For starters, the consumer electronics industry, normally so eager to sell us computers, laptops, pads, phones, and watches; the industry that for 30 years has sold us VCRs, competed over Beta vs VHS and Super-VHS (look it up, it existed), then sold us DVDs, DVD recorders with DVD-R and DVD-RW, then sold us DVRs that recorded standard definition, then sold us Blu-Ray players of increasing degrees of quality and declining prices...these days, they've utterly given up selling us anything that can record video.
The DVR was so beloved, the culmination of decades of home video-entertainment recording into the most-convenient possible form, it was called "God's Machine" by the chair of the FCC.
Even participating in that restriction of user rights to copy was already a new legal innovation. The cable/satellite companies had no stake of their own in whether Disney movies could be copied and the purchase of discs avoided. One would think they'd be compelled to help Disney's bottom line only at gunpoint, their own interests being to give their customers the best TV experience they could. People had been recording TV for 20 years when the HDTV switch came along; the function was a very free and open market, as many firms competed to come up with the best recorder features, quality and price - and that free market worked its magic, the products kept getting better. Shutting down that free market, into a literal company store of bad choices, was not in consumer's interest.
Content providers had already been proven wrong when they freaked out at this, industry spokesman Jack Valenti comparing the VCR to the Boston Strangler. Instead, people loved to buy commercial tapes and discs as presents, the ownership of a TV-recorded movie having all the cachet that "music recorded from radio" had enjoyed since the cassette tape came out in 1969: none.
But their paranoia broke out again with digital recording: it would be of perfect quality, eliminate the stigma, and wipe out their disc sales. Oddly, at the time, the ability to do perfect digital music copies from CD to CD-R was not really destroying the music industry. All the destruction was happening from low-quality MP3 recordings being very easily available by download.
Since then, movie disc sales have been drastically reduced by the comparable easy availability of video streaming. Even worse for disc rentals: the convenience of Netflix actually killed video stores, just as they jumped to high-quality Blu-Rays. The lower quality of streaming had nothing to do with it.
It doesn't really require a conspiracy theory where Disney and Universal conspire with cable-TV to kill off home recording; if the cablecos could make money by doing it, they'd need no other incentive.
I rented or purchased, from both Shaw Cable and Bell Satellite, two different DVR machines over the early 21st century. They were pretty good quality compared to the standard-def DVR I'd used in the late 1990s that could burn its hard-drive recordings to DVD-R. They were still trying to sell the new, more-expensive, HDTV at all, with many not seeing much from it.
With the Shaw HD-DVR, however, there was no way to save content. Indeed, while the Shaw effort could save even more movies to a plug-in hard drive, all your content was lost if you stopped your cable subscription: the recording format was (pointlessly) proprietary, and only your rented Shaw DVR could read it. You could "buy" the DVR with time-payments, which meant that any repairs could still only be done by Shaw, who would charge you for repairing your property - but you still couldn't use it without the subscription running.
It's not the cost of the cable plan that pushed me over: it was their arrogance in selling me a DVR that was distinctly inferior in performance to my first DVR from nearly 20 years earlier - the arrogance of a monopoly that knows you have to eat what they feed you.
Meanwhile, at Best Buy, there were no recording devices. On a recent (spring 2019) trip, I saw a lot of TVs, half a shelf of Blu-Ray players, a DVD player, and half a shelf devoted to two Over-The-Air (OTA) antenna choices. The antennas were accompanied by posters advertising that you could use them to "cut the cord and watch TV for free Over-The-Air"...but zero shelf space for a DVR that would work with them.
My only problem with it turned out to be that the amplifier was too strong. The swoopy-looking triangular piece is the real HDTV antenna; it also has rabbit ears for picking up the VHF signal (channels 2-13) which does not seem to be used any more, at least in Canada; all the HD stations are up in the UHF range the swoopy-bit is for.
A coax cable comes from the back of it and goes into a coax input on your HDTV. A few inches short of that end is a box hardly bigger than a matchbox, which has a little power cord going to a small power brick for your wall socket, max output 0.9W. This amplifies the HD signal.
The antenna is directional, you have to point it at the broadcast station for best results. All this can be sorted out with no DVR, just plug the antenna into your HDTV and see what you can pull in. The job is made trivial with a web site called "tvfool.com".
