The Next Tivo DVR Might Look a Lot Like a Tablo

According to tech blogger Dave Zatz, the next Tivo OTA DVR might have an architecture that is a lot more similar to the Tablo series of OTA DVRs. What this means is that the Tivo DVR named “Mantis” would no longer connect directly to the TV, instead it would “transcode” video to a streaming device such as a Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire, or a table or phone.  The benefit of this approach is that one box can stream to multiple TVs or devices and it can be significantly cheaper in a household with multiple TVs. Previously, multiple TV households wanting to have DVR features would need a Tivo mini for each TV.

This type of device definitely seems like it might appeal to the growing number of households that already have a full array of streaming devices everywhere. As others have noted, streaming services are not perfect – they can be laggy, and are particularly prone to crashing during major live sporting events.  Purchasing something like the Mantis would give them benefit of having lag-free OTA broadcasts and commercial skipping capability throughout their house.  Hopefully the acquisition of Tivo by Rovi doesn’t delay or interfere with this product launch!

Comparison of TiVo DVRs for cordcutters

As of July 2016, TiVo has 3 main DVR products in production – The Bolt, the Roamio OTA, and the Roamio Pro.  This may change soon though, since Rovi (the company that announced its intended acquisition of TiVo) has said that “Being in the hardware business isn’t something that… excites us.” Likely the TiVo technology will end up in some hardware elsewhere, but it’s hard to predict how badly a patent-troll like Rovi can mess things up. The acquisition of TiVo doesn’t close for a few more months, but if you’re interested in getting  a TiVo in the form that they exist today, now may be a good time.

Of the three products, only the Bolt and the Roamio OTA work for over-the-air antenna signals.  The Roamio Pro is designed to work with digital cable or Verizon FiOS, and won’t work with an antenna, so it’s not very useful for a cordcutter.

So what’s the difference between the Bolt and the Roamio OTA?

  1. Input Signals– The Bolt can take input signals from digital cable, antenna, and streaming services (like Netflix, Hulu, etc…), whereas the Roamio OTA can only take signals from antenna and streaming services.  So if you’re a cordcutter without a cable or satellite subscription, there’s not much reason to consider the Bolt.
  2. Lifetime Subscription Price – In order to keep your TiVo working properly, you’ll need to either pay for a lifetime subscription or pay annually.  The Roamio OTA 1TB model is available for $399 which includes a lifetime subscription.  In contrast, the Bolt costs $299 by itself, and a lifetime subscription (they call it the all-in plan) is an additional $549.99.  You can also subscribe annually for $149.99/annually, or $14.99/mo. The fine print on the plans is here.

So, if you actually cut the cord, of the TiVo’s, the TiVo Roamio OTA is most likely you’re best choice.  For other OTA DVR choices from other companies, check out my comparison page.

OTA-only households growing

A recent survey has found that the number of OTA-only households in the US has grown from 15% in 2015 to 17% in 2016.  I think that this is a reflection of several factors:

  1. Many households find cable/satellite too expensive for what it offers
  2. Streaming services still cost money, and as this NYTimes article pointed out, there are some drawbacks.
  3. Broadcast TV signals can provide high quality HD images and in many ways still provide a better user experience that is easier to use and has less lag.

Interestingly, the number of households that were Internet streaming also grew from 4% to 6%.  In terms of percentage, it is definitely much faster growth, but it’s interesting to consider that the number of OTA only households is almost three times as large.

For what it’s worth, my household has been OTA-only since 2012, and I’m a big fan of having an OTA DVR and of not paying any subscription fees.  

Microsoft Putting Xbox DVR features on Hold

Back in August 2015, Microsoft announced they would be adding DVR features to the XboxOne.  This was an exciting announcement for many of us, because it meant that DVR, serious gaming, and streaming could be combined into a single piece of hardware. Well, those hopes have ended by the recent announcement that they will be putting the DVR features “on hold.”

It’s hard not to wonder if Microsoft’s DVR strategy has been influenced by the growth of Sony’s PS Vue service and it’s “Cloud DVR.”  From a revenue perspective, the attractiveness of the monthly subscription model for streaming must have turned some heads at Microsoft.  I’m guessing that Microsoft will be attempting to come out with a streaming service and Cloud DVR to compete head on with the PS Vue rather than a DVR than runs locally.

This announcement doesn’t change the fact that you can still use your Xbox to watch OTA TV if you just buy an antenna and tuner, but you won’t be able to record it.

