I’d prefer to think I’m ahead of my time instead of a contrarian. My wife and I cut the cord many years ago, and have survived ever since on discs, downloads, streaming media, and over-the-air (OTA) programming. OTA has been a surprisingly rich source of enjoyable shows, especially from our local PBS stations and alternative standard-definition channels from network-affiliated broadcasters.
One thing we’ve faced, however, is a shortage of options to record programs. Because digital video recorders (DVRs) shifted a few years ago to being mostly a commodity item offered by a programming provider like Xfinity or Dish, the market for standalone units shrunk. There are a few: Tablo, Tivo, and a couple of more niche brands.
However, these standalone units record data to internal drives, and rely on apps, streaming, and other controls to give you access. Since I have a Mac that’s on all the time and has terabytes of available storage, I’d prefer keeping control in my hands, storing recordings locally on my Mac, and choosing how I time and space shift. It also gives me the option to trim out commercials before watching a movie.
During 2016, macOS choices increased from one—eyeTV 3, now from Geniatech—to four. Three new systems are in various stages of beta testing, and some should be in production release soon. DVR options are now available in public beta as part of Plex Media Server, as a server component that works the Channels set of tuner apps, and from SiliconDust, makers of the HDHomeRun networked TV tuner. (The open-source MythTV is a fifth option, but it’s not for the faint of heart, and after reviewing installation instructions, I opted against testing it.)
The unifying factor in all these systems in the U.S. is purchasing a networked tuner from SiliconDust, which has three current models. All the DVR software I examined supports these models; SiliconDust’s DVR offering includes support for a fourth, discontinued model.
The HDHomeRun Connect ($93 on Amazon) and HDHomeRun Extend ($179.99 MSRP; available on Amazon) versions both have two tuners, but the Connect streams high-bandwidth uncompressed video (usually in MPEG2 format), which can run 20Mbps for HD content. The Extend has built-in on-the-fly H.264 compression, which produces a dramatically smaller file. (I reviewed the Connect two years ago. It’s essentially unchanged.)
There’s a third model too, called HDHomeRun Prime ($120 on Amazon), which adds an additional tuner connected to a slot for a CableCard, an erratically supported U.S. standard that lets you use BYOB tuner/DVR with cable service, including encrypted signals, but not those that also have DRM on top.
All three versions plug into a network via 100Mbps ethernet and have a coaxial connection for an internal or external ATSC antenna, although each can also be used with subscription cable TV, from which it can handle Clear QAM (unencrypted cable) signals. When a networked app or device connects to one of the tuners, the hardware marks it as in use. You can attach multiple HDHomeRun boxes to a network if you need more than two simultaneous TV tuners.
I highly recommend the Extend version, even though it costs about $80 more than Connect, because transcoding MPEG2 into any more efficient format taxes most Macs’ processors. (eyeTV is the only app that even offers transcoding via export; the rest transcode on the fly.) Hard-disk storage is cheap, but H.264 is easier to move around a network or store on an iOS device for offline watching.
My longest experience on the software side is with eyeTV. I used it first with an Elgato tuner that’s no longer made, and then with an HDHomeRun Connect. (In other countries, you should have other USB or networked tuner options, and some of these software packages will work outside the U.S. with those devices.)
You might be surprised as to the number of channels you can pick up in your area and what’s delivered. AntennaWeb will show which channels should have available signals at your address, and the expected quality of reception. My wife and I had to put an antenna on our roof because we live in a radio shadow at the bottom of a hill on which many TV towers sit on the top out of line of sie. The roof-mounted antenna lets us pick up dozens of channels, with HD reception coming through just fine.
What each of the DVRs offers is a program guide; the ability to record at will or via schedules, including recurring programs; and access to your recorded programs from within a network. Some offer Internet-based remote access, live TV viewing, and native apps for iOS and Apple TV as well as other platforms.
eyeTV is in commercial release. The other three I cover are in testing, so we aren’t ready to review them until they’re in release form as a server or service. Instead, I’ll provide a feature overview.
