For years I’ve known. I just never did anything about it. I knew that I wasn’t getting $80 or $90 of value per month out of my cable bill, or to be more accurate my DISH Network bill. But that’s how much I was paying. Every single month. The vast majority of the shows, movies, and sports programs I was watching were either on broadcast stations like ABC, NBC, Fox, CBS, and PBS, or were on a separate streaming service like Netflix, Amazon, or HBO Now; they weren’t part of the group of channels that are only available through an expensive cable or satellite package.
When DISH recently informed me that my bill was about to increase by another $10/month, I finally did something about it. I cut the cord, and was pleasantly surprised by two things:
- first, it was relatively easy to do and didn’t take that much time to set up; and
- second, I gave up little to no functionality with my TV – I can still for the most part watch what I want when I want.
My DISH Network package (and Verizon FiOS before that) worked well enough. I enjoyed having a whole house DVR with plenty of space to record lots of shows and multiple tuners to record a handful of shows at the same time. I liked being able to pause and rewind live TV. I especially liked being able to skip commercials. For years now, I have stopped watching anything live – even if I sit down to watch TV right as a favorite program or sports event is starting, I’ll start recording it while I watch another favorite show for a half hour, and then I’ll return to the show that started a little bit ago just so I can fast forward through the commercials or down time during a game.
I thought that by giving up cable or satellite TV, I would also be giving up these features that I’ve become conditioned to like or, dare I say it, conditioned to need. Well, I was wrong. I now have a $0/month bill and I can still do all the things I used to love: I can record all my favorite shows on my spacious whole-house DVR, I can pause and rewind live TV, and I can easily skip commercials. I am doing all of this with an over-the-air antenna and a few products from TiVo.
There were some upfront costs involved, but my break-even is well under one year (for me it will be seven months). And after that, my TV will be free of charge for years and years to come.
So, what are the details and how did I do it?
The basics that you’ll need are an antenna and digital tuner with a DVR built in. If you want your DVR to have the same whole-house functionality that you may be accustomed to with your cable provider, then you’ll need either additional tuners with DVRs networked to each other or a mini terminal that works with your one DVR. Don’t worry, I’ll go into full details below and will also share with you exactly what I bought and how I did it.
Let’s start by breaking down each component (for each item I’ve included a link on Amazon to the best price I could find that was still eligible for Prime shipping):
What you need here depends on how far you are from the broadcast tower. To find out exactly how far you are and what direction you should point your antenna, go to this handy FCC website.
Then, here are your best options depending on the strength of antenna you need and whether you have access to your attic or roof:
- 1Byone Basic Indoor Antenna – these run from $20-$50 and are pretty small if you plan on keeping it near the TV. They claim to work in some cases up to 50 miles away, but in reality, you should only go this route if you’re within 15 or 20 miles of the broadcast tower.
- GE 60-Mile Attic Mount Antenna – this antenna works really well up to about 40 miles when mounted in your attic. And the cost is great. It usually costs under $30.
- 1byone 85-Mile Attic or Roof Antenna – I don’t see much advantage to this antenna over the GE antenna if you want to use it in your attic, but this antenna is sturdy enough to be mounted on your roof, which will likely get you a better signal. This realistically should work well up to about 50 miles out and it typically costs about $50-$60.
- ViewTV 165-Mile Attic or Roof Antenna – this antenna is bigger and comes with a bigger range. I doubt it actually works anywhere near 165 miles from the broadcast tower, but Amazon reviews say it works well 80 to 100 miles out. Again, for best results, put this on your roof. This antenna retails for $100, but I’ve seen it for less than half of that on Amazon.
I personally went with the GE antenna and mounted it in my attic. I live about 20 miles from the broadcast towers, and this worked well for me.
Digital Tuner with DVR
There are plenty of products out there that act as a tuner and can work as a DVR along with an external hard drive, and some tech experts will say the best option is to set up a whole media computer for this task. My goal, however, was to replace my really nice DISH Network Hopper with an equivalent box, and this brought me to two viable options: the TiVo Roamio OTA and the Channel Master DVR+.
I went with the TiVo Roamio OTA, and I’m guessing you will too once you see how they stack up. Both devices give you a nice interface and TV guide with the ability to record shows and pause and rewind live TV. Both are expandable with external hard drives. So, what set the TiVo apart?
- Number of Tuners. The TiVo has four tuners vs. Channel Master’s two meaning you can record more shows at once or watch something live even when three channels are being recorded.