TVfool is just a database of where all the transmitters are in North America, and can find locations for your address; that and a little computation provides a web map of what direction all the transmitters around you are from your house.
After plugging in my address and waiting a minute, TVfool provides this very nice little compass-point map for you, and a list of available transmitters.
At right, TVfool's "map" says that seven stations - the line of numbers from 22, 43, 32 through 20 and 33 at the end - are all perched on top of Mt. Seymour, which from my house is at 62 degrees on the compass, just a few points north of east-north-east. For Vancouverites, there's no issue with having to turn around your HDTV antenna to get different stations in different directions: just point at Mt. Seymour. For a few of us, you can literally look out the window.
For the rest, you just grab your phone and put in "DTV antennas" into your app search. On Android, at least, I quickly found There's an App For That.
This app uses the magnetic compass inside your smartphone, so beware: these can be a little glitchy. Mine worked perfectly when I installed, but was pointing in another direction when I checked a day later, confusing me; I was advised to tap the phone a bit, power cycle it, to joggle the compass into behaving. So do check your phone's compass, see if it can find North before trusting it to find East-Northeast-by-North.
In my location, I hardly needed to know which channel names were the ones on Mt. Seymour: the top three all pointed in the same direction, and that was it. I pointed the antenna at 62 degrees as if every degree counted, and six channels came in crystal-clear. The only ones that matter, of course, are CBC, CTV, and Global, unless you want the French CBC (also in the same place) or local-access programming for several other languages like Mandarin and Punjabi. The sixth one calls itself "CTV2", but most of its content is CBC, confusing me. Nearly everything we watch is on CTV, in any event.
In subsequent days, I realized I had some spotty reception on the lowest-numbered channel (presumably lowest frequency?), CBC. Morning reception, in particular, would have cut-outs of the sound for a few seconds, as often as every minute; and even some breakup of the pixels in the image.
I was fiddling around some more, checking connections, and cursing my balky compass in the smartphone, when I bumped the OFF switch on the little amplifier box that's a few inches short of the end of the coax from the Terk antenna. (Picture at right.) The signal cleared up at once.
I checked the other channels, and they were fine; all has been fine, since. Alas, you must leave the amplifier plugged in; I unplugged it and all signal was lost, so I assume that the amplifier needs to be on for signal to get through it at all. The cost will be a small fraction of a watt.
So, at this point, you've spent maybe $80 Canadian, spent less than an hour, and you've gone, if not back to the future, back to 1955: you can watch TV over-the-air again. You just can't record it, which after 36 years since my first VCR, feels like going back from a fridge to an icebox. It's funny to think, now, that one must be pretty grey-haired to even remember the era where you had to be there in front of the TV when your show was on, or miss it entirely. It seems like an ancient time even to those of us who do remember it.
Everybody who does this has one immediate reaction: damn, that's one clear, sharp picture. Better than cable. Here's the reason. OTA broadcasts must meet a legally defined broadcast quality: they're all at the top quality that HD can provide. Cable providers, on the other hand, are not using public airwaves; and they have captured their regulators so fully the CRTC has to ask for sunlight to be piped down to them. They have cheerfully given the OK for Shaw and friends to cut down their bandwidth until you complain, and they cut it down until people start calling to say this is worse than standard definition. They do provide a good 6 Mb/s for fast-moving, detail-needed imagery like football games; but for the evening news, it might be a quarter of that. OTA, it's all at the top quality.
The HDHomeRun company sells devices that just handle the "tuner" part of a DVR. The rest of a DVR is really just a computer to store files and play them as video, after all. Any computer can do it. My purchase was the "Connect Duo", which has a "mere" two TV tuners (record one show, watch another), and no storage or recording software at all.
It has what you can see in the picture. You plug in three cables: power, the coax from the antenna, and a standard Ethernet RJ45 jack. That's the end of the hardware setup.
If you thought that networking with Ethernet wires was dead, of an acute case of WiFi, think again. These folks are adamant that no WiFi protocol is fast and smooth enough to provide non-jerky TV signal. When I divided my file size into seconds, I realized the stream of bits out that jack is a good 10 megabits per second - 20 if you have both channels going.
It is called "DLNA streaming" but the technical details are of only academic interest: the upshot is that WiFi devices on your network will be able to access the TV bitstream, but not smoothly or certainly; the system also depends on you having a computer actually wired-in to your Ethernet, at least the one that does the recording. You may not mind the occasional jerk while watching, but let's not record like that.
