Plex DVR with HDHomeRun: a solid alternative to cable

alternative-to-cable

Plex DVR provides a solid DVR for OTA channels or an alternative to a cable box

If you’ve been thinking of about an alternative to cable, setting up a Plex Media Server with an HDHomeRun Extend to record over-the-air channels is definitely worth considering.

When I started using Plex DVR with HDHomeRun as a way to record TV shows from my antenna, I soon realized that maybe I was paying too much for my other streaming services.

I have been testing various TV antennas for more than a year, but I had no idea how much there was to watch until it was all laid out in front of me. I didn’t realize shows like “American Greed” or “Forensic Files” were available through the 47 OTA channels that my ClearStream Eclipse pulls in.

 

For the uninitiated, an HDHomeRun tuner is one of the least expensive ways to watch high definition over-the-air channels on your smartphone, tablet, computer or TV. But to really get at every bit of programming out there can be a challenge. Not too many of us are subscribing to TV Guide these days.

The program guide on Plex schooled me. Plex DVR wowed me after that.

Sure, there are other options out there for OTA DVR setups. But if you have a movie collection burned to a PC in your home, Plex can do a lot more for you than an average OTA DVR. You will also be able to stream, organize and share a vast collection of movies, shows, music or family photos scattered across your laptops, tablets or smartphones.

Plex DVR is a part of a subscription-based service known as Plex Pass. You will be able to record shows and even watch them outside of your home without lugging around extra hardware.

Setting up a Plex Media Server is not a plug-and-play solution. But it’s remarkably simple.

What is Plex Media Server?

Plex is software that serves as a hub to stream all of your media files. I am going to stay focused on using Plex DVR with HDHomeRun Extend.

Before we go further, I want to briefly explain some of its other functions because it will help you better understand what we’ll be discussing.

There are free to use” features with Plex. Streaming your own burned DVDs from a PC to a streaming device like a Roku or Amazon Fire TV comes at no cost. Your PC is your server. A streaming device like a Roku would be your client.

There are a number of clients that work with Plex. They include Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV, Smart TVs, Chromecast, and TiVo.

Xbox and PlayStation game consoles can be clients as well.

If you want to get into the more nuanced functions – like Plex DVR or sharing media — you will need to subscribe to Plex Pass. Whether you opt for the $4.99 per month plan, $49.99 per year or $149 for a Lifetime subscription is your call.

 

The one caveat with Plex is that you can’t use it to watch live TV. You will still need to stream your OTA channels through either the HDHomeRun app or Kodi to watch live TV.

With my current setup, I am streaming my live OTA channels through the HDHomeRun app on Amazon Fire TV. I have my HDHomeRun tuner and my Fire TV connected via Ethernet to my WiFi router.

What can I record with Plex DVR?

You can record any over-the-air (OTA) channel, and even some cable programming if you use Plex DVR with a HDHomeRun Prime tuner. You will need to rent a cable card separately to plug into the HDHomeRun Prime tuner.

But let’s get back to setting up Plex with an HDHomeRun tuner with a TV antenna. There’s a common question that comes up for would-be cord cutters when they start exploring any and all alternatives to cable.

What kind of shows could I possibly watch with just a TV antenna?

I didn’t appreciate the answer until I began a daily ritual of combing through Plex’s program guide. This program guide has five main sections. There are other sections too so you can easily discover shows, movies and sporting events.

I’m looking at the section of the guide that shows upcoming movies as I write this.  Over the next seven days, there are 219 movies that I could watch or record.

There are some classics I’ve enjoyed. I see “To Live and Die In L.A.” and “Colors”. There are plenty of Hollywood blockbusters of the past like “Fast & Furious 6”, “The Rock” and “A Knight’s Tale”. I’ve also spotted some B-movie horror flicks like “Superbeast.”

There are some John Wayne movies, stuff you might expect off an antenna. But 219 movies is a lot of potential movie time. If I wanted, I could also filter my search by an individual channel like my local PBS station, or an actor. 

 

When I selected shows, there were 1,227 results. Here’s where I found shows that I thought you could only find on cable – shows like “American Greed”, and “Forensic Files”. There are also some of the most watched shows on television here. They’re coming from major networks like FOX, CBS, NBC and ABC.

The guide also gave me a better chance to deep dive into PBS content. That’s pretty useful considering the PBS app is largely walled off now as a means for fundraising. So I’m now recording “Austin City Limits” and “Front and Center” for my live music fix.

Want to limit your search for sports? OK. There’s NHL Hockey, the PGA Tour, Major League Baseball and English Premier League soccer. If you’ve been a subscriber to cable for years, it’s easy to forget how much is really out there in the age of free digital television.

The grid-style menu for Plex DVR is one of the most organized out there. I can easily scroll through what’s starting soon, what’s on right on right now, and new episodes of shows that are coming on the air later.

Setting up Plex DVR with HDHomeRun

HDHomeRun tuners have to be plugged into your WiFi through a wired Ethernet connection. Your TV antenna is also plugged into the the HDHomeRun tuner.

Head over the Plex website, download the software to your PC and sign up for a profile. Plex software operates as a web-app so it will appear in a window of your web browser. Once it’s up and running, go to server in the settings menu. Choose DVR settings. That setting is located in the bottom left corner of your screen.