- Remote Control. TiVo’s remote control works with both infrared and radio frequency vs. Channel Master’s infrared only. This means you don’t need a line of sight with your TiVo Box. It can be behind a cabinet or in a closet and the remote still works.
- Ability to work as Whole-House Hub. The TiVo box allows you to put additional TiVo Roamios on your home network and link them together. Even better, it lets you use up to eight much cheaper boxes called TiVo Minis, which will let you watch live TV or your recordings from any other TVs in the house. Coming from a DISH Network Hopper DVR, these are very similar to the Joey boxes (that cost $7/month on DISH; here, after you buy it, there is no monthly charge).
- Integrated Apps. The TiVo box seamlessly works with your Netflix, Amazon Video, Pandora, Vudu, and many other apps. This isn’t even a possibility with Channel Master.
- Better Interface. The TiVo interface is continually recognized as one of the most user-friendly ways to watch TV. Channel Master gets the job done, but TiVo will amaze you.
- Superior iPhone and Android App. TiVo also wins easily in its giving you the ability to control your box from your phone. You can easily check your TV guide on the go to make sure you’re recording a show or game.
Additional Mini Terminal(s)
As mentioned above, one of the main benefits of going with TiVo over Channel Master for your tuner/DVR is that you can easily network your devices together, and for a relatively cheap price, add TiVo Mini boxes to as many rooms as you want. Like the main TiVo Roamio box, these devices have the same remote with the radio frequency transmitter such that you don’t need line of sight (mine sits behind my dresser in my bedroom). They also have all the same app functionality – they work well with Netflix and Amazon Video. For $150 or less per room, you can add a TiVo Mini box and have access to your whole-house DVR. Keep in mind that you will need these TiVo Mini boxes hard wired to your homes intranet using either an ethernet connection or a MoCA connection. I’ll describe that more below.
Other Parts You May Need or Want:
- Coax Cable – as I detail below, I needed a few extra small cables. These cost less than $10 each.
- Ethernet Cable – The TiVo Roamio OTA came with one short Cat 5e cable. The TiVo Minis did not. So, figure out if you need to buy a few more. You’ll want either Cat 5e or Cat 6. I’d personally go with Cat 5e because it’s a little bit cheaper.
- HDMI Cable – As with the ethernet cable, the TiVo Roamio came with its own HDMI cable, but the TiVo mini did not. You can pick up a couple here for under $10.
- 2-for-1 Coax Splitter – As discussed below in my set up, I used a couple of these. It was especially handy being that I decided to run two antennas in my attic. You’ll also likely need one if your router is already plugged into the wall where you also will want to plug in your TiVo box.
- Antenna Signal Booster – If you’re more than 15 miles from the broadcast towers or if you’re running your antenna signal throughout your house’s existing cabling (which can easily be over 50 or 100 feet of cabling), then you’ll want to pick up one of these relatively cheap boosters. They use only 2-4 watts of energy (less than $5 of electricity per year).
- MoCA Bridge – You only need this if both of the following are true: (1) you plan to use one or more TiVo mini boxes or network together two or more TiVo Roamio boxes; and (2) you do not have ethernet hook ups (access to your router or a router-connected wall jack) in each of the rooms where you will have a TiVo device. I personally needed one of these, so please read below if you think you will need one too.
- Point of Entry (PoE) Filter – You only need this if you are running a MoCA network with a MoCA Bridge. If you are, then you will need a PoE filter near your antenna hook up. If your home internet that is connected to your modem comes through the same cabling in your house that you’re using for your over-the-air TV signal, then you will also need a PoE filter where the internet signal comes into your house (either at the box out by the street or on the side of your house where it connects to the house’s cabling). These PoE filters cost less than $15 each and are super easy to install.
- External Hard Drive – The TiVo Roamio OTA has a 1 TB hard drive built in. That’s 150 hours of full non-compressed HD recordings. For me, 150 hours is enough. For under $100; however, you can easily add a few more terabytes of space, expanding your recording capacity by hundreds of more hours.
How did I personally do this?