Ethernet wires may not be so common anymore, but I had decided to devote an old laptop with an HDMI output to the TV when moving house - and ran an Ethernet cable to it during renovations, because I'm old-fashioned that way. If you don't have a "TV computer" and don't want one anyway, it might be better to just buy the Tablo DVR from Amazon.ca.
A dedicated TV computer may make sense for other reasons, though. (Besides my bad habit of just reading news sites, 60 inches wide, from my couch.) Cord-cutting these days probably involves Internet TV - from Netflix and Crave to Hulu and Amazon. Our cord-cutting was also predicated on how much TV we watch from Netflix and Crave. While many Blu-Ray players and Smart TVs include a Netflix application, a YouTube application, few devices can do everything. A general-purpose computer always can.
But so far, this only replicates what you could do with no HDHomeRun box at all, just watch TV. The only improvement is that you can now watch TV on any computer device in your home. The ones using WiFi may not have smooth feed all the time, but it works to almost any device, any tablet or phone.
To make a computer a DVR, you need software that records, and HDHomeRun has chosen to basically rent this, for $35 US per year. Their trick is to bundle this app with your subscription to their schedule service, which you would be crazy to skip. I'm not just spoiled by 36 years of recording TV; now I'm spoiled by 15 years of just pointing at the program on a schedule grid. Having to set time and channel? My God, next you'll ask me to go back to lamp oil. From whales.
So while I'd normally hate to "rent software", I'll admit the software is hardly worth it without the schedule service, for which $35/year seems very reasonable; so I took it like a man and signed up with their service.
This is no different that a web site to sign up for a magazine subscription: have your credit card ready, etc. The first two months are actually free; my first bill is many weeks away yet. The verification is cunning: you enter the unique device ID of your HDHomeRun box from the back of the box, and a product key that is mailed to you when you sign up. This associates the hardware box with your account, and all the computers and pads and things around your home that install the DVR software, look for the HDHomeRun device and presumbably identify themselves with it when asking the server for a schedule. That means that all the devices you watch TV with are automatically, seamlessly signed up. It was all working in minutes (except on Win 7 and Linux).
There can only be one recording computer per HDHomeRun device. My always-on, TV computer, already on Ethernet, was of course the obvious choice. If you don't have an always-on device, your 3AM recording of an old movie might not happen. So, if you like this idea of a "TV computer", consider a low-power ultrabook.
Here in BC, with larcenous power prices of over 12 cents per kWh, it's a buck per watt per year. That is, a 60W laptop will cost you $60/year, a 10W ultrabook will cost you $10/year, for 7x24 power. It's worth noting, of course, that your home and especially your entertainment area are full of 7x24 devices - and some of them are pulling more than 10 watts, too. Anything that goes on by remote control is obviously already on to some degree to receive it. Most of them sleep at a few watts, but not all. Including my about-to-die Shaw DVR that has an always-spinning hard drive in it, even when "off" (!) It's very possible that when it's unplugged, my total power consumption will drop, 7x24 laptop and all.
Adding it all up, the antenna amplifier is a small fraction of a watt, the gigabit ethernet switch that doesn't even have a power brick because it plugs into the laptotp USB for power is just 5-7W or so, and the laptop is apparently about 15W when idle (7500 hours a year) and 60-90W when doing video (a few hours a night). I'm probably paying about $20/year for always-on things, and another $10 for the actual operation. My TV is another watt or so.
The "recording computer" is also your video file server. All recordings go to that computer, no matter which device in the house sets the recording. If you record while you watch, then you're actually watching a file-feed from the recording computer, no longer the bitstream from the tuner.
You may notice another field there, where I have allowed "NAS", network-attached storage. This is another option. You can buy NAS devices for a few hundred and have multiple terabytes of storage space if you like. I put it on because I have a Linux computer, also nearly always on, which could be an NAS. But the "Recording computer" system worked so well I never bothered. I just cleared junk off the TV computer and have some 300GB of space available. I can't see it being used up.
The files do not have to live there, after all; these are NOT proprietary video formats only your cable company can decode: the system outputs standard ".mpg" files that anybody with any device can play. The shows are YOURS, not theirs, they are your property. Save them on backup drives, burn them to DVD storage, compress them down to thumbnails, it's your choice.
