Our focus here at Tech Report is often on the latest processors, displays, storage, and the like. But we love all kinds of tech and making our lives better with it. Whether it’s with the Xbox Accessibility controller or experimenting with solar panels, we love it.
The latest new piece of tech in my home: Over-the-Air television.
I grew up in a time when any TV not plugged into cable had a pair of bunny ears mounted atop. Getting a signal required what felt like a magical dance. These days, TV couldn’t be much more different from what it was like back then. I can now watch OTA TV from just about any device I own and record it, too. Here’s how I struggled and then ended up on the Plex Pass DVR.
I love tinkering with my tech, but I’m also a huge TV fan. You’re welcome to jump into the comments and have at it with my taste in TV if you like: I love the Arrowverse collection of shows on the CW. I write about them for another site, so I need same-night access to them, but I’m also not going to sit and wait for them to come on. At the same time, I’ve long since snipped the TV cord connecting my home to my cable provider. Everything else I watch is streaming exclusive or pops up on a streaming service the same day it airs.
I needed a way to reliably time-shift over-the-air television with solid image quality.
My first attempt
I bought a stack of hardware for my first attempt at taking control of my TV viewing:
- Mediasonic Homeworx ATSC digital converter box (HW130STB) – $30
- Mohu Leaf Indoor Antenna (30-mile range) – $35
- 1TB Western Digital Blue drive – $45
- USB 3.0 to SATA Sabrent Docking Station – $25
The only piece of hardware that carried through to the current setup is the Mohu Leaf antenna. The rest would eventually fall away.
The Mohu Leaf antenna is a solid piece of hardware for my situation that brings in good image quality for my area, which is in the suburban ring around Minneapolis, MN. Depending on how far from civilization you are, you might need something more powerful.
Ultimately, though, the Homeworx converter was the weak link in the chain for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, it was a huge pain to setup. The Homeworx has a laggy interface where you’re counting one-two every time you press a button. I would plan out my moves within the interface before I made them so that I could press more buttons at a time. The firmware is quirky in general. For example, the system has the built-in ability to format a hard drive, but woe be to those who try to use it. The drive would successfully format and record video, but turning the Homeworx off would erase any programming you’d done for recordings and render the drive unreadable. Instead, you have to format it on your computer with specific settings prescribed by Mediasonic.
Once you get it running, it works, but you’re still having to tangle with that clunky interface. While it does show data for current television episodes, though, it doesn’t show that for more than just that day. Programming it ends up feeling like programming a VCR more than DVR. I also had an issue that never fully went away where audio would slowly desync over a few days.
Plex Pass to the rescue
I’d been reluctant to pay for a Plex Pass because of its three-digit price tag on a lifetime subscription, but after my experience with the Homeworx, I was more open to trying something else. I already run a Plex Media Server in my home for housing my movies, music, and photographs. I have a box running an Intel Core i5-4590S with 16 GB of DDR3 memory that runs my Plex Server, my Minecraft server, and my Folding@Home client, and after a lot of digging around, I came to the conclusion that getting a Plex Pass just made sense.
First, I needed a new digital converter. The HDHomerun Connect (I paid $65) is the go-to digital converter box for a reason. It’s super easy to use. Even withou t a Plex Pass, you can watch live TV using any device that can connect to your network and has an HDHomerun app available. If you’re not concerned about recording TV, you could even stop there. A web-based interface makes the HDHomerun easy to program.
One thing about plugging in an OTA antenna these days is that you end up with access to something like 60 channels (again, depending on your area) and the truth is that most of them aren’t very interesting. It’s easy to simply uncheck all of those and narrow things back down to the network channels you watch most. For me, that’s mostly the CW and NBC. No need to flip past channels I’m never going to watch; I haven’t channel-surfed in a very long time and have no interest in starting now. You can also see which of the two digital tuners on the HD Homerun are in use and what kind of signal quality they’re pulling. The two tuners allow you to watch and record two different channels at once. It’s painless.
For my browsing and viewing, I looked at a few different options for setting up recordings, such as NextPVR and WinTV. NextPVR especially has a lively community to help you get setup, but I’m a guy who has tried to use Linux for a few things over the years and I always find out that I don’t have the patience for it.
Similarly, I struggled with NextPVR for a few days before I finally gave up. One stumbling block among many others was getting an EPG–electronic programming guide–working. The best way, as far as I could tell, was to pay Schedules Direct $25 a year for access to their EPG. That’s not so bad, but when coupled with the other struggles I had setting the software up, it ended up taking more patience than I had. If you’re a tinkerer, though, you might want to give it a look before you settle on an all-in-one like PlexPass.
And so, finally, I bit the bullet on the PlexPass. You can pay monthly, yearly, or buy a lifetime pass, and the last one only costs $120. Again, like the HDHomerun, getting live and recorded TV working on PlexPass is painless. The Pass-enabled Plex Media Server will automatically detect your HDHomerun and all the channels you’ve selected. From here, the experience is much like any PVR you may have used. I was able to easily set up recordings for shows with specifications such as recording only new episodes of shows I set up.
Once set up, it’s as easy to watch live or recorded TV on a Plex server as it is to watch any other movies or TV shows you already have stored. I’ve been able to watch my own TV from my phone in bed, from my computer in my office, and even in a cafe (before COVID-19, of course). I can also pause shows mid-record and resume them later, as well as skip commercials (though there are some caveats to this).
The image quality is incredibly good for the most part, too, considering that this is OTA TV. Here’s a short gallery of recordings I’ve made:
It’s not up to Blu-ray standards by any means, but considering it’s floating in through the air, it seems almost unbelievable.
The road bumps
I’ve had a few issues even with the Pass-enabled DVR service that Plex provides, but it’s been such a pleasant experience overall that I have a hard time getting too mad. And some of them aren’t Plex’s problem.
For one, as good as indoor OTA antennas are–look at those images above!–they’re not perfect. During storms, for example, the image can glitch out pretty badly, and that gets frustrating. Seattle-dwellers may want to look into other options.
Other issues have included the PMS getting confused about show and episode labeling. For some reason, a few of my shows have “merged” episodes, where it counts two different episodes as the same one despite different labels. CW’s The Flash was labeled with the profile and actors for the early 1990s Flash television show starring John Wesley Shipp. The Pass also stopped recording a show at one point, as it believed none of the upcoming episodes were actually new.
The weirdest one, perhaps, is rooted in how the server records TV. Shows are recorded in MPEG2 in an MPEG-TS container. I watch most of my shows through my Roku box and, for some reason, that means that things like fast-forward, rewind, and seeking do not work. They work on Windows and Android, but not on Roku. Again, I’m not sure if this is Plex’s fault, Roku’s fault, or just an impossibility of format and hardware.
Even with these headaches in mind, this setup has proven to be almost perfect for my needs and it’s been pretty fun to tinker with and get set up. At this point, the Homeworx is sitting in my closet collecting dust. The 1TB HDD will eventually be repurposed, I’m sure. My setup has the Mohu Leaf antenna connecting to the HDHomerun Connect, which then connects to my network via Ethernet cable.
A few final notes that didn’t really have another spot in this piece: this doesn’t even take up a precious HDMI port on my television or computer. The image quality isn’t quite crystal-clear HD, but for daily television watching, it’s incredible. And with next-gen ATSC TV coming soon with HDR, 120Hz refresh, and 4K resolution, it seems like things are only going to get better. And if you happen to like Cable TV, there’s an HDHomerun that accepts Cablecards, too.