. The standard remote is very symmetrical — right down to having red buttons in opposite corners. This one has a lot of visual and tactile cues to orientation.

I don’t have any way to measure the power of the IR emitter, but sometimes I forget this remote is line-of-site. This is a big improvement over the original remote and probably the most important enhancement.

I really like that the power buttons work both the television and the DVR with one press. I know this can cause problems under some circumstances (you want to watch something else on your television), but this works for me.

I’m quickly becoming accustomed to the layout. I usually home with the volume/channel rockers which makes the guide (up), DVR (down), and pause (further down) buttons easy to find in the dark. (If my eyes were better, I could read the buttons which are back-lit.)

I like that the remote is a little thicker and peanut shaped. No more losing the remote in the cushions! I also like the change to AAA batteries.

This is a very thoughtful enhancement to a terrific DVR.