The serious problem was my "dedicated TV computer", which I mentioned was old; it runs Windows 7, and I'd hate up upgrade, because MS charges for Windows 10, because I'm a little worried that the "HDMI output is the monitor" thing might stop working if I changed the OS, and because, well, I hate everything about Windows 10.
So of course it turns out the HDHomeRun application will not do the DVR functions or use the schedule, if the OS is below Windows 8.1. I just saw messages that there was "no DVR set up", as if I had not subscribed.
Skipping over two days of trying different solutions - but with a nod to the HDHomeRun support people, who have a great ticket system, and kept sending me different solutions to try. The one that is supposed to work, simply did not, though they checked it for me with another Windows 7 machine they have in the shop. They had some backups to try, and the second one worked.
The HDHomeRun people have done an addon for their functions, for those who'd rather centralize their TV management in one application, rather than run their independent viewer program. And the combination of Kodi and the addon was supposed to work for Windows 7. For me, it just did not.
The day was saved by free software contributor Michael Brehm, and his own free DVR client for Kodi that supports HDHomeRun: Zuki.
Zuki is the second kind of add-on you can get for Kodi. The most popular ones are in a repository, and within Kodi itself, you can go to the "Add-Ons" page and browse their server's repository, literally hundreds of media applications. For those more independent, Kodi also will let you "install from zip file" and then you can go anywhere on the Internet where somebody has posted a Kodi add-on effort as a zip. The above link is to free software site Github.
Zuki was the second zip program I tried - the first worked to watch TV but did no DVR/schedule stuff - and thus my third attempt with Kodi, and fourth attempt overall to get a Win 7 machine doing the DVR. One must admit to frustration.
So I was almost stunned when it did work - perfectly. It is actually a better way to use Kodi with HDHomeRun equipment than their own Kodi add-on! Closing the ticket, I told the guy that: HDHomeRun should promote this thing above their own software even for people who can use their software: this free add-on is just better. All kudos to the HDHomeRun support team for putting me on to it!
Rather than starting Kodi and then going into the Add-ons menu, to pick the HDHomeRun Add-on, as I would with the vendor's add-on, this add-on insinuated itself into the Kodi "TV" function itself. So it was start Kodi, click on TV, and start watching. Hit space bar to pause Live TV. Click on the RECORD button on-screen to record it. Hit ESC key, or right-click to jump to the schedule grid. It was a full-blown DVR.
There's a "recordings" menu to go to once your recordings library builds up; any machine in the house can go to it and pick a show.
I have skipped over the add-on install specifics: the Kodi support pages have screenshot-by-screenshot detail on all that. Kodi has been refined for over 20 years now until it really is an impressive software project, complete with very extensive documentation. I can't recommend it enough.
Which is the end of that story. That installed fine, and the HDHomeRun add-on, which you install from menus inside Kodi, ran just fine. I can now watch TV from the TV computer, the Windows 10 laptop, and my Linux Desktop; my wife is great on her Mac laptop.
I'll close with the basic screenshots from Kodi in action. You can see better ones at Kodi sites, so this is just to encourage you to give this a try: Come on in, the water's fine!
After clicking on the Kodi icon in Windows, this is the first screen you see. The right hand changes if you even hover the mouse over the left-hand icons. The "DISC" icon only appears if there IS a disc - and in this case, my laptop has a DVD slot and a DVD in it.
There are actually several more left-menu choices for other Kodi functions; but the Settings menu allows you to remove choices you don't want, and I only want to use it for TV and Discs. Plus, there are these few plug-ins for watching CNN videos and so forth that seemed nice.
If you hover the mouse over the TV icon at left, these are your TV choices: go directly to a recent channel (plenty, when you have only 3 interesting channels), or the formal channel list, or the schedule grid, or your list of recordings. "Timers" can be either one specific recording, or an order to get all episodes of a particular TV series name.
This is what you see from the "channel list" pick; or you see this if you are watching a channel, and hit ESC.
While watching one channel, any slight mouse movement brings up this control overlay, letting you jump around in the show (if recorded), pause, or start a recording. Icons at lower right let you jump to the schedule grid, change settings, etc.
