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The Cheapskate's Over-the-Air (OTA) DVR


Because there is nothing like watching a TV program whenever you want, the DVR is the best invention since the VCR. I say that a bit tongue-in-cheek, because DVR's fulfill the same role as VCR's but are not as good for a number of reasons. The most important reason is that users now have to pay a monthly fee with most OTA DVR's. They also cost more to buy than VCR's. Unlike VCR's, for some reason that I can't fathom (other than manufacturers' greed), DVR's do not allow users to record TV shows at user-specified channels and times of the day or week. Instead of programming a recording this way, users record by selecting entries from the Electronic Programming Guide (EPG). This means user privacy is an issue for DVR's that require an internet connection in order to use the online EPG. Some units, like the Tablo, also work with the OTA EPG, but many don't. Those that don't, usually don't inform prospective buyers of that fact in their advertisements. Most OTA EPG's only list TV programs 4 to 24 hours in advance, depending on where users are located. But, online EPG's display a week or two of TV listings, which is required in order to record weekly TV shows automatically. Unfortunately, once people get into their heads that a technology is obsolete, they dump it, even when it's still the best technology for the job. Currently, 32% of cord cutters own a DVR. My guess is that virtually 100% of OTA TV watchers owned a VCR thirty years ago.

A couple of hours of online research yields the most popular DVR's and their advantages and disadvantages:

Tablo 4 Tuner DVR

$191.81 price, fees of $5/mo, $50/yr, or $150/life for the online EPG, simultaneous wifi streaming to up to 6 devices via your router's WiFi, no internal hard drive, connects only to TIVO-COMPATIBLE user-supplied external USB hard drives, requires an internet connection for access to the online EPG, poor setup instructions, weak tuners, only records strong TV stations, EPG is slow to load


$99.99 price, fees of $5/mo, $50/yr, or $150/life for the online EPG, 2 TV tuners, good picture quality, no internal hard drive, requires a user-supplied external USB hard drive, not compatible with flash drives, simultaneously streams to up to 6 devices, compact size, can skip commercials, poor setup instructions, weak tuners, slow response with the Fire Stick, EPG takes a long time to download, poor WiFi performance, gets hot

Amazon Fire TV Recast

$229.99 price, NO MONTHLY FEE, two TV tuners, 500 GB hard drive for approximately 75 hours of OTA recording ($279.99 for the 1 TB, 4-tuner version), will NOT connect to an external hard drive, easy setup, only streams to other fire TV devices (maximum of two at a time), weekly TV episodes cannot be recorded automatically, must have an internet connection to watch already-recorded TV programs, does not pick up all TV channels, users say these DVR's are difficult to use and have many limitations, large in size

Amazon Fire TV Cube

$119.99 price, voice control, contains a "cloud DVR", but this is not it's primary function, can skip commercials, not much information available about the DVR features


$379.99 price, NO MONTHLY FEE, better than average user experience, 1 TB hard drive, poor technical support from India, activation requires creating a TiVo account using a credit card (to identify you, so TiVo can sell your viewing habits to marketers?), less than 12-month warranty, does not support most external hard drives, 30-second skip button to skip over commercials, users complain that these DVR's often stop working soon after purchase, Amazon Prime not supported, repeatedly drops Hulu programs

TiVo Bolt

$259.98 price, fee of $6.99/mo or $69.99/yr, the rest is the same as the TiVo Roamio OTA VOX DVR

As you can see, even some of the most popular brands of DVR's are difficult to use and have several user-unfriendly limitations. And, in my opinion, the monthly fees that some manufacturers charge are very high for what they are providing (a longer time-frame EPG).

I have one other warning about DVR's in general. The downside of having sold our souls, so to speak, in the transition from the old analog technologies (in TV, radio, telephone, video recording, etc.) to digital ones is that digital formats can and do change much, much more frequently than analog formats used to. As a result, one major problem of which few consumers seem to be aware is that, when devices require websites to function, manufacturers can and do take down these websites when they want to sell their customers the next new model of their products. DVR's are no exception. Be a smart consumer and avoid DVR's that require internet connections simply to function at all. Also, being a digital technology, EPG formats can change. If this happens, it is conceivable that all currently available DVR's could become nonfunctional!

The Cheaper Alternative to the DVR

Now, we are ready to discuss a cheaper alternative to the DVR, the digital TV converter box. These boxes were originally designed to convert digital TV signals into analog in order to allow older analog TV's to display the new digital TV signals. Digital converter boxes are still around and are very actively sold on Amazon and elsewhere. I believe this because they have internal TV tuners, and because many can record OTA TV programs via the OTA EPG. This means that users are limited to recording 4 to 24 hours ahead of time, depending on where they live. But, they can record. Most digital converter boxes sell for under $40. A few even come bundled with digital TV antennas for next to nothing extra. The best part is that there is no monthly fee, and no connection to the internet is required. As with almost any consumer item, digital converter boxes vary in quality and usefulness from absolutely atrocious to very good. So, you should definitely do your homework before purchasing one.

Unfortunately, the only digital TV converter box that I've had the opportunity to try out for any length of time is the Mediasonic HOMEWORX MW220STB. After several hours of research, I bought one for my mother back in 2017. I had it long enough to know that it produced a clear TV picture, and it did what it was advertised to do. The only significant issue I had with it was that at 1080p, the files it produces are around 6 GB per hour of recording. I'm going from my memory, but I think that is correct. I believe that is about two or three times the size of MP4 files of the same resolution. So, if you plan to store these files for a long time, you may want to consider transcoding them into a more compact format. I believe that you can also record with this digital converter box at a lower resolution, if you choose. Also, this model of digital converter box was reported by users to not produce enough current to power an external USB hard drive. It can only be used with USB flash drives. I was unable to find this model for sale on Amazon today, so I don't know if you can still buy it. However, you can do your own research by reading through user reviews of digital converter boxes on Amazon. Since, converter boxes are so cheap, I would recommend that you buy one of the highest rated ones that meets your needs. A couple of extra dollars spent is well worth the emotional distress that you will save yourself as a user of one of these devices.

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