Cut the Cord, and Get your DVR Too

Table of Contents

Introduction
How you Can Cut the Cord Too?
Get an Antenna
Improving Reception
How to Measure your Signal
Get your Signal to your TV
Viewing with HDHomeRun and Enabling DVR (recommended for live TV)
Viewing with Tablo and Enabling DVR (recommended for DVR)

Introduction

Have you ever felt like you want to cut the cord, and cancel your cable TV service?  With so many services available to watch movies and TV shows online, in full HD, the need to pay for cable TV is diminishing.  This article explains how I cut the cord, and how you can do it too. I managed to set up over the air TV in my house, which is outside of a major city and about 50 miles from the broadcast towers.

I now have all the local TV stations in stunning high definition HDTV quality, much cleaner than the signals from my local cable company.  I have full over the air DVR capabilities too, to pause live TV, and make recordings; and I have a set top box (the Amazon Fire TV) that allows me to access all the internet based streaming services, like NetFlix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, etc. Previously I was hanging onto Cable TV so I could watch the evening news, no more!

Scissors Cut Cable Cord

My setup cost me about $450, and with that I got a good antenna, a box which provides DVR without cable for multiple TV’s and other devices in my house, and a set top box. Depending on your needs, you could spend more or less then I did. For me the expense was justified by the fact that I do not have to pay $100+/month to DirecTV anymore. I do still have a small monthly fee for guide data, but I’ll get into that later.

What impresses me the most is the quality of the off air signals – absolutely stunning! I remember the soft fuzzy pictures you used to get with analog over-the-air TV. No more is this true! These days the TV signals on the air are totally digital, most in stunning HD. All the major networks are available, including NBC, FOX, CBS, ABC and PBS.

You can receive this high quality signal totally free, so long as you have the equipment!  The picture quality available over the air is actually much better than what I was getting with my cable TV service. Usually the cable companies take the off air signal and compress them down, causing you to get a degraded picture. Cutting the cord gives you the best quality picture, saves you money, and you can still have whole-home DVR for your antenna TV setup!

How you Can Cut the Cord Too?

It is pretty easy! So long as you live in a metropolitan area, you should have a selection of quite a few stations. To find out, the TV Fool website lets you input your address, and the rough height of your antenna, and it will give you a report of the channels you should have available where you live. I found it to be quite accurate.  If you have an old antenna sitting around, or your TV comes with an Antenna, I would plug it in to your TV, and see what you can get.  If you have very strong signals, this may be all you need to do to watch over the air TV.  But if you don’t have an antenna, then you will want to buy a new one.

Get an Antenna

Purchasing an antenna can get quite confusing, as there are a lot of antennas on the market. If you live in a city, you will likely do find with an indoor antenna, although you may have some trouble if you live inside a concrete building. Personally I found that I really liked the antennas made by a company called Mohu. They are made in the USA, which is nice, and very rare these days! I found them to be very good quality, and perform well.  Their website has a tool which suggests which antenna would be best for you based on your address, and tells you what channels you should expect to receive: Link To Antenna Selector

Mohu Curve Antenna

I bought the Mohu Curve 50, as I live outside of a major city, so needed a strong antenna with an amplifier (to be honest I was quite surprised how well this antenna performed). I would not hesitate to recommend any of their antennas though. If you are in the city you should do fine with the Mohu Leaf Metro.

For a little more power, choose Mohu Curve 30 or the Mohu Leaf 30.

The main difference between the “leaf” and the “curve” line is that the curve line is meant for a table top installation, where as the leaf is meant to be wall mounted.

If you require longer range, you could choose one of their amplified antennas, like the Mohu Curve 50 or the Mohu Leaf 50.

You may be able to go with a cheaper antenna. I have found that that I tried a few others, and for me none performed as well inside my house. And $19.99 for a Mohu Leaf Metro is not going to break the bank for most people!

If you are really far from the TV transmitters, then you may need to look into outdoor/attic antennas, like the Mohu Sky 60. This antenna is very powerful, and will pick up signals that are from very far away. But I would try out the Indoor antennas first, and see how they perform for you. You may be surprised like I was!  If they don’t perform, you can always return them to the store. If you buy from amazon, this is easy, and they cover the return shipping.

When you get your antenna, set it up, connect it to your TV, and see how it does!

Improving Reception

In my case, I did not get good reception with the antenna beside my TV, which is located in my basement. I have a walk out basement, so was able to get a much better signal by putting the antenna in the basement window (connected to the TV with a long coax cable).  When I tried out the antenna on my upstairs floor, the signals were all much better, and I also picked up more stations. I ended up installing the antenna in my attic as that is where I found the best signal!

