Bill has been an information systems professional for more than 20 years. He enjoys writing about cooking, local history, and technology.
When Enough Is Enough
My monthly cable bill recently went from $200 to $250 per month. I don't know about you, but I didn't get a 25% raise this year, so I don't know why the cable company should. $140 of that bill is for TV programming and hardware. My provider was bought by a foreign company that immediately raised rates and laid-off employees. I had been looking into cutting the cord before this, and that gave me even more incentive.
The problem is that most of the solutions that I've seen online were very complicated and generally lacked the functionality I was looking for.
- Eliminate or greatly reduce my monthly cable TV bill.
- Keep the channels that I actually watch.
- Be able to record and playback shows from/to multiple TVs.
- Easy set-up and easy to use, preferably using only one remote.
- Equipment should be affordable.
Cable Company Gotcha's
I called my cable company to see how I could cut down on my monthly bill and found that if I downgraded to a package with greatly reduced programming, it would only reduce the cost by about $20. Looking at my itemized bill, I discovered that I was paying around $60 per month just for equipment: three set-top boxes, a DVR, and some fees and taxes.
If you want to cut the cord completely, you probably can. Unless you live in a very remote area, there are likely lots of over-the-air stations you can watch free of charge. To see what's available in your area, check the TVFool Signal Locator site. You can find other sites that perform the same function if you do a Google search for "tv broadcast tower locations map," but I found this site to provide the most detailed information.
If those channels make you happy, you just need an antenna capable of pulling them in. I bought a multi-directional indoor/outdoor antenna, which I mounted in my attic. I'm close to many broadcast towers, but the houses in my neighborhood are very tall and close together. Additionally, I have plaster walls and a stucco exterior. Those factors make receiving over the air signals challenging. Most of the channels I want to receive are located northwest of me, but one channel that we really like is to the northeast. A multi-directional antenna that covers 180 degrees solved my problem. I had tried a couple of different indoor antennas, but they pulled in very few channels because of my environment.
Find a good location for your antenna and aim it in the direction shown on the broadcast towers report for your area. Connect the cable from the antenna to the antenna connection on your TV, then go through your TV's set-up to scan for available channels. (See your TV owner's manual for details.)
If free TV is all you want, go forth and enjoy! The rest of this article deals with other functions and options.
Use One Antenna to Feed Several TVs and Add DVR Functionality
Now I have the ability to view the over-the-air (OTA) channels that I want for free.
- How do I get them to the other two TVs that I have in the house?
- How can I record/playback from OTA shows like I could with my cable DVR?
I read tons of articles on how to do this. Some called for building systems from old computers and installing all kinds of software to make it work. Others called for thousands of dollars worth of equipment. In all cases, I knew that my family members would not be happy using the complicated interfaces.
I found one device that is relatively inexpensive, is extremely easy to set up and use, and does everything I wanted and more. I couldn't be happier with this $140 over-the-air DVR (details below).
This DVR comes with no internal storage, so I bought an inexpensive external 1 TB USB drive. More expensive DVRs come with internal drives, but those have very limited storage, usually 65 GB or less. For this reason, the solution I chose is cheaper and better in the long run than those with internal storage included.
Don't let the details worry you. This is very simple
- Download the app to your smartphone or go to the company's website on your Mac or PC.
- Plug the antenna into the DVR.
- Plug the included power cable into the DVR.
- Plug the external USB hard drive into the DVR.
- Either plug the DVR into your router with the included cable or connect your DVR to your router via Wi-Fi (using the app).
- Using the app, scan for available channels.
If you have a Smart TV, Roku, Fire Stick, AppleTV, smartphone, or tablet, add the free DVR app. You can now watch, record, and playback OTA channels on those devices even though they aren't physically wired to the antenna. It's a Festivus miracle!
You can also pause and rewind live TV, which is a great feature.
The unit I bought gives you a free 30-day trial of their television guide which makes recording and searching very easy and intuitive. After the trial period, the service costs $4.95 per month, but it isn't required to use the system. There are yearly and lifetime options as well. I think it's well worth the money for the convenience, but again it isn't a requirement.
Expanding Your Channels Using Streaming Services
Streaming devices provide access to thousands of free movies and TV shows.
However, some of the channels you enjoy may not be available over the air or via free streaming. If you want to view ESPN, History Channel, Discovery Channel, The Food Network, Travel Channel, CNN, regional sports channels, etc., you'll need to pay for a streaming service. There are many different streaming options available: DirectTV Now, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, Sling, and many more. Most can be tailored to suit your needs and budget.
Google "streaming services compared" to find options that meet your needs.
I put my antenna in the attic for the best reception. I have a three-story house and running the antenna or network cable to the first floor, where my router is, would be difficult. I put the DVR and hard drive in the attic near the antenna. I connected the DVR to my router via Wi-Fi, eliminating the need to run wires through the house. It works perfectly and was incredibly easy to set up.
I have a media-streaming device on each of my three TVs. Each has access to all of the antenna channels and all of the functions of the DVR. I can watch everything on my smartphone as well.
I have a streaming service for $55/month which gives me all of the cable shows that I watch: History, Discovery, Food Network, TBS, TCM, all of the major networks and news channels, plus many others for a total of 85 channels.
The new hardware cost $280 and will take less than four months to recoup the investment. Going forward, it will yield a savings of close to $1000/year.
One-Time Hardware Cost
AntennasDirect Clearstream 4
Tablo Dual Lite OTA DVR
Seagate 1 TB USB External
Streaming Device (3) *
Roku Stick ($40 each)
Cable TV with hardware and fees
DirectTV Now streaming service
Tablo TV Guide
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2018 Bill Yovino