Aereo, the company that that translates over-the-air television to live Internet streams, is most likely going to have to shut down, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling that says what it does is illegal. Legions of devoted fans would be sad to see Aereo go, but even if it does, the TV landscape will never be the same.
Aereo’s headline-stirring legal battles have reawakened consumers to the possibilities of the free TV buzzing over their heads all the time. Savvy consumers are already taking advantage of it, ditching cable and satellite services for a combo of free over-the-air TV and streaming Internet video from services like Netflix. And with Aereo on its way out, cord cutters are now looking into alternatives that might provide an experience similar to its service, or at least something close.
The good news: There are alternatives, and we’re going to give them to you right here. Whether you want to record a year’s worth of Hell’s Kitchen episodes and watch them while travelling abroad, or simply aim to bundle Netflix and all your local TV stations into one little box that lets you pause live TV, we’ve got the answers below.
First, find the right antenna
While it’s true that your grandma’s old bunny ears will pull in digital broadcast signals, they don’t do the best job of it and, besides, they’re an eyesore. Better to go with something modern that’s been designed to capture a wide spectrum of TV signals without having to be adjusted or angled just so, or doctored up with tin foil. Bonus: Some antennas can be hidden behind picture frames or in windows.
We’ve assembled six different hardware solutions for you, each of them different in varying ways.
To figure out which type of antenna is best for you, we suggest you head to TV Fool — never mind the name, these folks aren’t messing around. The site will help you determine which stations you can expect in your area, using various types of antennas.
Once you’ve made peace with what kind of antenna you need, the question becomes: which brand? We at DT have had great success with the Mohu Leaf, Mohu Sky, Winegard Flatwave, Terk HDTVa, HD Frequency Cable Cutter and Cable Cutter Mini, and RCA Ultra-thin Indoor Antenna. Many of these are available in amplified and unamplified versions. Check with the manufacturer to find out if you should use an amplifier.
How do you like your TV served?
We’ve assembled five different hardware solutions for you, each of them different in varying ways. Have a read through and see which sounds right for you.
Just like Aereo
Nuvyyo Tablo OTA DVR – $219 + hard drive + subscription
The Tablo is a compact black box that connects to your HD antenna and streams live and recorded TV programs over the Internet, much like Aereo. The box requires that you add an external hard drive for TV storage – the more you want to record, the bigger the storage drive needs to be.
The trick with the Tablo is that it does not connect directly to your TV. Instead, you can watch on a tablet or computer, or watch on your TV through an Apple TV or Roku set-top box. You aren’t limited to watching at home, either. As part of the $5 monthly subscription fee ($50 annually, or $150 for life) you get the ability to watch anywhere you have access to the Internet, along with a really slick TV guide interface. So far, the Tablo is the easiest and most flexible solution we’ve used. One of the great things about this little box is that it connects to your home’s network using Wi-Fi, so the box can be placed anywhere there is a power source. That means more antenna placement flexibility, thus better reception and more channels. To learn more, check out our Tablo review.
Pros: Easy to set up, Wi-Fi built in, great user interface, flexible placement
Cons: No HDMI output to TV, requires moderate subscription, potential for Wi-Fi dropouts
KISS: Keep It Simple Silly
Simple.TV 2 OTA DVR – $199 + hard drive + subscription
The Simple.TV 2 box works very similar to the Tablo box, with one key distinction: It doesn’t connect via Wi-Fi. This means it needs to be connected to your network via Ethernet, and that might limit its placement. On the plus side, speed and stability are never a problem.
Like the Tablo, Simple.TV needs a hard drive to store its recordings. Both live and recorded TV gets served up to various devices over the Internet, whether home or abroad. One of Simple.TV’s big advantages is that it supports Chromecast, which means getting programs to a television can be done with the addition of a $35 HDMI dongle. Simple.TV also works with tablets, smartphones, Plex, Roku, Apple TV and computers via the Web.
In our brief testing, we enjoyed how easy it was to set up Simple.TV, and we liked the tablet interface quite a bit. On the other hand, the Web interface is a little underwhelming, but it gets the job done. Take note, the Simple.TV has a fairly loud fan, so you’ll want to keep it in an out-of-the-way place. You can see what Simple.TV looks like in action in our hands-on video.
Subscriptions are $60 a year or $150 for a lifetime – no monthly subscription is available.
Pros: Simple, easy setup, solid user interface/guide, stream anywhere
Cons: No Wi-Fi, loud fan, limited to two tuners
The Everything Box
TiVo Roamio DVR – $199 + subscription
While TiVO’s Roamio DVR is a little more expensive on the long term, it is easily the most versatile option on our list and perhaps the most pleasant to use overall.