My point here is that you should try the antenna in different spots in your house, and likely you will do best installing as high as you can, and also close to a window. If you don’t find any good locations you may want to check the signal in your attic, or even try setting up outside with a outdoor antenna, on a tall pole on your lawn, or on your roof. If you go with a roof installation, it is probably best to hire a professional antenna installer to help you set it up without creating a leak.

In order to know that your signal is getting better, you will have get an idea of your signal strength.

How to Measure your Signal

You will need a device to measure your signal strength. One of the simplest devices is your TV itself. You can hook up a (possibly very long) coax cable to your TV, and walk around with your antenna. In each location, run a channel scan on your television to see how many channels you can get. Most televisions do not give specific signal details though, so you don’t really know how strong the channel signals are in each spot. But if you get a lot of channels in one spot versus another, then you likely have a good location to install your antenna.

It is probably a good idea watch a few channels for a bit to see if you notice pixelation issues or not. If the channels look good, you probably have a good spot for your antenna.

There is another more precise way to measure your signal using a device called a HDHomeRun from a company called SiliconDust. This is a brilliant little device that allows you to connect the antenna cable in, and it makes the Off Air TV signal available through your house over your home network (uses the same equipment as your internet connection). Well get into how to hook it up in the next section.

The HDHomeRun can scan channels like your TV, and also give you signal strength reports. To do that I suggest using the web interface for the device. To open the web interface, here are some instructions for Windows 10:

  1. Open up File Explorer
  2. In the left part of the screen find “Network”, and click on that to open it
  3. You should see a list of network devices on the right part of the File Explorer window
    • if you don’t see anything, you may have network discovery and file sharing turned off.  If so, there should be a yellow bar on the top of your window, below the ribbon saying “Network discovery and file sharing are turned off. Network computers and devices are not visible. Click to change…”
    • Click on that bar and select “Turn on network discovery and file sharing”
    • If prompted by the User Account Control to grant authorization to make a change to your computer, then click that you grant permission.
    • Click “No, make the network that I am connected to a private network”.
  4. In the section “Other Devices”, you should see “HDHomeRun RUI” listed with a number after it.
  5. Right click that icon, and select “View Device Webpage”

To do the signal scan on the HDHomeRun, select “Channel Lineup”, and then click on the button that says “Detect Channels”.  The channels discovered will be listed below.

The next step is to install the program HDHomeRun View, which you can get here from the Microsoft Windows store.  There is also a desktop version if you prefer from the SiliconDust website.

In HDHomeRun View, you will see a list of the channels on the right side of your screen.  Click on the channel you want to view.  Then to see the signal strength, go back to your browser window with the web interface for the HDHomeRun. Go back to the main menu, and then select “Tuner Status”.  Then click on “Tuner 0” (assuming you only have one HDHomeRun view window running).  You will get a report of the signal strength.

Under “Signal Strength”, you want to see a number as close to 100% as possible, but even if the number is above 70% you are probably good.

The Signal and Symbol Quality are perhaps even more importable then signal strength.  You want Signal Quality to be as high as possible, but I’ve had good success with readings above 65%.  For the Symbol Quality, this must be 100%, anything less and you definitely will have pixilation.

Once you are at this stage, you can then set up your HDHomeRun and your antenna in different locations around your house.  When you have it set up, see if the signal for your test channel has improved.  You would want to change to a few other channels as well in HDHomeRun VIEW to get the best results.

In my case, I found that I had the best signal in my attic.  Since I have wired ethernet in my house, it was easy to get an ethernet cable up in my attic, and hook it into my HDHomeRun and my antenna.  My signal is so good up there that I have just continued with my Mohu Curve 50 antenna.  I probably could do a little better if I switched to a Mohu Sky 60 antenna which is meant for an attic or outdoor installation though.

In this section we looked at how to check your signal by scanning channels on your television, or by getting exact signal readings on the Silicondust HDHomeRun device.

Get your Signal to your TV

The simplest option here is to run a coax cable from your antenna to your TV. If you are lucky enough to get a good signal at your television, then you just need a short Coax cable form the antenna output to the antenna input port on your TV.  If you have multiple TV’s, you would have to install an antenna at each TV to get a signal.  Your signal strength may vary at each TV in this case.

If instead you found a great spot for your antenna which is not beside your TV, you would have to run run a long coax cable to your TV.  You may want to contract the help of a professional for this purpose to keep things neat.

If you have multiple televisions you can use a good coax splitter like this one: Extreme 2 Way HD Digital Coax Cable Splitter, to split the signal into multiple paths, and run Coax cables to your various rooms.

The disadvantage of this is that every time you split your feed, your signal strength will drop.

I found that a great solution to signal delivery is using the HDHomeRun box at your antenna, and then use your home network to distribute the signal to your televisions.  This way you get the signal in multiple locations around your house without any degradation of the strength.

