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A DVR without a subscription or monthly fees

What if I told you that you could have a DVR without a subscription that worked with free over-the-air antenna-based TV, and it cost less than $35, saving those monthly subscription fees month after month?

It’s called the Mediasonic Homeworx HW180STB. If you want to record and time-shift television without loss of quality and without paying a fortune in subscription fees, it’s a tremendous value. You have to provide an antenna–which you can even make yourself–and USB-based storage, but it means you can get whatever capacity you want, and if you fill up a drive, just get another one.

The caveat with it is that it won’t work with a cable subscription–cable TV is scrambled and this box can’t unscramble it. But it works perfectly with over-the-air TV, making it a great option for cord-cutters. I plugged one in and set it up with an ordinary antenna and did a channel scan, and it found 39 channels. That’s at least as good as the built-in tuner in most TVs I’ve found. Not all 39 channels are worth watching, but many people grossly underestimate the number of channels that are available free over the air.

It has HDMI, composite, and RF outputs, so you can connect it to just about any TV you have around. This box can double as a DTV converter box in addition to being a DVR.

Connecting it is no harder than connecting a DVD player. Plug it into the wall, plug an antenna into its RF input, then connect it to the TV via the best-available input you have (HDMI, composite, or RF, in that order). A couple of other options might have been nice, but this is a $35 box.

Recording is pretty easy. Plug in a USB drive (flash or HDD). Tune to the channel you want to record from, hit the EPG button on the remote, and follow the onscreen prompts, which include selecting the program you want off the onscreen guide. Leave the DVR box on, but you can turn the TV off.

To replay, hit the Play button on the remote, then a menu of the recordings stored on your USB drive comes up. Pick what you want to watch, and you’re off. You can also take the USB drive out and play the recorded video on a computer using VLC or a similar video player.

The downsides

Yes, for $35 there will be downsides. There’s no power indicator on the device to tell you it’s powered on. That would be easier to overlook if the device didn’t run so hot. The most frequent complaint about the HW180STB is that it overheats and eventually fails. If there were some sort of visual reminder that you left it on, that would be less likely to happen. The Sandisk USB stick I used has a power light on it, but that solution requires me to look in the back.

I set the device to power itself off after three hours. That way, if anyone forgets, it corrects itself. It will still power itself back on to record according to your schedule.

The remote isn’t all that sensitive. You’ll have to point it right at the HW180STB to get it to register.

And at the risk of sounding too greedy, I sure wish it had a network connection so it could share media with other devices. I know it wouldn’t cost $35 anymore if they added that capability, but I’d gladly pay more for it. The increased cost might even allow them to put it in a bigger enclosure, add a bigger heatsink, and improve reliability.

Sometimes the recording skips, but that’s due to the antenna. If your recordings are glitchy, adjust the positioning of your antenna, or get a better one, or make one.

Dave’s verdict

I don’t watch a lot of TV, but when I do, I want to watch on my terms. I don’t want to stay up until midnight to watch Saturday Night Live. For $35 plus the cost of a good quality 64 GB USB flash drive, I can record it and watch it at 8pm on Sunday.

The HW180STB isn’t perfect. But considering it costs 35 bucks, I think it’s a bargain. If you want a DVR without a subscription or monthly fees, it’s a good one to get.

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