What is HDHomeRun?
HDHomeRun tuners and DVRs have evolved quite a bit in the last few years. They’ve quickly become a go-to device for cord cutters who rely on a TV antenna for free over-the-air channels.
This review compares the pros and cons of the HDHomeRun Scribe DVR versus a HDHomeRun Connect and HDHomeRun Extend.
HDHomeRun boxes can turn almost any screen in your house into a portable TV. You can watch live TV channels on your smartphone, tablet and PC, and of course, your TV.
I have been reviewing HDHomeRun hardware since 2017. And I own a couple of Tablo DVRs, a Fire TV Recast and AirTV2.
Two or three over-the-air DVRs are usually running at my house at any given point in the year because I’m just generally interested in how they perform on a day-to-day basis.
HDHomeRun tuners and DVRs are made by SiliconDust, and they were around making these tuners way before cord cutting became as popular as it is today.
Part 1: Overview & Setup
Setting up an HDHomeRun is pretty simple. Connect the antenna to the back of the HDHomeRun box. Hook up an Ethernet cord that runs to the WiFi router. Plug in the power adapter.
Once you have everything plugged in, you just need to run a channel scan at my.hdhomerun dot com. Now you can watch your over-the-air channels on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and a NVIDIA Shield.
One big difference off the top is that the HDHomeRun Scribe is a full fledged DVR. It has a built-in 1TB hard drive. So you don’t need any other hardware.
The HDHomeRun Connect and Extend are actually TV tuners with no hard drive. So that means you’ll need to dedicate some hard drive space either on a computer or server. You can also add an external hard drive to a PC as well for recordings.
I personally like to watch my local channels on my smartphone because I might be out in my garage, or manning the grill outside and I want a little bit of TV to watch.
If you want to see different HDHomeRun models in action, then you can just watch the video version of this review.
Channel guide: HDHomeRun app
The channel guide for live TV runs on the right side of the screen, something the company calls “Slice View”.
It’s pretty different from the old-school channel guide that you’d see on a cable box.
You’ll find the Slice View guide on the Amazon Fire TV and Android TV software.
On a Roku, the menu is a little rougher around the edges. But it works.
To manage recordings, head down to the hamburger shaped icon on the bottom right hand of the screen. Head to the Discovery tab, and you can get a bird’s eye view of what’s on TV right now.
The sub-categories are broken down into upcoming shows, movies and sports. I really like these kinds of guides better than the old-school channel guides because you get a chance to find out about shows and sporting events that you didn’t even know were available through your antenna.
You don’t always have to rely on the big streaming service to watch a favorite TV show or even live sports.
Just about every week for the last year and a half, you could read stories about how the TV show Friends was disappearing from one streaming service and going to another — the same thing with Seinfeld.
I’ve actually never watched an episode of Friends in my life. But I set up the HDHomeRun to record the show — just to prove that depending on where you live, a DVR can record some of the most popular shows on TV and on streaming. And they’re in HD quality and free.
In terms of day-to-day use, the thing I love most about having an antenna plugged into my HDHomeRun is that I can watch local channels on my TV and pretty much anywhere else inside and outside of my house.
It basically turns your smartphone, tablets, laptops and PCs into portable televisions. Being able to watch a local CBS or NBC station in my backyard or garage is super convenient.
I can even watch nationally broadcasted sporting events on a projector through the HDHomeRun app or Plex.
At the time of this video being made, SiliconDust was offering a free year of its DVR service. It usually costs $35 per year.
It doesn’t look like the slickest interface, but it works. And I am a big fan of its “Discover” tab because I can easily get to sports or find other shows and movies to record.
Part 2: Hardware Comparison
So is there one HDHomeRun model that’s better than the others?
To me, the answer really comes down to two things: your budget, and what kind of setup you want to have around your house.
I’ve lived in both large and small homes over the years, and I usually have at least three TVs operating at my house. For most people, the HDHomeRun Connect models are going to work just fine for you.
Here are a few key things that I think you should consider if you’re going to buy an HDHomeRun.
The Scribe and Connect models come in two versions. The Duo model means there are two internal TV tuners, so you can watch and record up to two television programs at once.