Another device that can do the same thing as the HDHomeRun, but also adds whole-home DVR functionality is the Tablo DVR for HDTV.  I’ll write more about that in the section on DVR’s below.

There is a Wi-Fi version of the HDHomeRun which would allow you to place the HDHomeRun, and get the signal to where you want it without the need to run messy wires. Using the Wi-Fi option can be convenient, but it works best if there aren’t too many wireless networks from your neighbors where you live, and also if you don’t have too many devices sharing the network. A dual-band router is best, where you would reserve one band specifically for video traffic.

In my case, I have my house wired with ethernet, so I connected my HDHomeRun into my wired network, which works great.

Another option here to hook your HDHomeRun to your network is to use a powerline ethernet solution, like that provided by the excellent D-Link Powerline AV2 2000.

Now regardless of which way you connect the HDHomeRun or the Tablo, to your home network, you will need to connect a coax cable from your antenna to the signal input of your device.

In the case of the HDHomeRun, you would then follow the instructions in How to Measure your Signal above to hook up to the web interface, scan the channels. In the next section I describe how to watch TV using the HDHomeRun.

To watch the signal from the HDHomeRun or the Tablo DVR on your television, you will need another box at your TV that can run the software called HDHomeRun view.

For the HDHomeRun, you will want to get an Amazon Fire TV box for this purpose.  More details are provided in the section below on the HDHomeRun.

For the Tablo DVR, you can use either an Amazon Fire TV or a Roku to view the signal on your TV.  More details are provided in the section below on the Tablo DVR.

In this section we have looked at two options to hook up a remote antenna to your TV.

Viewing with HDHomeRun and Enabling DVR

hdhomerun

We have already looked at the basics of hooking up your HDHomeRun to your antenna, and how to scan the signals above.

If you are thinking about buying an HDHomeRun, there are two versions of the available, the CONNECT and the EXTEND.

The difference is that the CONNECT version is wired only, and the EXTEND version offers Wi-Fi (the Amazon Page for the product makes it sound like the CONNECT has Wi-Fi but it doesn’t).

Both options have two tuners, which means that they can send two different TV channels to two TV’s or devices in your house. The company provides the HDHomeRun View software for your PC or MAC which allows you to watch TV right on your PC.

To get the picture on your TV, you will need a set top box.  I highly suggest the Amazon Fire TV Box.  That box allows you to access all kinds of internet based streaming services, like NetFlix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Slice TV, YouTube, Crackle TV, etc.  In addition to this, the HDHomeRun View app is available for $0.99 from the amazon store (here is the link).

With HDHomeRun View, you can use your Amazon Fire TV remote to navigate the channels from your HDHomeRun on your television. It is fantastic!  You can also watch live TV using the XBMC/Kodi apps on your HDHomeRun, but that is a bit more clunky, and we won’t get into it.

Tip: For the purposes of TV, using wi-fi connections is not  advisable.  If you have your house wired for ethernet, that is the best solution.  Failing that, I would suggest using powerline ethernet (see the D-Link Powerline AV2 2000).  The powerline ethernet adapter uses your house’s electrical wiring as a network.  This is much more reliable as it is not susceptible to wireless interference, or problems of wireless congestion in your area. You would need a few powerline adapters for this purpose: one would be close to your HDHomeRun, one would connect into your internet router, and you would want one at each of your televisions.  The powerline adapters have come a long way and work quite well now.  They are still expensive, but may be much more cost effective then wiring your house for ethernet.  

If you do try to use wi-fi for video, I would suggest setting up a wireless network that you only use for video transport (by using a second wireless router).  This network should run on a different frequency then your main wi-fi network that you hook up to your computers, smartphones and tablets.

The HDHomeRun supports DLNA as well, so you can use any DLNA aware video player to watch off-air TV stations from the HDHomeRun as well. I found an app on my iPad called Creation 5 that detected the HDHomeRun, and allowed me to watch live TV on my iPad. I understand there are also some Android apps.

This setup works very well for watching TV.  To add DVR functionality without cable, the easiest way is to use the new HDHomeRun DVR software from SiliconDust.  The HDHomeRun does not have a hard drive built in to provide DVR functionality, but with this new software, you can designate a computer or a Network Attached Storage device (a NAS) as a hard drive for the DVR, and effectively get all the features that you would expect from a DVR.  It is in fact a whole-home DVR!

As of today, Sept 5, 2016, the software is not open for public release, but you can get early access to the software for $60 at SiliconDust’s website.  They say that not all the features are currently ready. The best option for today is the Tablo discussed in the next section.

