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…
|Manual Recording (date/time/channel/show)||X||X|
|Live TV Grid View||X||X|
|Prime Time TV View||X|
|Filters (genre, new, premiering)||X|
|Series Info (plot, first air date, etc.)||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!