Cheapest way to watch cable TV
Tablo hooks up to your broadcast TV antenna and requires an external USB hard drive for recording. To view your recordings, you have to use the Tablo app on a computer or Internet device like Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV box, Apple TV (via Airplay with an iPad), or Chromecast. If you already have one of these devices and like it, that might be fine. You can also watch TV on your computer's browser.
The great thing is that you can record on one TV, and watch it on any other TV, as long as it has a Roku, Amazon Fire, Android TV box, Apple TV, or Chromecast attached to it. Or, watch different shows on separate TVs. Thus, it is a whole-home DVR solution.
You get a free channel guide that goes 24 hours into the future. For $4.99/month, you can get a two-week channel guide, plus some other features.Read my complete review of the Tablo here. I like it and use it myself!
Here's where you can get Tablo:
The base model TiVo Roamio supports broadcast antenna input, so you can use it to record free digital TV! TiVo has the best user interface in the industry, and their units are reliable, and offer Internet access to YouTube, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and other services. The Roamio series lets you watch what you record on your iPad or iPhone.
However, what I hate about TiVo is the .99 monthly fee. As a "free TV" purist, I really don't like having to pay a fee just get program information. As of this writing in 2015, you can pay 9 for a lifetime subscription to the service as an alternative. Although I love the TiVo hardware and interface, I just can't bring myself to pay these fees. But, some people swear by these boxes, and maybe it's right for you. Just remember, only the base model (not the Plus or Pro models) supports recording from antenna. The higher-priced models require cable subscription (but if you have cable, why would you have an antenna??)
Use this link if the widget doesn't appear: TiVo Roamio HD Digital Video Recorder and Streaming Media Player (TCD846500).
Update: Reader Brent reports that you can indeed use a TiVo Roamio without a subscription, but the features are limited. You can record but not delete shows. TiVo could disable even this functionality at any time, so no guarantees on using it without a subscription.
Converter Boxes that Record - The Budget Option
I originally recommended the Mediasonic HW-150PVR as a converter box solution for folks who had old tube-TVs. But, this little box can also record to an external USB flash drive or hard drive in HD resolution! At around , it's a fraction of the cost of the other DVRs. The same thing can be said of the Viewtv At-163 ATSC Digital TV Converter Box.
So, what's the catch? Well, these boxes don't connect to the Internet, so there is no channel guide. Also, some people have said the user interfaces are not as refined as the other units on the market. The reviews are not as good as the DVR+, and you can't watch one channel while recording another. But, hey, these are SO much cheaper than the other options, it may be worth looking at if you're willing to tolerate these shortcomings. (Hey, we tolerated much worse when we were using VHS VCRs!) On the upside, you can take the hard drive from this unit and plug it into your computer and watch the recordings that way. You can't easily do that with the DVR+!
Here is the best one I've found:
Simple.tv is a set-top box which makes recordings that you can view through an app, much like Tablo TV. You plug in your own antenna and supply your own USB hard drive to store the recordings. It does not have any kind of TV output such as HDMI. You need a Roku, Chromecast, or Apple TVconnected to your TV to watch recordings on your TV. Or, you can stream to your computer, iPad, and other Internet-connected devices.
Simple.TV is $199.99 plus $60 per year for the subscription, or $150 for lifetime subscription. You can also get it without the subscription with some limited functionality (for example, it won't automatically record a whole series for you). This might be OK for some people.
To me, the biggest downside of this is no TV output (it does have a TV "passthrough", but it simply passes the TV signal; it doesn't actually output Simple.tv recordings or anything like that). You need to have a Roku, Chromecast, or Apple TV to watch it on your TV, and an external USB drive to record. If this thing had an HDMI and composite video outputs, I would be all over it. But, if you already have a Roku, Chromecast, or Apple TV, or if you just want to watch on your computer, iPad or phone, this could be good for you. If you already have an external USB hard drive to spare, $200 for a DVR ain't bad!
Your VCR - Requires Converter Box
Some of my readers have asked about using an old-school VHS VCR to record modern broadcast digital TV. Well, you can do it if you get a TV tuner box. This is a pretty ghetto option, but it's cheap if you already have the tuner box and an old VCR lying around. This will work with your tube TV in addition to a modern flat-panel TV. The diagram on the left shows how to hook it up.
Note that there will be some complications associated with using the external tuner box instead of your VCR's tuner. Namely, you won't be able to program your VCR to program shows on different channels unattended. You'll have to manually change the channels on your tuner box.
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