The software has two parts, a player component and a storage/record engine.  The player component will run on Windows/Mac/Android (the Amazon Fire TV is android based).  And there is a storage/record engine portion which will run on Windows/Mac/Linux and few NAS devices.

With that software you will be able to use the Android app on your Amazon Fire TV (or your PC or smartphone) to schedule recordings.  At the appointed time, the software running on your PC or NAS device will tune the HDHomeRun to the required channel, and record the signal to a file on the hard drive.

Using the playback software running on your PC or your Amazon Fire TV (or other android device) you can then browse the recordings, and watch the one you desire.  Features like Live TV pause are planned, but may not be in the current build.  You can view the recordings on any device which is very convenient indeed.

If you try this software, I would suggest getting a Network Attached Storage device (like the bestselling WD 4TB My Cloud Personal Network Attached Storage – NAS), as then you don’t have to worry about keeping your computer on to enable DVR.

I have not tried this solution, but it does sound like a great option to get a DVR for antenna TV, especially once it is available for general release.

Viewing with Tablo and Enabling DVR

Tablo TV DVR

The Tablo DVR box available from Amazon. This box is rather like the HDHomeRun box, except it has a hard drive attached to it to provide DVR functions!

A DVR is short for Digital Video Recorder, and is also sometimes known as a PVR or Personal Video Recorder; the DVR/PVR allows you to pause live TV (if you have to run for a snack or to the bathroom), and schedule recording of shows that you will not be able to watch live; watching a recorded show gives you the ability to fast forward through commercials, which can be a nice plus if you don’t like to watch commercials!

If you don’t need or want DVR for your over the air TV, then I would stick with the HDHomeRun as it is cheaper, or a direct coax connection to your TV. But the TabloTV supports wired and wireless network connections (please read the Tip in the section above on my warning about using wireless networks for TV signals). It has apps for all your devices, including the Amazon Fire TV, and even the Roku box!

In my setup, I chose to try the 4 tuner Tablo DVR model along with a 3TB external hard drive.  I was excited to get it.  Once I received it I disconnected my HDHomeRun, and hooked up the Tablo DVR instead.  The connections are basically the same as the HDHomeRun.

Once you have it hooked up, you will need to install the Tablo app on your Amazon Fire TV or your Roku box.  The app is quite easy to install and intuitive to use.  There are instructions available on their website at this link: http://support.tablotv.com/hc/en-us.

After installing their app on my Amazon Fire TV box, I was watching TV in no time, with full guide, and all the features that come with DVR.  The box comes with 30 days of guide data for free, and after the first 30 days, you have to subscribe to get guide data, which is a bit of a bummer. Guide data is not that expensive however, costing $4.99/month, or $49.99/year. A lifetime subscription is available for an additional $149.99.

If you want a dvr recorder without subscription, the Tablo will also work fine.  If you don’t pay for guide data you will have to schedule recordings in a more manual fashion. You can get guide data online using: zap2it.com. Personally I like the convenience of having the guide right on the TV, so the fee was worth it.

I highly recommend the TabloTV boxes if you want DVR functionality. This is true even if you have your antenna right beside your TV, as you will not get DVR features in that case.  (There is another option if you do have your antenna beside your TV, called the Tivo Roamio which can connect to your TV directly, and includes lifetime guide data – but I prefer the Tablo, as it can send the signal to all my TV’s, Tablets, Smartphones, Computers etc).

There are two Tablo models available:  the Tablo 2 Tuner DVR comes with 2 tuners, and the Tablo 4 Tuner DVR comes with 4 tuners.  The second Tablo can feed up to 4 TV’s with one unit! The Tablo also has the ability to record one show while watching another. The device supports whole-home-DVR features, like having the ability to schedule a recording at one TV (or device), but watch it at a different TV (or device) in your house. Live TV Pause is also supported.

I ended up going for the 4 tuner model because I often find that there are multiple shows I want to watch on at the same time.  I don’t like spending the extra money, but I’m always happy when I buy quality, even if it costs a bit more up front.

In this section we’ve had a look at the Tablo DVR as my recommendation for the best ota DVR.

Conclusion

I hope this article has helped you in your decision to cut the cord.  It is fairly easy, and without spending too much money you can add DVR services too, to have a more “cable-like” experience.

Table of Contents Again

Introduction
How you Can Cut the Cord Too?
Get an Antenna
Improving Reception
How to Measure your Signal
Get your Signal to your TV
Viewing with HDHomeRun and Enabling DVR (recommended for live TV)
Viewing with Tablo and Enabling DVR (recommended for DVR)

Plug!  Please help me help you, if this article has been helpful, and you feel like trying out some of the equipment I have mentioned, please consider clicking on the links in this article.  I will receive a small commission for your purchase, which helps me to write more helpful articles.

For a summary of the recommended equipment in this article, please click here.