Add your HDHomeRun tuner that appears on the screen. Type in your zip code in the postal code bar and Plex will scan for channels.

Soon, you will see a menu full of shows and movies and sporting events.

Be sure to download the Plex app to your streaming device as well, and follow the steps to sign in to your profile.

What should I use for a Plex server?

Before you use Plex DVR, you’ll need to make a few decisions about hardware. You are going to need to choose a server. You also need to decide where to store your recorded content.

Another important component will be the HDHomeRun tuner. I prefer the HDHomeRun Extend, and talk about the reasons why in my review. Do you want to use the computer that you currently own as a server? That’s not a problem. Ideally, this would be a computer that’s always on, so you can record shows when you are asleep or not at home.

Some people prefer to buy a used PC with a decent processor for a dedicated server. They will hunt around for specific models on eBay or Newegg.

There is also a growing market for mini-PCs which are used specifically as a Plex server.

You may have heard of people using an Intel NUC as a Plex Media Server. A mini PC is generally more energy efficient and can cut down the wear and tear on your PC that you have for daily use. The price point on an Intel NUC is driven by what’s inside. You could certainly use a NUC with an i3 processor for a single stream, but chances are you would want at least an i5 or i7 for transcoding more than once stream at a time.

 

Plex also has a beta version of hardware transcoding aimed at reducing CPU usage and power consumption. So Intel chips found in a mini PC like a Voyo V1 with Intel Apollo Lake will now have a much better, but not perfect, performance as a Plex media server. There is another option that can cover your needs on the server and client front. A NVIDIA SHIELD TV can function as both a server and media player for Plex.

How should I store Plex DVR content?

You’re also going to need some hard drive space to store your shows, movies or sporting events that you will be recording.

You could use a WD My Cloud, or a more sophisticated NAS setup. SiliconDust, the makers of HDHomeRun, suggest using a NAS setup. For the purposes of this article, I decided to do something low tech. I had a decent 500 GB hard drive removed from a PC once owned by my parents that never got much use. So I bought an aluminum external hard drive case made by Rosewill. I formatted the drive and connected it to a PC where I keep the majority of my personal media.

Should I use an old desktop or something new as a Plex server?

With the exception of the hard drive case, I used equipment around my house. I am using an older HP desktop (circa 2008) with an AMD Athlon™ II x2 240 processor with 2.8GHz for a server.

This is not an ideal setup, but it’s an important one for this review. By taking a minimalist approach, you can start to get an idea of what kind of boundaries you may have with the hardware you have on hand.

I have about 8 episodes from a half dozen shows that I’m recording. I’ve been streaming to an Amazon Fire TV that I have hardwired to my WiFi router. The picture has been bright and clear. Audio from each recording has crisp, including episodes Austin City Limits and Front and Center, which features live music.

Once in a while, I will get an artifact for a fraction of a second. Despite that, it’s been a functional option for me while testing out various features on Plex. I suspect that I might have slightly better results if I were using a 1 or 2TB WD Red or WD Blue hard drive in my external hard drive case.

Transcoding and hardware will be two aspects that you will want to think about as you assemble your setup. Plex has a guide to help you determine what kind of CPU you may need for your server. There are wide ranging and helpful discussions about “builds” on the r/Plex subreddit.

You should also check out Plex forums for all kinds of answers and advice. You will have better access to if you subscribe to Plex Pass.

Is getting Plex Pass worth it?

As an alternative to cable, Plex is definitely worth trying – even in small (and free) doses.

If you have any movies burned to a hard drive or computer, tapping into the free parts of Plex is a no brainer. You will be able to access that movie library on a number of over-the-top streaming devices, including Roku, Amazon Fire TV or Chromecast. If you’re serious about setting up a DVR option for OTA channels, I would suggest trying Plex Pass with the $4.99 plan. You will need a HDHomeRun tuner, either the Connect or Extend model for OTA channels.

You can always opt for a lifetime subscription to Plex Pass later if you think it is software that you will use long term.

When deciding how much to spend on your own equipment, I have a simple rule of thumb. Take a look at your current cable or satellite TV subscription and figure out how much it costs per year. Allocating a healthy portion of that expense shouldn’t be a big deal. Spending money you once gave to a cable company every month, and spending it on your own equipment is a good move.

 

After a few weeks of having Plex Pass, I am already rediscovering long lost content on my PC, including some prized vacation photos and music collections. I’ve become a fan of streaming services for channels that were once exclusive to cable. But Plex is making me question if I’m spending too much on my live TV streaming subscriptions.

I hope this review and how-to guide was helpful to you. Do you use Plex? What’s your favorite setup? Share it with readers in the comments below.







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Plex DVR with HDHomeRun: a solid alternative to cable
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Plex DVR with HDHomeRun: a solid alternative to cable
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Plex DVR with a HDHomeRun tuner is a powerful alternative to cable for recording OTA channels.
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Cord Cutting Report
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1 Comment on Plex DVR with HDHomeRun: a solid alternative to cable

  1. Great article, I’ve done similar research and you are spot on. I currently have a Tivo Roamio OTA, which is awesome, but I’m planning on setting up a Plex server in the future just to explore it’s DVR features.

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