Home Theater

Ditch the bill, keep the remote with four cable-free DVRs for cord cutters

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When the topic of cord cutting comes up in conversation, one of the main objections to ditching pay-TV service is the accessibility of recorded content on DVR set-top boxes that were provided by cable and satellite companies. While streaming services provide immediate accessibility to specific programming, the ability to record live television using an antenna is basically lost unless the cord cutter invests in a new DVR solution for the home.

dvr-all-the-shows-485x375The good news is that there are plenty of DVR options for the home theater that don’t require an investment in a home theater PC. While some tech-savvy consumers can definitely take advantage of free DVR recording using software like Windows Media Center or EyeTV on an HTPC, that route is generally more complex than the plug-and-play options available with set-top hardware.

In addition, recent set-top DVR solutions are transitioning into the mobile space and will easily allow you to watch recorded shows on your smartphone and tablet while spending time away from home.

Moving to a new DVR system within the home also allows consumers to stop paying additional rental fees for DVR hardware on their monthly cable or satellite bill. For instance, Time Warner Cable charges approximately $10 each month for each DVR box being used in a home around the Los Angeles area. If you are starting to think about cutting the cord to kick off 2013, or already cut the cord recently, take a look at this list of interesting DVR solutions that will help with the transition away from pay-TV:

1. Simple.TV

simple-tv-gear-patrol-650x450Drastically different than the traditional DVR set-top box, the folks behind Simple.TV have embraced streaming technology and created a nifty DVR that streams both live and recorded programming to mobile devices, PCs and the Roku set-top box.

This DVR box doesn’t plug into your television. Instead, the puck-shaped device is plugged into a home’s router and a USB hard drive is plugged into the Simple.TV device. The Simple.TV supports antennas for free over-the-air high definition programming as well as digital basic cable.

One drawback to this setup is the Simple.TV only has a single tuner, which means just one show can be recorded at any given time. However, up to five people can connect to the hardware and stream shows at any given time. The creators of the device also plan to support device stacking on a single account to allow users to add additional tuners. In order to access recorded content at televisions around the home, users will need to connect a Roku set-top box and install the Simple.TV application to get started.

simpletv-ipad-interface-700x543The creators of Simple.TV also offer a premium subscription service that adds additional features to the device. The free service offers users the ability to record programming, pause live television and stream content within the home. However, the premium service includes a program guide to help schedule recordings, offers season pass options for recording full seasons of specific shows and allows users to stream recorded content outside of the home’s wireless network.

This type of DVR is geared toward consumers that want to watch programming anywhere. It’s specifically advantageous to the cord cutter as the Roku set-top hardware offers a significant amount of streaming video options beyond programming recorded with an antenna.

  • Total Cost for a household with three televisions (includes mobile streaming): $430 (Simple.TV, three Roku HD boxes and a 1TB hard drive) + $49 yearly subscription.

2. Boxee TV

boxeetv-perspective_610x381-610x381Shifting away from the typical hard drive storage design, the Boxee TV moves all data storage into the cloud and doesn’t limit the user to a specific number of hours of recorded video. Boxee TV users can record as much content as they want without having to delete old shows or movies.

The hardware comes with two tuners for recording programming. However, that number can be increased as the user adds more of the Boxee TV set-top boxes within the home. For instance, three Boxee TV devices will allow the user to record up to six shows at the same time and all of that content is tied to a single account.

To watch programming, users can access the content through their television using the Boxee TV hardware. In addition, Boxee TV owners can stream content outside of the home on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

boxee-tv-recordings-700x394On top of the programming recorded using the DVR functions, the Boxee TV includes a selection of streaming video and music applications similar to a Roku device. Those applications include Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, Vimeo, MLB.TV, Pandora and Spotify. In addition, users can connect a flash drive or hard drive via the USB port to play video files downloaded off the Internet.

One current drawback of the Boxee TV is that it’s only available in a handful of U.S. cities at the moment. Those metropolitan areas include Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas / Ft. Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.. Users can sign up on the Boxee site for email alerts sent when the service is available in their area. Easily one of the cheaper DVR solutions for the home, the Boxee TV is a flexible device that offers mobile streaming, multiple tuners and a smattering of extra streaming video applications.

