Who Says You Need a TV Service Provider to have a DVR?


Back in February, I wrote a multi-part blog series on cutting the cable television cord. In that series, Step 3 was Setting up an Optional Digital Video Recorder (DVR) for over the air (OTA) programming. In July, I did this myself. Now it’s September and I’ve had a couple of months to get accustomed to this new TV paradigm. I’d like to share my experiences with you.

First, I bought the TabloTV 4-Tuner whole-house DVR from Nuvyyo (Kanata, Ontario). I’ve discovered that the concept of “whole house DVR” takes my friends and family two or three times of hearing it before they finally get it. The easiest way to explain it is this: the box sits next to the router and has the antenna connected directly to it. I can watch it anywhere I can get on the WiFi, with my iPad or Android tablet.

Second, I began wanting to view the content on my large TV so I bought a Roku 1 and downloaded the Tablo app onto it. When I launched it, it automatically found my Tablo, being on the same subnet in the house. The Graphical User Interface (GUI) felt natural for the Roku, but was different from the iPad app. It didn’t take me long at all to find some shows that I had already recorded. Watching them was a breeze.

In the mornings, I tend to watch live TV, such as news and weather, but in the evenings I only watch recordings from earlier. I use my Roku almost exclusively to watch the content because I like the large picture and full sound. If you have a new AppleTV, you can use Airplay to watch the content from your iPad. Google’s Chromecast is supposed to work, too, but I don’t have any experience with it.

Even though I love having it, and saving the $100+ a month from having dropped cable TV, I still found the software lacking, albeit serviceable. The mental list got so long, I captured it on the TabloTV community forum thread here. I really would like to see a full 9-12 months of feature and functionality improvements on their GUI before they begin to call it stable.

But I have no regrets with my choice and, for the money I’m saving, I have been able to adapt and overcome the withdrawals of having 200 channels and a DVR. Now I have TabloTV plus Roku with Netflix, Amazon Prime, WatchESPN, Hulu+, A&E, History, NFL Now and Qello to keep me entertained.

If you decide to go this route, do yourself a favor and bump up to the 4-tuner model, rather than skimp on the 2-tuner. You’ll be resolving conflicts left and right if you don’t. But you certainly don’t need to pay ridiculous prices to have television piped into your home and a DVR. Go antenna plus Tablo and save big.

Step 3: Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder

Step 3: Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder

Step 3: Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder

Did you feel like the master of time and space when you first recorded a show to watch it later? Or did you get a thrill the first time you set up your DVR to record some favorite series of re-runs, and then you turned on your DVR to find that the station had a marathon on your show and you wound up with 12 episodes waiting for you?

On February 17, I started a series for “cord cutters”, with a Blog entitled 6 Steps to Cutting the Cord of Cable.  In that, I presented a summary of what would need to be done in order to dump cable or satellite TV in favor of using a combination of Over The Air (OTA) for local stations and Streaming content from the Internet.  In yesterday’s blog, I elaborated on Step 2: Get an Antenna for Over The Air TV.

In today’s blog, I elaborate on Step 3: Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder.

Backtrack: We used to pop in a VHS tape and record shows on a VCR.  This practice was so prevalent that we began using the phrase “…can’t program the VCR…” to imply someone was technologically challenged.  Then came TiVo and it used a hard drive, rather than removable media.  It was such a rush to realize that you could “tivo” 100 shows onto the disk and recall any one you wanted.  It felt like a video jukebox!

The generic term for this device is a Digital Video Recorder (DVR).  A competing brand at the time was ReplayTV.  Meanwhile, the more geeky folks were putting tuner cards or USB tuners on their computer and using software to record shows.  Even as I type this, I have the Elgato EyeTV on my Mac here.  It works well for Standard Definition and it used to work well for High Definition until the cable company began encrypting them (I shake my digital fist at them).

So here we are today… the cable companies and the satellite companies all have an integrated tuner and DVR that they will gladly put in your house for a monthly fee so you can record more shows than you can ever watch.  We’ve got it made.

But, we’re here to cut the cord, so surely there are DVRs for over the air tuning, right?  Surprisingly, the market is somewhat limited.  So, I’ll touch on a few.  Those of you who are complete nerds on this topic will undoubtedly tell me that I didn’t include your favorite model or some home-brew set up.  My answer is that I’m looking at commodity products for general consumers, so let’s run down my list, in order of my personal preference.

° TabloTV (CNet Review)
Comes in 2-tuner and 4-tuner varieties.  Uses your iPad or Android tablet as the remote control.  Plays shows to your TV using a streaming media device (see Step 4 tomorrow).  It will also play to your handheld mobile device, even if you are away from home.  Yes, you can watch your DVR while you’re hanging out at the coffee shop.  Due to this design, you only really need one of these for your whole house, not one for each TV.  The electronic program guide (EPG) that tells you what shows come on when, is a nominal fee (not yet published).  The dual tuner model is $220 before you add your own hard drive.

° Channel Master DVR+ (CNet Review)
16 GB of flash memory to record a couple of shows, and a USB port to add your own external hard drive.  Shaped like a thin crust 11″ square pizza.  The DVR+ has an HDMI jack so you can connect directly to your TV and you don’t need a streaming content box.  To get the program guide, you’ll need to hook it up to ethernet or buy a WiFi dongle.  The free program guide is appealing to those who want to avoid recurring costs of any kind.  The device is $250 without the external hard drive.

° TiVo Roamio (CNet Review)
500 GB built-in memory will record 75 HD shows.  Hooks directly to your TV.  Absolutely the best remote control I’ve ever used in my life.  The box is not much bigger than a BluRay player and the user interface is very good, including streaming services.  It requires a pricey subscription for the guide content and has built-in WiFi so you can download the guide and stream shows. The base box is $200 and the lifetime subscription for the guide is $500.

The DVR is an optional part of being a cord cutter.  But if you’ve ever gotten used to a DVR with cable or satellite, I’m betting you’ll have withdrawals if you try to go without a DVR.  Live TV is maddening for me these days.

You can go without, but honestly, don’t.  Part of cutting the cord is to experience the elation of freedom.  Don’t be a slave to live TV.  Get a DVR and pay for the electronic program guide.