Oh My Tech!: Reader suggestions for getting cable-free DVR

By Vince Horiuchi

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: March 27, 2014 10:06PM
Updated: March 27, 2014 09:14PM

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column addressing the problem a reader had with trying to get digital video recording capabilities for her TV — such as a TiVo — without having to pay a monthly charge.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any completely free options out there, largely because you have to at least pay something for a set top box and another fee for the onscreen electronic programming guide (EPG).

Since I ran that article, many readers have written to me with some of their own solutions or stories on how they tried to create their own charge-free DVR. Here are some of their responses — thanks to those who offered their own advice.

From Jerry Spangrude • “Like your reader … I wanted to retain the ability to record shows and pause live TV. I ended up using a TV tuner plugged into a computer for my system, and I am overall very happy with the system.

“Here are my specifics. I initially bought a single-channel tuner (EyeTV One from Elgato) that plugs into my computer via USB. I think I paid about $75 for the tuner plus the EyeTV software. It worked OK, but wireless sharing to other computers was not fast enough, and I wanted to be able to record one channel while watching another. I then bought a SiliconDust HD HomeRun tuner ($125) that has two channels and connects to the host computer by an ethernet cord. This worked better, and adding a USB accelerator (Elgato Turbo264 HD, $139) really helped the speed for streaming to my iPad. With this setup, I can stream to an iPad running the ($4.99) iOS version of EyeTV and watch anywhere in the house. I ended up buying a new Mac Mini computer as a dedicated host computer, since the older laptop I was initially using was not quite fast enough to support streaming.

“Since I set up my system, Elgato has changed their product lineup and they no longer sell the devices I have, but I bought another EyeTV One tuner and a Turbo264 off of eBay for dirt cheap compared to the new costs. I use the EyeTV One tuners with different computers around the house since this allows me to record things over the Mac Mini setup while watching other channels elsewhere.

“I would say that a key issue with any system like mine would be the software. I have been pleased with EyeTV software, which comes with the tuners or can be purchased separately for $80. I pay $12 per year for a TV Guide service that provides programming information. The interface is nice, and you can program recordings easily. Also, EyeTV works well with my iPad running the iOS version of the software. Again, the Turbo264 accelerator is essential to get seamless streaming. An added bonus is that the iPad app doubles as a remote because it changes the channels on the main device and works with the programming guide to allow you to set up recordings based on the guide. My TV signal comes from a roof-top antenna and I get about 35 channels, some of which I never watch.

“In the end, cutting the cable was worthwhile for us. Based on the cost of basic cable, the system paid for itself in less than a year. Most of the content we miss by not having basic cable can be found on the Internet, and we didn’t watch much outside of network TV and HGTV anyway. I would urge your readers to consider this option for off-the-grid entertainment.”

From Scott Boettcher • “Just read your Sunday article about (over the air) DVR solutions. I just installed a Simple.TV (my.simple.tv). I bought the Premier package for $400, which includes a lifetime membership for their programming. Setting everything up was pretty simple (I can be a tech buffoon at times). I did have to add an external drive (2 terabytes, $89).

“The Simple.TV doesn’t hook up to your TV physically, but rather, connects wirelessly to your home Wi-Fi (I use a Roku box to pick up the signal and control the channels). This way, several TVs can use it, and of course you can also watch on a tablet or phone.”

From Jason Arrington • “From Windows XP through the current versions of Windows, Microsoft has included a TV guide service built into Windows Media Center. Windows 7 is the sweet spot, since Media Center is included for free with every version except Starter and Home Basic. You have to pay extra to get Media Center in Windows 8/8.1, but at least it’s a one-time purchase.

“My setup is an old Lenovo x201 laptop in a docking station running Windows 7 Pro with a cheap Media Center remote and IR (infrared) sensor. We use it with a CableCard from Comcast and a SiliconDust HDHomerun Prime tuner, but it works just as well with an HD antenna and a cheap TV card. And it was surprisingly straightforward to setup, especially compared to the MythTV system I spent years monkeying with. By changing a couple of options we set it up to start at boot time and go full screen. As far as the family can tell it’s no different from the Comcast cable box but with a better interface, and without the monthly fee.

“The best part? Once you have your Media Center PC set up you can watch live or recorded TV on additional screens using a Media Center Extender. While there are commercial MCEs, most people just use the one built into the XBox 360, which are available pretty cheap these days.”

From Steve Woodall • “I bought a Phillips DVD recorder several years ago which I still use nearly every day. Works just like an old VCR but uses DVDs instead of tapes. I can’t find a new one for sale, but I searched for ‘DVD recorder’ on Amazon and there were other brands. Apparently some of them include a hard drive. I use rewritable DVDs so they can be used over and over again.”

Finally, several readers mentioned that Magnavox manufactures digital video recorders that work with over-the-air broadcasts and don’t require a monthly fee. Here is one such letter.

From Steve Larkin • Just this week, after my describing this to a friend, I searched for and found four different models from Magnavox: the MDR 515H 500 GB HDD & DVD-R with Digital Tuner ($299), Magnavox MDR 513H/F7 HDD & DVD Recorder with Digital Tuner ($325), Magnavox MDR 533H/F7 HDD/DVD Recorder ($256) and the Magnavox MDR 537H/F7 HDD/DVD Recorder ($338).

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 www.sltrib.com/Topics/ohmytech.