These are BIG files. A typical hour of TV will set you back over 6 GB. If I wanted to save a show for viewing again in years later, could I cut that down? I had HandBrake already on that Windows 7 machine, a free application that does "transcoding" to other file formats. I picked the one often considered the most modern and compressed, the MP4 format, and it had a recompressed version of the hour about half an hour later: 3GB. It looked to be the same quality, so you can cut file sizes in half.
I ran HandBrake again, this time telling it to cut a little slack on quality. It said that "Blu-Ray quality" had settings from 20 to 23, so I picked 24 to be only a little fuzzy. It was just barely fuzzier than the original, and cut the file size by more than half again, down to 1.4GB.
So its basically a gigabyte per 42-minute TV show for storage, if you want a library. Or more, for really sharp copies; you pays your bytes and takes your choice!
But to emphasize that last word, now I have a choice. Now the recording is my property, to use as I please as long as I don't make copies for anybody else to use. The Bastards Of Content are not content, if you will, to ensure you don't violate copyright laws: they they don't want you to exercise legal rights that you DO have with their intellectual property. The simplest way to ensure you don't abuse copyright...is to take away all of your rights.
But I have taken them back after 15 years of knuckling under to the Copyright Mafia, and their servile conspirators in the Cable Oligarchy. (Suggestions for nastier names welcomed.)
That's actually worth more to me than the hundreds of dollars per year I'm saving on channels that I don't even want, and the channels I thought sounded nice, but never did watch. There was always this frustration at every turn with these companies: the channels you did want were bundled with several you didn't. If you were a news nut (I am) that wanted both CNN and BBC, they would surely be in two different packages. You could almost sense the instructions given to some analyst to find the bundling groups that would ensure the maximum number of bundles would be purchased.
Being sheared like a sheep via the deliberate limiting of your choices, like my grandfather in the company coal town run by the local Scottish Laird - having only one store - was actually worse than the monetary cost. That's why getting out from under it has value beyond the mere money.
I hope the increasing numbers of good shows on streaming services lead more people to wonder if they can just manage with OTA for news and the most-popular TV series. I'd like to drop by Best Buy one day and see a big display of new DVRs!
But OTA is free, and we're spending barely $3/month on that schedule service, so the capital expense is paying back at $23/month or $276 per year.
The Terk Antenna is currently at Wal-Mart in Canada for $80
The HDHomeRun Duo is currently at Staples Candaa for $130
I also had to get a tiny network switch so my computer and the HDHomeRun box could share one Ethernet cable to the Internet modem, that was $20. Add in a little for cables and tax, and call it $250 total.
So it does take 11 months to pay back - and of course my figures assume you don't have to buy a whole computer, too - as mentioned, if you have to do that, you should look into a hardware DVR from, say, Tablo.
The bigger picture, of course, is that the OTA signal is just about your popular major-network shows, the ones that Canadian broadcasters are guaranteed to buy from the USA, which always made it of limited value to have CBS, ABC, NBC.
The function of all the other channels in your giant cable package - the movies, the specialty shows - has already been taken over by streaming services. On that front, we're paying $168 a year for Netflix, and $224 a year for CraveTV with the HBO/movies package added. This comes to over $400, so all this "disruption" boils down to cutting our old, big-package cable bill of about $117 a month ($1404/year) down by nearly a thousand dollars.
The value of specialty cable has simply been provided more efficiently, at a profit, via the Internet. The original value of cable itself was clear reception - that may have been forgotten at this point. The "clear reception" problem has actually been solved by digital TV transmission. Yes, that breaks up a bit now and then - but so did cable transmissions for various reasons.
In a free market, every purchase - and every cessation of regular purchases - sends an economic message to change the production system. In recent years, cumulatively, this is just the last $312/year - I've sent the message to the free market to spend a thousand dollars less per year bringing us TV over cable. If enough people join us, the industry will come to an end and all video will go over the Internet. It would be a bad move, I believe, to shut down OTA; in disasters, OTA radio and TV might be the only news for a while. But TV cable existed for specific reasons that don't really apply any more, and its era may be done.
The guys at CUUG have been asking me if this cord-cutting - particularly with this hi-tech solution that avoids buying another DVR appliance but does involve setting up a "software DVR" on a computer - is for everybody, or just for techies that love picking away at technical bugs. (We don't actually love it; we hate things not working...)
