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Oh My Tech!: Trying to find a free DVR service

Published March 13, 2014 10:40 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Love your column and was wondering if you have covered recording devices for TV not involving a paid subscription. I just got an antenna but really miss the convenience of a DVR recorder. I tried the Aereo program but that didn't work very well for me and looks like it won't be available anyway. Thanks — Liz Degn.

I'll never forget the first time I heard about TiVo around 2000. That's when we were first introduced to the concept of a digital video recorder, or DVR. It was the greatest invention ever made. Your television shows were recorded on a harddrive and not video tape. The recording was picture perfect and exactly like the original broadcast because it was all digital. Also, you didn't have to set complicated timers to record a show. You simply pressed on a program in the onscreen guide, and it automatically set the timer for you. It was a brilliant device, and suddenly the word "TiVo" became a verb in the American lexicon.

There was one downside to the new DVR, however. The unit itself was expensive — hundreds of dollars — and you had to pay for a monthly subscription.

That monthly fee has not changed since. TiVo is still around, and it still charges a monthly subscription fee. The reason for the surcharge is to pay for the onscreen TV guide service, which is updated every morning, likely by a third-party provider.

I understand Liz's concern. People decide to cut the cable cord for a reason: They're tired of paying exorbitant monthly fees for watching television. So if they cut cable or satellite in favor of free over-the-air television, what's the point of getting a DVR that then charges you a monthly fee?

I can only think of three possible solutions to Liz's problem.

First, there is a DVR on the market that doesn't charge a monthly fee. It's called the Channel Master DVR+, and it allows you to record over-the-air TV programming without a monthly fee.

But there are some downsides. It's expensive at $250, and it doesn't come with a harddrive. The company expects you to purchase a separate external harddrive to store shows. Now the cost goes up even more.

The box was supposed to come out earlier this year, and I've noticed that Amazon.com was out of them. A quick Google search showed that they're going to be hard to find, which just shows you that it's filling a need.

Second, you can buy a TiVo, which costs anywhere from $200 to $600 for the box, and then pay for a lifetime subscription fee instead of a monthly fee, which would cost another $500. That could be as much as a $1,100 solution.

Another option is to build or buy a home theater PC, a basic Windows or Macintosh computer that can double as a DVR for your TV. But this is likely going to be a costly and complicated process. It might require that you get a TV tuner card for your computer, find free software — if there is any available — that provides the onscreen TV guide, and you'll need the right plugs and cables to do the job. This all requires a lot of know-how.

Liz also mentioned Aereo. Aereo is the Internet-based TV service once available in Utah that allowed paid subscribers to watch local channels on a computer or mobile device without cable TV. Aereo also has a feature in which you can digitally record programs to the cloud for viewing later.

But there's a host of problems to consider with Aereo right now, namely that the service was shut down last week and may not come back on after a U.S. District Court judge in Salt Lake City ruled that Aereo violates copyright law.

As a result of a preliminary injunction, the service was turned off in Utah and Denver and is awaiting arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court next month. Also, Aereo costs anywhere from $8 to $12 per month, so again, the goal here is to find a solution that does not cost money, and this is still tied to a monthly fee.

If someone has a solution I'm not thinking of, let me know and I'll be sure to write about it in a future column.

If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at ohmytech@sltrib.com, and he'll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to http://www.sltrib.com/Topics/ohmytech.