The Roamio comes with a long list of benefits, including a built-in hard drive with enough space for 75 hours of HD recordings, four tuners, Wi-Fi networking, an impressive list of Internet apps like Netflix, Hulu and VUDU, Internet streaming of recorded and live TV, both in and out of the home (requires additional purchase), and one of the best user experiences in the business. Also, if you are more of a “cord shaver” than a “cord cutter,” Roamio will also tune and record cable programming via cable card and Verizon FiOs. In some markets, that also means access to on-demand programming – check with TiVo to find out more.
On the down side, the adapter needed for in-and-out-of-home streaming is an added $129 (but bear in mind there’s no hard drive to purchase), and to watch on more than one TV, you’ll need a TiVo mini adapter ($99). Also, TiVo’s subscription rates are a little pricier at $15 per month (year required, then month-to-month) or $500 for a lifetime. Otherwise, this is one of the most comprehensive options cord-cutters have at their disposal.
Pros: Streaming apps, built-in storage, Wi-Fi, great user interface
Cons: Expensive, may be overkill for cord cutters
Cord Cutter’s Dream Box
Mohu Channels – $89 and up
Mohu, maker of the wildly popular Leaf antenna, has introduced what it is billing as a “cord-cutter’s dream machine.” And while the fact that the product just rounded the corner from Kickstarter project to real-life product means you may have to wait a little while to get one, it certainly looks worth it from where we sit.
To be clear, Mohu Channels is not a DVR, so it won’t record your programs (though future versions might get that ability). It will, however, allow some time shifting by allowing users to pause, fast-forward and rewind live TV to some extent. But the real appeal of this device is in its name: Channels.
The Mohu Channels takes OTA broadcasts and Internet streaming services and bundles them all into one interface of “channels,” laid out to look like the on-screen guide you are already used to using. Think of it as the marriage of Internet video and broadcast TV in one customizable layout, modeled after a traditional cable box.
The device comes with a remote that offers a QWERTY style keyboard for easier searches, and has full access to the Google Play store. That means lots of apps and, using the PLEX app, any content stored on a network can also be played back. Given its pricing, the Mohu Channels is the highest-value device on our list, even if it isn’t a DVR or Aereo replacement, per se.
Pros: Blends live TV and Internet Apps, affordable, familiar interface
Cons: No DVR or out-of-home streaming capabilities
The Bare Bones
Channel Master + OTA DVR – Special Aereo Death Deal: $269 for Antenna, DVR+ and USB Wi-Fi adapter
If you all you want to do is record free OTA broadcasts and watch them on your TV – no apps (save Vudu), no streaming, no downloads, no super dressed up interface – then the Channel Master DVR + is for you. The DVR+ is about as basic as it gets these days, but it will sure get the job done. You’ll need your own hard drive, an HDMI cable, and if this deal runs out, that USB W-Fi adapter would sure be handy.
Just connect an antenna, run the system’s search, and pick which channels you want listed. You’ll be up and running in no time. The DVR + stores about two weeks of program guide information, and you’ll have to hunt down your shows yourself – no search included. It’s kind of like a VCR, but for digital TV. You can learn more in our review.
The DIY Media Center
DIY Computer/TV Tuner Media Center – $???
This last option is definitely intended for the more hands-on, computer savvy of us. Using a capable desktop or laptop PC, a TV tuner (internal or external USB), Windows Media Center and Plex (XBMC is also an option), enthusiasts can build a very capable system that will stream recorded TV content (and any other content, including stored music, movies and photos) both in and out of the home.
The PC needs to be fast enough to render video for streaming through PLEX. In our experience, most modern-day dual-core processors and a moderate amount of RAM is sufficient. From there you’ll need to connect an antenna to a TV tuner card or USB dongle. With that in place, Windows Media Center can be used to schedule and execute recordings, then store them in a designated folder.
Using Plex, you can then make all stored content available over the Internet for streaming via smartphones, tablets, Roku, Amazon Fire TV and various Android-based set-top boxes.
The process takes a bit of work, but it can be really rewarding to build your own networked media center, especially if you already have many of the parts necessary.
Pros: Plays all sorts of media, highly accessible, uses components you may already have
Cons: Requires some expertise, continuous maintenance
There you have it: six ways you can take control of freely available television content, whether at home, or on the go. Be sure to check out our other informative articles for cord cutters here, and happy watching!