Yes. As long as you have Win 10 or Mac. All my troubles came from Win 7 forcing me to use Kodi and an Add-On.
I did have a problem for some days that was a classic hacker problem - I had to fiddle and fiddle with things, until I basically stumbled on the right thing to do by sheer trial & error.
What I'm pretty sure happened is that the Windows application you should only have to run the once, the HDHomeRun Setup program, where you put in the directory to record to, also runs a scan down the tuner to find any channels out there. And in my case, it only found five of the six that first day. The sixth always showed later, but I was unlucky.
The I noticed there were just the five today and clicked to Scan again, and all six came in, shown at left. I suspect this scan sets the list of channels to be requested for the guide from whatever server Silicon Dust runs. The client(s) may go on to find all six, but the recording computer won't fetch them a guide.
Software Hilarity ensued. The channel (CTV2, 17.1) would get the guide, for some reason, for CBC, 2.1 - and if you hit RECORD while watching CTV2, then it would actually record CBC! I could still set up CTV2 recordings on OTHER clients, but not on the one free Kodi Add-On client, Zuki, that I was using with my Win 7 box on the TV.
I'd thought that the rescan would fix things and spent another hour didding with settings changes and restarts. Finally, I spotted the place in the channel manager where you CLEAR DATA - about channels, the guide, the works.
After that, the channel was normal in the Zuki client.
All of which would be a real problem for a non-hacker type who won't patiently check everything, alert for incongruities or relevant-sounding controls.
BUT: the whole problem was with the Zuki client. Which is not needed if you have Windows 10 or a Mac. Those platforms were fine with the basic HDHomeRun software, so again, I claim that this cord-cut would be easy for anybody who can set up most consumer electronics devices.
Long story short, we kept getting the signal drop and go "poor" (lots of pixels on-screen missing, dropouts in the sound), if not entirely gone; and some channels at some times of the day were unwatchable. This was not clear when we started, because you have to watch for more than a few minutes to see the problems crop up. It was nearly good enough, but just not there.
I found that the Terk antenna's amplifier was a good thing more often than not, and turned it on, but it wasn't enough help. It isn't just about signal strength, but something about "signal quality" that was showing low on a monitor program that comes with HDHomerun for Linux. (Not for the Windows version, interestingly - I think that HDHomerun guys actually develop in Linux, then port to Windows and Mac...)
The HDHomerun system came to the rescue again, in a way. I didn't have to buy a long, thick, obvious coax cable and go running it around the house to get to a window. The only thing that had to connect to the system was a thin "CAT5" (Ethernet/Internet) cable, of which I already had a 50-foot one. (If you had computers in your house before WiFi, you may as well.)
The far end of our patio is our "basement" at the moment: where we pile up stuff like gardening pots, cleaning-substance bottles, and storage containers. The cluster of wall-wart transformers and little cables and the CAT5 are a bit of a mess that I used to hide behind the TV, but they are out of sight behind the pile of stored stuff, with the antenna currently sitting on top of the storage boxes:
Behind the antenna is an openable window between the living room and the patio; I'll have to keep it slightly ajar unless I want to drill a hole for the CAT5 cable. And since the window has a power outlet right beneath, I also have two thin power cords - for the antenna amplifier, and for the HDHomerun box, also going through the window. None of it a big deal.
The difference was clear, pun intended - all of the reception problems seem to be gone. Slight differences in antenna location counted, however! When the antenna was just a half-metre back from the position shown, and pointing right at the steel support columns for the patio windows, reception still had spotty moments on a few stations. Only when there was NOTHING but glass between the antenna and the clear air outside did the last of them go away.
The Terk amplifier is now definitely OFF, period. The signal strength is now over 80% on most stations, and goes way too strong, becomes bad, if the amplifier is turned on. The "signal quality index" is up to around 70%, which is "in the green", that is, any visible problem on the TV almost unheard-of. By chance, I got all this working on a day that ended with hours of heavy rain. The signal was undimmed, all six channels clear and artifact-free.
So, I must modify my original enthusiasm with a caveat: just putting your antenna up beside the TV is chancy in many locations. If you can mount up an outside antenna, or at least put one up right in a window, you'll have a trouble-free experience, and that sweet, sweet full-1080 bandwidth that the cable/telco/satellite Axis of Evil will never give you.