Free TV Blog

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The best free TV? Depends on how free

OTAOTT

ChannelMaster DVR+ guide screen showing Sling TV and local channelsFreeTVBlog World Headquarters is packed with way too many over-the-air TV devices. Heading into CES, I wanted to provide a quick roundup of the best choices so far for watching OTA TV, recording it with a DVR, and hopefully streaming it to remote devices.

I’ll start off with the one major OTA receiver that I haven’t tried – TiVo’s Roamio OTA. Over a decade ago, I used a TiVo to watch OTA and pay TV, and I’ve never held a better remote nor seen a better on-screen interface. The only problem with TiVo right now is its subscription fee of $150/year or (gulp!) $400 for a lifetime. That just feels much too high for a DVR for just free TV, but as you’ll see, it’s really a matter of degree.

Next up is Tablo, which is the OTA DVR that my family uses. The Tablo has a nice Roku interface, it does a good job when I skip forward while playing back recordings, and its customer service is the best of any company I deal with in any industry. On the other hand, when I connect from my phone for the first time in a week, I have to wait for 10 minutes of “Syncing” before I can do anything. Tablo’s subscription fee is $50/year or $150 for life, which is much more reasonable but not quite free.

Simple.TV was one of the first OTA DVRs, and I scored a great deal on a single-tuner unit with a lifetime subscription; otherwise it’s $60/year. That awkward-looking unit actually performs very reliably, though it’s slow to skip around within a recording. Since then, Simple.TV seems to be shifting its attention to the UK, where it was to introduce a cloud-based OTA DVR called ShowDrive.

On the other hand, TabletTV continues to make an aggressive push to capture attention for its inexpensive, subscription-free product, as seen in this recent hands-on review. The latest “Plus” version of the app integrates some streaming services, but the app is still limited to iOS tablets, which can already access those same services. When the TabletTV device can stream to my big-screen TV, to my Android phone, or anywhere outside my home network, I’ll be more interested.

My old favorite benchmark for subscription-free OTA DVR had been Windows Media Center, which was included in Windows 7 and available for Windows 8. Now Windows 10 has shut the door on WMC, and last July Microsoft switched listing providers, making it a little tricky for users to keep WMC running.

My new favorite benchmark for subscription-free OTA DVRing is the DVR+ from ChannelMaster, which just announced that it supports Dish’s Sling TV among its streaming channels. (Separately, Sling TV announced that it’s holding the line at $20/month for its basic package, including ESPN.) Another great thing about the DVR+ is that it works very well with the Slingbox video streamer, through which I can access my DVR+ from just about anywhere. The DVR+ guide and customer service are miles ahead of Windows Media Center and just one notch below Tablo’s.

I know that HDHomeRun has been working on its own DVR (a good thing, since I kicked in to help crowdfund it), and other companies may have OTA sticks to show off at CES. I hope to learn more in a few days, and then I’ll let you know.

Enjoy this new beginning

Housekeeping
Tower of TV antennas at dawn
© Depositphotos / kikujungboy

Hi there! Welcome to FreeTVBlog.com. This is going to be a fun place to talk about free TV, and I’ll bet you had already guessed that. The rest of this particular post will peel back the layers of this blog’s origin story. You have been warned.

This blog is a direct descendant from FTABlog.com, which I set up a very long time ago. Way back then, there were dozens of amazingly interesting free TV channels available via free-to-air (FTA) satellite, and the blog ran stories about them, from Fashion TV’s coverage of Carnival in Rio to Utah TV station KUEN’s movie night. These days, there are still hundreds of FTA satellite channels available on a medium-sized Ku-band dish, but few are like those general-interest English-language channels.

At the same time those great satellite TV channels were drifting away, similar streaming channels began appearing on the internet. Instead of watching a distant CW station from my dish, I could watch it via ivi.tv or Aereo or FilmOn. These new distribution methods kept changing, often shriveling under legal pressure, so they made great topics of conversation. Yet another development was the growth of local over-the-air digital TV, with plenty of new channels to watch. So the emphasis for this blog has shifted from free satellite TV to reflect the wider array of free TV options.

An important side-note: Although FTA was supposed to signify the perfectly legal viewing of unencrypted satellite signals, some pirates used the term to mean hacking protected commercial satellite TV. It was as if I had a blog about engraving, then counterfeiters started calling making fake $20s “engraving”. FTAList.com and FTABlog.com have always rejected piracy, which is an objectively poor gamble with significant risk and trivial reward. I mention all of this because according to Archive.org, when FreeTVBlog.com was most recently active, around 2007-2009, it wrote about satellite TV “testers”. That’s definitely not what I have in mind now.

You know that you have a bad name when you always have to explain it. Even when I mingled with savvy TV industry types, maybe one person out of 20 would recognize what FTA meant, and another one or two would mistake it for some piracy thing. Instead, this was always meant to be a blog about (legal) free TV, so when this domain finally became available a short time ago, I pounced on it. It’s going to take a little work changing business cards and such, but at least I’ll get to skip the explanations and get right down to business. I hope you enjoy it.

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