The €79.95 ($85) eyeTV 3 macOS app is showing its age. Despite consistent updates and bug fixes, the fundamental software looks unchanged from years ago, and remains just as frustrating to use now as then.
eyeTV orients itself around a programming grid, which in the U.S. requires a yearly €17.95 ($19) subscription to TV Guide. The subscription includes actors on shows and a brief description, but no show art and no links from names to find other shows they’re in. There’s no graphical way to browse or group by series, genre, or the like.
The app offers a variety of ways to record via the guide. You can record an individual TV program, but if it’s part of an ongoing show, series, or the like, the app provides a button to let you record all occurrences as a Smart Guide.
Smart Guides can have a number of criteria, so you can grab Saturday Night Live, no matter what network on which it appears, or only when it’s on your local NBC affiliate. You can also set up Smart Guides for actors, choose only HDTV broadcasts, or only shows with subtitles.
eyeTV is a scheduler, recorder, and player all in one, and you can tune live television through it as well. The app can be reached on a local network as a server through Safari using Bonjour to view a stripped-down playback interface.
There’s no Apple TV app, so the iOS app ($5) is the best way to push programs to your Apple TV through AirPlay. The experience is inconsistent and miserable, unfortunately. The iOS app can connect for remote access to eyeTV in macOS if you set up a free account and have the right network configuration. (I have a “double NAT” due to my ISP’s peculiarity. While some remote-control apps can traverse that, eyeTV cannot.)
Unlike the other DVRs in testing, you can transcode recordings from eyeTV to iTunes, and set that up as an automatic option after the app captures a program. The options include presets for a variety of iOS devices, Apple TV models, and HD formats, and you can customize the settings further. However, transcoding is extremely slow and can drag down the entire Mac as the app doesn’t throttle itself when burning CPU cycles.
Exporting to iTunes lets you use an Apple TV to browse for computers and then bring up the converted shows. However, there’s no way to delete the recordings from within eyeTV automatically. You can opt to prune what’s been stored or otherwise manage storage. As a result, my workflow results in duplicates of everything exported, with the originals chewing up hundreds of gigabytes until I occasionally go through and delete them. Likewise, I have to delete files from iTunes if I no longer want to keep the program.
eyeTV has been a marginally acceptable way for years, and it’s facing tough competition from up and comers, as I discuss next.
Plex Media Server with Media Pass option for DVR
Plex is a multi-platform media-organizing and sharing service that sweeps in audio, images, and video, and makes it available to desktop, mobile, and other devices, like Roku, Sony Playstation 4, and Apple TV.
The free version is pretty powerful, but the company added a subscription-based option called Plex Pass that includes a host of extra features, including access to a server-based DVR. The DVR is currently in beta, but it’s listed as just another current feature on the Plex Pass page. Plex Pass costs $5 a month, $40 a year, or $120 for a lifetime pass.
You view the program guide and set up recordings via the Plex Media Server in a Web browser. At present, those options aren’t available through an iOS or Apple TV app. You also can’t watch live TV: the DVR is entirely about setting up future recordings and seeing what’s scheduled. A rolling upcoming two weeks of rich programming data comes with the subscription.
Instead of a programming grid, Plex approaches available programs as it does other media, showing the kinds of things you might want to see instead of focusing on where they’re located. A main Discover view mixes everything together, broken up by Starting Soon, On Right Now, New Episodes Tonight, My Upcoming Shows (meaning TV series episodes), Recommended for You, and then upcoming categories for movies, sports, and news. Plex populates My Upcoming Shows based on recordings you’ve already made, while Recommendations are drawn from the broader Plex ecosystem of media you’ve loaded.
The Discover menu also lets you select Movies, News, Shows (TV series), and Sports, and then offers a custom approach to each topic. Under Shows, for instance, the default view is by series name, noting how many upcoming episodes are in the programming listing in the next two weeks. Click the show and it provides episode summaries and cast information. Click Record and Plex records all instances, with options you can choose. Or you can pick individual episodes.
