As the saying goes, everything old is new again. Hold on to that wardrobe and furniture long enough, and it'll eventually swing back around to cool. It doesn't seem like this adage would apply to consumer electronics, given that many items are outdated before you even get them home and, in many cases, will die long before they can earn the retro cool label. But there certainly have been exceptions. The recent resurgence of vinyl, for one. On the video side, the over-the-air antenna fits the bill nicely.
Long long ago, most of us eschewed the antenna as a means to receive our TV content, replaced by "more reliable" methods like cable and satellite. But the antenna is making a comeback, thanks to the new breed of cord cutters who are exchanging their cable/satellite packages for Netflix and Hulu Plus subscriptions. These streaming VOD platforms offer a whole lot of content for a very little price, but they lack one key element that keeps many people tethered to cable/satellite: the live TV experience, be it Sunday Night Football, the Academy Awards, or the local 10 o'clock news. Sure, a growing amount of special-event live programming is being streamed simultaneously on the Web, but that's not the same as having 24/7 access to live content. Some people just aren't ready to be completely disconnected from live TV, and the HDTV antenna gives them a way to stay tuned, even if it's only to major broadcast channels like ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, and PBS.
Some people, when picturing an over-the-air antenna, see a giant metallic eyestore on the roof or ugly rabbit ears atop the TV console, but indoor HDTV antennas are growing in number and shrinking in size. (We've recently reviewed a couple very low-profile options like the Terk FDTV2A and Mohu Leaf.) Depending on your location, these antennas can provide a reliable and cost-effective way to access live over-the-air programming. What they can't provide on their own is the ability to pause live TV, skip commercials, and record content. Many prospective cord cutters have no qualms about saying goodbye to a 200-plus channel lineup, but the idea of getting rid of their DVR functionality is an absolute deal breaker.
That brings us back around to the "everything old is new again" concept. Surely I'm not the only one who remembers the early days of digital video recording when standalone boxes from ReplayTV and then TiVo were your only DVR options (we often called them PVRs back in the day). And how about the early days of high-definition when the displays had no HD tuners and people had to pay a small fortune to buy standalone HDTV tuner boxes with built-in hard drives for content recording/storage? (Zenith HDR230, anyone?)
Well, fast-forward to 2014, and a new generation of standalone HD DVRs has emerged - one that combines old-school over-the-air tuning/DVR functionality with new-school services like streaming video-on-demand and remote access. Some of them have traditional form factors and connection options, while others are so streaming-oriented that they don't even support direct connection to a TV. For those who may be thinking about cutting the cord and using an HDTV antenna for live broadcasts, here's a quick overview of several major over-the-air DVR options.
TiVo Roamio OTA
• Number of tuners: 4
• Hard Drive Size: 500GB
• Connection Options: HDMI and optical digital audio outputs; RF input; Ethernet port and built-in WiFi; dual USB ports; eSATA port for additional storage.
• Integrated streaming services: Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, MLB.TV, Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, AOL.On, Podcaster, Picasa, and more.
• Other Features: Advanced search to find content across program guide and VOD services; RF and IR remote; TiVo app for iOS/Android lets you control the box and schedule recordings remotely; compatible with the TiVo Stream (sold separately) to stream live/recorded content to mobile devices and download recorded content to iOS devices.
• Price: $49.99 for box, $14.99/month service agreement with one-year commitment required (no lifetime subscription offered); $129.99 for the optional TiVo Stream.
Channel Master DVR+
• Number of tuners: 2
• Hard Drive Size: 16GB (requires add-on USB storage) or 1TB
• Connection Options: HDMI and optical digital audio output; RF input; Ethernet port; dual USB ports; IR extender port.
• Integrated streaming services: VUDU, Pandora.
• Other Features: 14-day program guide with integrated VUDU search; remote access is not directly supported, but DVR+ is compatible with Slingbox 500; the DVR+ doesn't have built-in WiFi and requires the use of a USB WiFi adapter if you want to go wireless.
• Price: $249 for 16GB version (plus cost of external storage); $399 for 1TB box; $299 for optional Slingbox 500; no monthly subscription fee.
• Number of tuners: 2
• Hard Drive Size: N/A. You must add your own USB hard drive (a 500GB drive starts at about $50).
• Connection Options: RF input; Ethernet port; USB port.
• Integrated streaming services: None
• Other Features: Simple.TV does not directly connect to a TV; instead, it streams everything to iOS, Android, and Windows 8 devices, as well as Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, PLEX, and Web browsers. Through one Simple.TV box, you can watch live/recorded content on up to five devices simultaneously. The box supports ClearQAM cable signals. It does not have built-in WiFi and only supports stereo audio output. The Premiere subscription is required to remotely stream live/recorded content and download recorded content via mobile devices and Web browsers.
• Price: $199.99 for box; $249.99 for box with one year of premiere service; $349.99 for box with lifetime subscription to premiere service. Premiere service is $59.99 for one year or $149.99 lifetime. Factor in the additional cost of the USB storage device.
• Number of tuners: 2 or 4
• Hard Drive Size: N/A. You must add your own USB hard drive (a 500GB drive starts at about $50); Tablo supports up to a 2TB device.
• Connection Options: RF input; Ethernet port and built-in WiFi; dual USB ports for external storage.
• Integrated streaming services: none
• Other Features: Like Simple.TV, Tablo does not directly connect to a TV; instead, it streams everything to iOS/Android devices, as well as Roku, Apple TV (via AirPlay), Chromecast, and Web browsers. Through one Tablo, you can watch live/recorded content on up to six devices on your local network; you can stream live and recorded content to iOS, Android, and Web browsers outside the home; attractive 14-day program guide; can't download recordings to remote device.
• Price: $219.99 for two-tuner box; $299.99 for four-tuner box; $5/month for Tablo Connect remote access and program guide; cost of external hard drive.
Of course, the above options require that you are actually able to tune in strong, reliable over-the-air signals, which may not be the case where you live. You can check your location's proximity to OTA towers here. Aereo offered an over-the-air solution for apartment dwellers and other people who can't successfully tune in free HDTV channels. Basically, the company tuned in the free over-the-air signals for you and streamed them to you, with DVR functionality if desired, over the Internet. Content providers did not like the Aereo solution and sued the company in a battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately decided that the Aereo approach was a copyright violation. Aereo is still actively trying to find a successful compromise that would allow the service to continue, but for now it is effectively dead.
It will be interesting to see how this new/old category continues to evolve, especially as more content providers consider launching Internet TV services that break from the traditional cable/satellite package approach. Hopefully the end result is that we all have more freedom of choice to tailor channel lineups and content offerings to suit our personal viewing tastes and habits.