If there is anything that inspires this maker to action, it’s a monthly cable bill. TV is great, but it’s not $100-a-month-great. Luckily, there’s lots of streaming options these days (Netflix, Hulu, etc…), but getting local broadcast networks streamed over the internet is not as straightforward anymore (especially since Aereo got sued out of existence).
Luckily, in most areas of the US, it is still possible to get broadcast networks with a simple Over-the-air (OTA) Antenna. If you have the right equipment, you can hook it into a DVR and still enjoy the convenience of time-shifting and commercial skipping.
So there’s two basic ways to do this:
The easy option: Get a Tivo and an antenna.
This is all you’ll need:
If you do this, you should probably get the lifetime subscription deal. Plug the antenna into the Tivo, and you’re done!
The Maker option: Build your own DVR from a PC and an antenna.
For those of you who want a little more flexibility from your system, or just like to build things on your own, a HTPC (home theater PC) is the way to go. A HTPC will do a few things that a Tivo can’t – but to be honest the list is pretty small. For my family, the only important one is that I also use it as a media and file server for storing videos, music, and photos as well which I can access from my other PCs in the house. We’ve been using our system for about 3 years now, and we’re very happy with it. It’s easy enough to use that even my 5 year kid knows how to use it to watch her recorded cartoons.
To build it, I basically followed the directions on this blog post, with some small updates.
1. Buy an antenna and tuner
The tuner converts the antenna signal to something with which your PC will know what to do. I liked the HD Homerun because it connects to the antenna and then to a router Ethernet port. Connect your PC to the same router (either wirelessly or wired), and your PC will find the tuners so that Windows Media Center can record shows from the OTA broadcasts. Having the signal sent through the wireless router makes it so you don’t need the antenna and the PC in the same room (unlike some tuners which require USB connections to the PC).
2. Buy the computer
You could buy pretty much any PC that runs Windows 7, but these Zotac PC’s are quieter, lower power, and are built in a more living room friendly form factor. Since the system is sold as a barebones system (no memory, no hard drive), these need to be purchased separately.
Also, you’ll want an HDMI cable and a wireless keyboard.
3. Install Windows 7
I opted for Windows 7 because apparently Windows Media Center with Windows 8 doesn’t offer any improvements, and Windows 7 in my mind will have less hardware and software compatibility issues with other items you may be using. [Read more: Is it worth upgrading a media centre to Windows 8? ].
The Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate editions all include Windows Media Center, so any version except for the Starter is ok. [Update: Microsoft only sells the Professional version now, so you have to buy that one unless you get something aftermarket]. After the installation completes, you will have to do some setup the first time you run Windows Media Center. This will involve configuring it to find the HDHomerun tuner, scanning the airwaves for the local channels, and configuring the TV schedule to show the channels you’re interested in. All of these steps are described in the HDHomerun documentation.
[Update – added cost summary table]
This table below summarizes the cost of this system.
[Update] Check out this price comparison of the best OTA DVR options.