  • Total Cost for a household with three televisions (includes mobile streaming): $300 + $120 yearly subscription.

3. TiVo Premiere

tivo-premiere-846x290Easily the most seasoned veteran in the DVR category, the TiVo brand is known for an extremely user-friendly experience as well as excellent software features that include show recommendations. The standard TiVo Premiere set-top box includes two tuners, saves up to 75 hours of HD video and supports over-the-air channels using a secondary antenna.

In addition, TiVo allows consumers to expand the storage capacity by plugging an external hard drive into the set-top box. By adding 1TB of recording space, that allows the consumer to record an additional 140 hours of high definition video. Regarding streaming video applications, the TiVo Premiere set-top box includes Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video.

tivo-stream-1000x544The standard TiVo Premiere DVR costs $150, but can be found on sale as cheap as $99 during special promotions. TiVo also offers more expensive options that include extra tuners and larger storage capacity, but those set-top boxes are a poor choice for a cord cutter because they only support digital channels and do not include an option to connect a secondary antenna.

Beyond the main home theater in the living room, consumers will need to purchase secondary TiVo Premiere set-top boxes for other televisions in the home. While that offers the ability to stream recorded content between boxes, a cording cutting consumer with four televisions in the home would need to spend approximately $600 to outfit the entire home with DVR capabilities.

On top of the set-top box costs, a subscription to the TiVo costs $15 a month or consumers can pay a lifetime fee of $500. That’s nearly three years of service paid in advance. In order to watch shows on mobile devices, TiVo requires a secondary purchase of the TiVo Stream device. Priced at $130, the TiVo Stream will allow subscribers to watch recorded shows on mobile Apple devices. The Tivo Premiere is probably one of the best options for families that want something extremely familiar to their traditional DVR, but still want the option of mobile streaming.

  • Total Cost for a household with three televisions (includes mobile streaming): $580 + $180 yearly subscription.

4. Channel Master TV

channel-master-tv-640x416Positioned as a subscription free DVR option within the consumer electronics market, the Channel Master TV CM 7400R HD DVR offers an extremely similar experience to cable and satellite set-top DVR boxes.

Including two tuners within the set-top box, the hardware is capable of storing up to 35 hours of high definition recordings on the 320GB internal hard drive. The device also includes a clock on the front to display the current time as well as a USB port to play video files stored on a flash drive or external hard drive.

The set-top box also includes three Wi-Fi antennas on the rear panel to stream content from the Internet to the home theater. Channel Master has partnered with Vudu to provide premium movie and television rentals as well as a Vudu Apps section that offers access to social networks like Facebook and Twitter as well as news organizations like CNN and The New York Times.

channel-master-tv-back-700x351The downside to a subscription free service is that the Channel Master TV carries a hefty retail price of $400. In addition, there’s no option to stream content recorded on the DVR to mobile devices like the iPad or stream content from one DVR to another within the same household.

In addition, the small hard drive included within the Channel Master TV doesn’t allow the user to record a significant amount of programming when compared to other alternatives. Some users have complained about heat issues with the set-top box in online reviews. It’s likely that the Channel Master TV will need plenty of ventilation within a typical home theater setup.

  • Total Cost for a household with three televisions (doesn’t include mobile streaming): $1,200

Most importantly, you want to choose a DVR solution that works with your lifestyle. If you spend lots of time out on the road and need extensive mobile support, more recent solutions like the Simple.TV may be exactly what you need. If you have a large family and need an inexpensive DVR solution for the entire home, the Boxee TV could help reduce overall hardware costs. If you absolutely love your current DVR set-top box provided by a pay-TV company, the TiVo is a great transition product that will feel extremely similar to the pay-TV service in addition to offering mobile streaming options. If you don’t care about mobile and are simply looking for a DVR for a single TV in the home, the Channel Master TV will help you avoid subscription costs that could add up over time.

Illustration in meme drawn by Allie Brosh.

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