The Quatro models have four tuners, so you can watch and record up to four programs at once. The HDHomeRun Extend only comes with two tuners inside. I’ll explain why in a minute.
One challenge for some people is that HDHomeRun devices have to be hardwired into your WiFi router.
For me, it’s never been a problem. You can have a really long run of Ethernet cord if you need to. And if you’re someone who is hiding their WiFi router in a closet or entertainment cabinet, get it out of there. You’ll definitely improve WiFi around your house if you have it placed out in the open and high off the floor.
Picture quality: Streaming OTA
Digital broadcasts deliver up to 720p and 1080i picture resolution. There are some cities now rolling out ATSC 3.0 which promises 4K resolution, but these HDHomeRun boxes are for digital broadcasts, not ATSC 3.0. (HDHomerun is working on an ATSC 3.0 tuner.)
The Connect Duo and Quatro models stream raw MPEG2, so when you look at your TV — it’s bright and crisp. Most over-the-air stations still broadcast with MPEG2 encoding.
I have one TV in my house that’s just hooked up to a TV antenna. And I don’t think you would be able to tell the difference between streaming through an HDHomeRun app, and plugging a TV antenna in the back of your television.
The advantage to going with Connect Duo and Quatro is that you can put together an inexpensive set up, and upgrade your storage space later.
So for example, if you want to go really cheap, I paid about $18 for a hard drive case, and took a 500GB hard drive out of an old computer that my parents were getting rid of. They barely used the hard drive so it was great for some basic recordings.
If you have the budget for it, I would say hard drives from Seagate or Western Digital are also very good. I use both of them for different storage setups around the house.
If you just want over-the-air channels on a couple of TVs in your house, and you don’t live in a mansion, the Connect models are the way to go. Just think about whether you want the Connect Duo with two tuners, or the Quatro with four tuners.
The HDHomeRun Extend has two tuners, and the key difference is that it has a built-in h264 transcoder, which compresses video in real-time.
By transcoding video, you’re using less bandwidth. So why would that matter?
Let’s say you’re running a Plex server on an older computer like this 2008 HP desktop that I have kicking around. This thing is 12 years old, and there isn’t much in the way of processing power.
A setup like this might struggle with delivering a live MPEG2 stream especially if you’re doing it over WiFi and you have a couple dozen other Internet connected devices in your house. Your old Plex server is competing for bandwidth against newer, and probably faster hardware around your house.
So when it comes to watching live TV in a situation like this, I could definitely see an advantage to having an Extend because you can set it up to transcode from MPEG2 to h.264. Transcoding to h.264 is also going to reduce your file size for each recording, and it’s easier to transmit live TV over WiFi.
The built-in transcoder is pretty much what makes the Extend a more expensive unit compared to HDHomeRun Connect. And you know, the example I’m giving you with the older Plex server isn’t the only reason why someone might prefer an HDHomeRun Extend.
If you have an older WiFi setup — that’s not on the AC WiFi standard — an Extend might be a better buy. Or if you have some older clients that struggle with playing MPEG2 files, then an Extend might be what you need.
The question or concern I see most on online isn’t a matter of compatibility — it’s whether the Connect models are powerful enough for watching live TV over WiFi.
Based on my own day-to-day use over the last few years, I would definitely say yes. In fact, the Connect models are the ones that I’ve been using the longest.
I’ve been watching live TV on my phone using the Connect Quatro for a couple years and I switched over to the Scribe DVR about 8 months ago.
Choosing which HDHomeRun to buy
If you want to record live TV using the Connect or Extend, you’re going to need a PC, mini PC or some kind of server set up like a NAS box that’s always on.
Having a computer that’s always on to record shows isn’t a desirable thing for everyone. There are some decent server options that you can set up on your own with an older PC desktop.
But if you don’t want to go down that path, then spending the money for the HDHomeRun Scribe DVR is probably the better buy.
Like I mentioned, the Scribe has a 1TB internal hard drive so you don’t need to set up an external hard drive or have any kind of server setup for recordings.
The Scribe is super easy to hook up and start using. The Scribe Duo, which is the two TV tuner model, retails for about $180.