The search features are very rewarding, as you can pull movies by title, actor, director, words in a program description, and other details.
Once you’ve picked anything to record, the Recording Schedule view shows a very very nice visualization of upcoming programs along a calendar view, which you switch to an “agenda” view that lists them in order. A Recording Priority sidebar lets you decide conflicts between overlaps with your available tuners for simultaneous programs.
Among many nice touches, you can opt while setting up or revising a recording within advanced settings to Replace Lower Resolution Items. If you captured an SD version of a TV program, Plex will replace any recording in your library with an HD version if you schedule it. This can be useful for movies, especially.
While the DVR feature is still in testing at this writing, it feels close to finished and tests out well. Plex including a DVR feature and programming guide as part of its larger package of features makes it a solid bargain. Plex Pass includes offline mobile access, cloud sync (to Dropbox, Google Drive, and personal OneDrive accounts), and parental controls, among other features.
Channels DVR with Channels apps
Channels began as an Apple TV app that let you connect to an HDHomeRun tuner and watch live television. That was a nice missing piece that let me continue to use my Apple TV even when I wanted to watch a live program, rather than switching to my television set’s UPnP interface or another approach. The company that makes it, Fancy Bits, added an iOS version. After initial releases, these apps added short buffers, so you could pause.
Now they’re in testing with Channels DVR, server software that can run on a Mac or a surprisingly large number of other platforms. The macOS version works through a web browser and offers access to all the features, but that’s just for convenience. The most natural place to use it is via the tvOS app. (Support within the iOS app is coming.)
Using a standard programming grid, you can select programs and then opt to record. For shows, a “pass” option allows recording all episodes or new episodes, and keeping all of them or selectively pruning. While there’s a search feature, at this stage of the beta, it only matches against titles. The descriptions are short compared to Plex, and only include one or two names in the cast of or of guests on a show.
The only problem is an $8-a-month subscription ($96 annually) that may be pricing itself too steeply compared to Plex, though they have a very different approach. Channels deal for that price is all its apps, programming guide information, and an ecosystem that allows remote access to stored programs and plan recordings remotely.
It’s the best replacement for eyeTV, however, offering superior versions of similar features. If you want to intermingle watching live television and recording often based on scanning or searching a program guide, it looks like Channels DVR and the Channels apps will serve you better than Plex. (You can also buy the Channels apps without a subscription for just watching live TV.)
SiliconDust HDHomeRun DVR
It shouldn’t be surprising that the makers of the hardware are also working on a DVR option. The company is offering free and paid access to its beta program, but the free flavor only shows a few hours of listings and doesn’t allow recording. The paid version is $60 a year, and includes a TV Guide subscription with two weeks of program listings. The TV Guide subscription countdown doesn’t start until it releases its full production version, the company notes on its website, after which renewals are $35 a year.
SiliconDust wanted to pack everything into the same interface. Live TV shows in the main view, and clicking or pressing Escape brings up controls for the current broadcast and a list of channels at right with the current program name and a bar that shows the portion of a show currently complete. Click a menu button, and you’re dropped into tabs for seeing recorded programs, viewing a guide, or looking at upcoming schedules.
The guide is Plex-like, divided into a chronological view, TV shows, movies, and sports, and using a program or box-art image for each item. Search appears to cover all associated program details, which are thin like Channels.
The interace is not very Mac like nor entirely intuitive, but it’s still in development. There’s no remote access for reaching programs via the DVR, and you can’t choose where to store recordings. (They’re oddly dropped into the top level of the Users folder in an HDHomeRun folder.) There’s also no SiliconDust iOS or Apple TV app either for live television or interacting with the DVR.
SiliconDust says the software will work with four of its tuner models past and present—Connect, Extend, Expand, and Prime—and the DVR software is available for Mac, Windows 10, and some network-attached storage (NAS) systems, with playback options via its apps in macOS, Windows 10, and Android.