Thousands of hours of free standard-definition and high-definition television streams past most American households every week completely ignored in favor of cable, satellite, and online programming. Over-the-air (OTA) TV switched over to digital right around the time it also seemed to lose its purpose.
But if you’ve ditched a cable or satellite subscription for Netflix, Sling TV, Amazon, and even TV seasons on DVD from the library, a networked digital tuner can fill a gap with a one-time cost for free programming that you can stream, capture, and watch on multiple devices without restrictions.
SiliconDust makes a lineup of networked OTA tuners, one of which can also accept a CableCard and receive subscription-based digital television. With the right software on any computer or mobile device on a local network, you can watch television streamed live or record it for playback. (The CableCard option lets you sidestep buying or renting a provider’s model of DVR or a third-party one, if you do subscribe to cable.) The tuners have no local storage.
The three models on offer are the HDHomeRun Connect (list price, $130), Extend ($170), and Prime ($150); online retailers carry them at about $40 less. I tested the Connect (formerly known as the Dual). The Connect and Extend have two tuners, while the Prime has three, but only tunes via CableCard. The Connect and Prime models can stream to mobiles and over Wi-Fi only at standard definition, while the Extend adds HD.
The tuners plug in to a coaxial connection or a CableCard with Prime and to an ethernet network, and use DLNA to advertise availability. They all support up to 720p and 1080i, the maximum broadcast rates. (These devices only work in the U.S.)
Many software options, none included
What’s interesting is that SiliconDust doesn’t supply desktop software. Rather, their devices are compatible with a host of offerings, including Windows Media Center, Elgato’s EyeTV for OS X, and MythTV for Linux and other Unix platforms. It also works with iOS and Android tuner software, such as InstaTV Pro. I tested the Connect model with EyeTV and InstaTV Pro. The Extend adds onboard video conversion from native DTV formats to H.264 on the fly with a built-in hardware encoder, which dramatically reduces storage requirements and streaming bandwidth usage.
The Connect worked perfectly with EyeTV on a Mac also connected via ethernet, but InstaTV Pro suffered halts and glitches over a Wi-Fi network. The InstaTV developers recommend using a 5GHz network with 802.11n or 802.11ac for HD streaming performance, and my local network isn’t set up with separate network names for 2.4GHz (802.11b/g/n) and 5GHz (802.11a/n/ac) networks. If you’re serious about mobile streaming, you may want to set up separately named networks by frequency, which is supported with Apple’s Wi-Fi base stations and most other simultaneous dual-band routers.
The HDHomeRun should also work via the VLC universal media player on all platforms, but I was unable to use it directly to tune. Instead, I downloaded the OS X utility software offered by SiliconDust, which allows tuning and will launch a channel stream in VLC for streaming or recording. MythTV can be installed on a Mac at no cost, but there’s no simple package to do so, and “brace yourself” is probably the best description of the process.
If you opt for paid software, that does bump the price up, unless you already own the software for another reason or another tuner: EyeTV is $80 and InstaTV Pro (free) requires a $12 in-app purchase to unlock playback. (You can test compatibility, set up channels, and set a streaming target before purchasing.)
I used one of the original DTV-supporting EyeTV models for years, which came with EyeTV software bundled, and I paid for upgrades. (Elgato discontinued its TV tuner hardware in the U.S.) InstaTV can work with crowdsourced program guides, available in some cities. EyeTV bundles a program guide for scheduling from TV Guide. One year is included with the purchase of the software, and it’s $20 a year after that.
Turn on, tune in, no drop outs
That’s all the detail to get set up—but how did it work? Better than just dandy. Although I was familiar with OTA recording with EyeTV, we live in a signal shadow. The transmissions towers for the major stations in our area are at the top of a hill but out of the line of sight for us—we’re at the bottom of the hill and get a weak penumbra of signal and reflection. This often caused trouble for the EyeTV tuner hardware, even after we shifted to a roof-top digital (ATSC) antenna.
However, the HDHomeRun seems to have better discrimination and signal lock: in weeks of use, I’m seeing clear pictures without artifacts and skips that were typical with the EyeTV, which was being pushed to the edge of its performance, clearly. Even tuning with a TV set using the antenna shows dropouts, so it’s not just the EyeTV’s problem.
The EyeTV software worked perfectly fine with the two tuners—so well that I wasn’t sure it recognized the unit had two. You can mark overlapping recordings at will, and you’re only warned when you cross two simultaneous ones. The software handles picking whichever tuner is available.
The current models of OTA HDHomeRun only require a single coaxial connection, rather than two (one for each tuner) that previous versions and some other tuners required. This is also a plus. Being able to put the device on a network where our antenna’s cable comes into the house is also an advantage, along with the flexibility to tune or view from multiple devices.
Besides any recurring cost for program guides or software updates, if you’ve got a clear signal—or, apparently, even a marginal one like at our house—HDHomeRun tuners seem to fit a niche rather perfectly.