HDHomeRun Scribe Quatro with 4 TV tuners retails for about $230.
Going with the Scribe might be your best option if you don’t want to set up a computer or server for recording live TV.
When the Scribe came out, SiliconDust also released the HDHomeRun Servio.
From the outside, it looks just like other HDHomeRun devices. But it’s actually made for expanding your HDHomeRun tuner or DVR.
It’s not a standalone piece of hardware.
The Servio is basically an alternative for HDHomeRun owners that don’t want to set up a PC or NAS server for recordings.
So let’s say you’ve already bought HDHomeRun Connect or Extend, and having your PC on all the time isn’t working for you.
You hook up a Servio and get a fully functional OTA DVR with an internal 2TB hard drive. That’s about 300 hours worth of recordings. The Servio was initially priced at about $150, but recently I have seen it a few dollars cheaper.
Anyway, I think the real benefit here is that it’s an alternative to consider for people who don’t want to set up a server. And it’s definitely cheaper than say buying a mini-PC and adding a hard drive to it.
Scribe DVR & Servio limitations
There are some limitations to Scribe DVR and SERVIO that you need to know about.
The Scribe and SERVIO only works with the HDHomeRun app for recordings.
You can watch live TV through Plex and other third-party apps, but you can’t record using them. And you can’t offload TV shows and movies.
Part 3: Plex and Other Options
One unique aspect of HDHomeRun — whether you’re talking about the Extend or the Connect — is that you can use third-party software instead of the HDHomeRun DVR service.
I think when it comes to picking a DVR service, it comes down to two things. How much do you want to pay per year, and what do you want to accomplish?
The HDHomeRun DVR service is definitely the cheapest at $35 per year, and you’re getting a 14-day channel guide.
And remember, you could go without a DVR service and just use the 24 hour channel guide. But the HDHomeRun DVR service is less than $3 per month.
So I mean, how many other ways do you burn three bucks a month without thinking about it. Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts are eating way more into your wallet than SiliconDust.
Plex has a “Live TV & DVR” service that sports a grid-style channel guide. It’s a pretty intuitive interface for tracking down upcoming TV shows or sporting events to record.
I can head over to the sports section and quickly see that some NFL games are coming up.
To use Plex’s Live TV & DVR service, you need to get a Plex Pass, which costs $4.99 per month. Or you can get a lifetime pass for $149.
With Plex, you can pause and rewind live TV. And if you set up port-forwarding on your router, you can also watch live TV outside your home. Once on a vacation in Aruba, I was able to connect to my server back home and watch live TV channels. Pretty cool.
Plex is also a hub where I can centralize all my music, my personal burned DVD collection, favorite podcasts, a Tidal subscription — all in one spot.
Plex has also added a huge ad-supported/on-demand library of movies and TV shows. They’ve recently partnered with Crackle to fill out their movie library.
There are a number of other perks that come with Plex Pass in addition to the Live TV & DVR.
You might find yourself experimenting with different DVR services, and I think that’s the best way to start out.
Just remember that all your free over-the-air channels are coming to you in 720p or 1080i. So you’re going to have HD picture quality that’s going to look really crisp. Even better than cable because your picture isn’t going to be nearly as compressed.
What streaming devices support HDHomeRun?
Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV aren’t your only options for watching and recording local TV channels.
PCs running Windows 10, and Xbox One are on the long list of compatible devices with HDHomeRun tuners.
The official HDHomeRun app supports Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, Android TV and third-party software options.
Windows 10 devices include: Windows 10 PC, Xbox One or One S, Surface Tablet or Windows PHONE.
Android: NVIDIA SHIELD TV, Amazon Fire TV, Sony Android TV, Android phones and Android tablets
Apple: Apple desktops, Apple laptops, Apple iOS (like iPads) and Apple TV 4
This review was published Feb. 7, 2017 and has been updated.
Founder and Editor of The Cord Cutting Report. Before launching the site in 2016, he worked for more than two decades as a staff writer or correspondent for a number of daily newspapers, including The Boston Globe. His enthusiasm for tech began with the Atari 2600. Follow @james_kimble