See these links below for more info and discussion:

 

Find Out Which Channels You Can Get For Free With an Antenna

There’s a great tool on TVFool.com to help you determine which channels you can receive over the air (OTA) at your house. Yes, your house. You type in your address and it will give a list of channels that you will be able to receive for free with an antenna! It will even show you where the signals are coming from so that you can optimize your signal strength by pointing your antenna in that direction.

Check out TV Fool’s TV Signal Locator

We use a Terk Indoor HD antenna sitting on top of our media cabinet about 8 feet off the ground. We live in a flat suburban area and we are able to get all of the main network channels in HD for free! I love that we can watch the Super Bowl and the Oscars in HD. We get lots of kids channels and even re-runs of The Brady Bunch. My kids have watched almost every episode of this good, wholesome show.

Once you have your HD antenna, take your set up to the next level by adding a DVR. With a DVR, you can record your OTA shows and watch them at your leisure. Our DVR comparison guide is here to help you choose the DVR that is right for you!

 

What is an OTA DVR and why would I want one?

OTA DVR stands for Over-the-air Digital Video Recorder. Basically, this is a digital video recorder (think Tivo) system that allows you to record programs from over-the-air broadcast signals.

Long ago, before there was such a thing as cable or satellite TV, everyone watched TV by attaching antenna to the television set and pulling in a signal that transmitted by a rabbit ear antenna.

These signals are still being broadcast in most of the country, although the format and the quality are much improved.  Instead of fuzzy analog images like before, stations are now broadcasting in 720p or 1080i high definition digital signals.  In many case, the bandwidth and image quality is equal or even better than what your cable or satellite provides.  Plus the antennas don’t look as dorky anymore (hopefully you have a better TV too!)

Why Do I need a DVR if I have Streaming?

When I first cancelled my cable subscription (“cut the cord”) and setup an antenna way back in 2011, the main thing I missed was the DVR that was previously provided by the cable provider.  I could still get all the local broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS). When ESPN became available through streaming on Sling TV (it’s also now available on Sony’s Vue), then I had access to pretty much everything I needed. However, I still missed my DVR because:

  1. I couldn’t skip commercials anymore!  Basically, if you’re streaming, they can force you to sit through as many commercials as they want.
  2. The skip-forward/skip backward functions are pretty crappy in every streaming app I’ve ever seen, especially compared to the responsiveness of a DVR.  I’d rather watch a recorded TV show from a broadcast channel versus from a streaming service just because of this.
  3. Not all streaming channels work that well, especially when watching live sports events.  There are glitches, dropouts, and sometimes the resolution gets lower (and I have 100Mbps internet service). At least in my case, the reliability of the streaming signal is not as good as the reliability of the antenna signal.  The Antenna signal is slightly less reliable than a cable signal, but the antenna is free, so I find it to be a good compromise.

Anyway, that’s my rant about why DVR’s are still nice to have. If you got this far, then you’re probably want to know how to get your own OTA DVR.  Checkout my guide here. 

 

2017 Guide to Subscription-Free Over-the-Air (OTA) DVRs for Cordcutters

If you just cut the cord, but still want to use a DVR, then you are in in good company.  Luckily, there are quite a few options available that will enable you to record Over-The-Air (OTA) channels from an antenna onto a DVR.  In my case, I am able to record all the major broadcast channels – ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and also some local PBS channels with a simple indoor antenna. Find out which channels you can get for free with an antenna.

Top Picks

Tivo Roamio: Easiest to Setup

For ease of setup and use, the Tivo Roamio OTA is the best option. This is all you’ll need:

Terk HDTVa Indoor Amplified High-Definition Antenna for Off-Air HDTV Reception
TiVo Roamio OTA HD DVR and Streaming Media Player

This DVR works for both OTA (over-the-air) broadcast signals and streaming (Netflix, Hulu, etc…).

If you do this, you should probably get the lifetime subscription deal that Tivo offers. Plug the antenna into the Tivo, and you’re done! More info on TiVo DVRs for cordcutters.

Tablo 4: Best for watching on multiple TVs or other devices (tablets, phones, etc…)

If you want to access your Over-the-air DVR recording from multiple TVs, or from you tablet or phone, then the Tablo 2 or Tablo 4 systems are a great choice. This type of system scales cheaply – to add another TV you just buy a FireTV stick.  You can also do some of this with a Tivo by buying Tivo Mini’s, but it will end up costing more.

Tablo 2

Two-tuner DVR system

Tablo 4

Four-tuner DVR system.

Home-Theater PC: Best for maximum flexibility

If you want system a that can work as DVR, and also run as a full-fledged media server, then you want to build your own Home-theater PC.  Basically this is a computer with software and hardware that enables it to run as a DVR, and also do anything else that a PC can do.  This article describes a simple way to build one.