I realize that this may sound like a lot, but it only took me three hours to set everything up. I also got my kids involved with setting up my antenna in my attic, and they had a blast being up there. My total cost including taxes was just under $700 with the following purchases:
- TiVo Roamio OTA – $360
- TiVo Mini – $150
- GE Attic Antenna – $25
- Antenna Signal Booster – $10
- 1-to-2 Coax Cable Splitter – $6
- TiVo Bridge – $50
- TiVo-compliant PoE Filter – $12
- Two 8-foot Coax Cables – $14
- Two 10-foot HDMI Cables – $9
- Cat 5e Cable – $6
A good friend of mine saw my set up when he was in town, and as soon as he got home, he ordered all the items above that he needed to set up the same whole-house DVR for over-the-air TV. Then, rather than set it up himself, he called one of the TV installation companies that the cable and satellite companies routinely use. They charged him $125 and had it all working in less than two hours.
In case you’re more like me and want to take on this project yourself, here’s the nitty gritty details of exactly what I set up and in what order:
In my attic, I already had an old-school large antenna from the 1990s that the previous owner left behind. It worked well in receiving a handful of channels, but I knew I needed something more. When I installed my GE Antenna, I certainly got a lot more channels than I did on the existing antenna, but one of the channels that was previously coming in perfectly clear on the old antenna no longer was coming in. If I slightly re-aimed my new antenna, it would get the missing channel, but would then lose one of the others it was previously getting fine. So, I ended up leaving the old antenna and also installing a new one. Effectively I have dual antennas now. I used the basic one-to-two splitter in reverse and then added a booster after bringing the signals together, and it worked perfectly.
So, to be specific, in my attic I have:
- Old Antenna and my new GE Antenna
- Both connected with 8-foot coax cables
- Into a 2-to-1 splitter
- Connected directly to a TiVo POE Filter
- Connected to a signal booster
- Connected to a coax cable that feeds my whole house (and is split in many other places behind my walls to give me cable access plug ins in various rooms in my house including my family room, basement, and master bedroom)
In my family room, I already have my internet modem and router right next to my TV. If all I wanted was one TiVo DVR unit, all I would need to do at this point is plug in my TiVo Roamio OTA to the power, use a coax cable from the wall to the TiVo unit, use an HDMI cable from the TiVo unit to the TV, and use a CAT 5, 5e, or 6 cable from the TiVo unit to my router. But I had to add one more step because I want to use my TiVo mini in other rooms that do not have access to ethernet cable that connects to my router. So, I created a MoCA Network, which stands for Multimedia over Coax. It basically turns your existing coax cabling throughout your house into a high-speed intranet that brings an internet signal capable of streaming HD video to every room where you have cable hookups. To do this step, I purchased and plugged in a TiVo Bridge as well.
To be specific, in my family room I have:
- A TiVo bridge plugged into each of the following: my power using the provided power plug, the 2-for-1 coax splitter that came with the TiVo Bridge, and the router using the Cat 5e cabling that came with the TiVo Bridge.
- A TiVo Roamio plugged into each of the following: the power using the provided power plug, the 2-for-1 coax splitter that came with the TiVo Bridge, the router using Cat 5e cabling that came with the Roamio, the TV using an HDMI cable (I can’t remember if this came with the unit or if I used one I already owned).
- The final step is using a short Coax Cable to now attach the 2-for-1 coax cable to the Coax wall outlet. This now attached my Roamio tuner and DVR to the antenna in my attic and also attached the Bridge to my whole-home coax network. Now I can plug a TiVo mini in any room that has a coax wall outlet and get full HD TV live TV and viewing of my DVR from any other room.
In each additional room you want to watch live TV and access your whole home DVR:
- In my master bedroom, all I had to do is plug my TiVo mini into each of the following: the power outlet using the provided power plug, the coax wall outlet using a coax cable, and the TV using an HDMI cable. Then, using the on-screen menu, I select MoCA Network as the connection. It works perfectly. Please keep in mind that you do not need additional MoCA Bridges for your TiVo Minis; the TiVo Mini can pull the internet directly from the cable connection because you already created the MoCA network wherever you have your modem/router, in my case the family room right next to my TiVo Roamio.
- I chose to not add another box to my basement, but if I add one in the future, all I need to do is buy another TiVo Mini and plug it in the same way I did in the master bedroom. Alternatively, because I have ethernet cabling in my basement (but unfortunately not in any of my bedrooms), I don’t need to use the MoCA network, and instead, I can plug the TiVo Mini into the ethernet wall jack using Cat 5, 5e, or 6 cabling.
Good luck setting this up for yourself. Depending on the size of your cable bill, you will likely pass the breakeven point within six to eight months. Plus, it’ll feel great to just be rid of that bill and the continuous price hikes. Enjoy your truly free TV.