Cost Comparison

This table compares the cost and features between various OTA (over-the-air) DVR options for cordcutters.   I’ve priced the options that I think that make the most sense (for example paying for the lifetime subscription for the Tablo, and buying extra external HD space). Prices in this table are updated daily from Amazon.

OTA DVR Comparison Table

Hardware Tablo 2-tuner Tablo 4-tuner Tivo Roamio Channel Master Win7 HTPC
DVR NA 260 199 329 524
Antenna 35 35 35 35 35
Ext. HD (2TB) 68 68 68 68 68
Streaming Device / Tuner 40 40 0 0 79
Wifi Included Included Included Extra Extra
Lifetime Subscription 150 150 200 0 0
Upfront total NA 553 503 432 706
Cost per extra TV 40 40 170 * *
Monthly Fees 0 0 0 0 0
Prices for Amazon links were last updated on Nov 08, 2017 09:00 PT.

Notes:

  • Hover over or click the cost numbers in the table to see what hardware it is for.
  • Here are directions on how build the Win7 HTPC option.

Windows 10 is not for me

Windows 10 is going to be released on July 29th, but one feature that many cordcutters will be missing is Windows Media Center.

Windows 10 discontinued Windows Media Center
I guess none of those devices is an HTPC.

I am still happily running Windows 7 on all my PCs at home (I can’t stand the Windows 8 interface), so I was not planning on updating anytime soon.  Microsoft supported Windows XP from 2001 release up until 2014, so I don’t see Windows 7 (released 2009) going away anytime soon. At this point, my only action will be to keep my OS from auto-updating to Windows 10.

However, if and when the time comes, it should be easy enough to move to a new DVR software. There are several pretty good alternatives out there.  My favorite is MediaPortal which is free, and can run on the same exact same hardware that I already built.

Broken television guide in Windows Media Center after July 20, 2015

Perhaps it was just coincidence, but the day before I wrote up my post documenting my build-your-own OTA DVR setup, Microsoft broke the free television guide service for many users.  Apparently they switched providers from Zap2it to Rovi.  I only noticed because my kids started complaining that none of their cartoons were being recorded anymore!

I found a workaround for this issue documented in a blog.  However, my fix was a bit easier than what was described in that post – all I had to do was re-run the initial TV setup.  This can be found by going to Tasks -> Settings -> TV -> Setup TV Signal

Menu for TV Setup settings in Windows Media Center
Go here to find the TV Setup process in Windows media center

Re-running the setup takes a while (it performs a new channel scan), but after about 10 minutes everything was back to normal.

Hope this fixes things for everybody!

Build your own OTA Antenna DVR

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:

Terk HDTVa Indoor Amplified High-Definition Antenna for Off-Air HDTV Reception
TiVo Roamio OTA HD DVR and Streaming Media PlayerThis DVR works for both OTA (over-the-air) broadcast signals and streaming (Netflix, Hulu, etc…).

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

Terk HDTVa Indoor Amplified High-Definition Antenna for Off-Air HDTV Reception
SiliconDust HDHomeRun CONNECT. FREE broadcast HDTV (2-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.

Zotac Mini PC Barebones System ZBOX-BI320-U

This is a small, low-power barebones PC that fits well into a living room.

Crucial 16GB Kit (8GBx2) DDR3-1600 MT/s (PC3-12800)

16 GB of memory

Samsung 850 EVO 250GB 2.5-Inch SATA III Internal SSD (MZ-75E250B/AM)

250GB SSD. Get the SSD (not a spinning HD).  The time you’ll save in boot-up time and waking up from hibernation will be well worth it. If you need additional storage, you can always buy an extra USB external HD.

Seagate 2TB External HD

Seagate Expansion 2TB Portable External Hard Drive USB 3.0 (STEA2000400)

A spinning drive for extra storage.  Recording stuff in HD can take a shocking amount of space (6GB / hr).

Also, you’ll want an HDMI cable and a wireless keyboard.

BlueRigger High Speed HDMI Cable with Ethernet (15 ft) – CL3 Rated – supports 3D and Audio Return [Latest HDMI version]
Logitech Wireless Touch Keyboard K400 with Built-In Multi-Touch Touchpad (920-003070)

3. Install Windows 7

Windows 7 Professional SP1 64bit (OEM) System Builder DVD 1 Pack (New Packaging)

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.

Tuner 75
Antenna 40
PC 170
MEM 82
SSD 90
Ext. HD 85
HDMI Cable 11
Keyboard 25
OS 135
Total 773

[Update] Check out this price comparison of the best OTA DVR options.