Streaming video DVR explained

"Is there a DVR for streaming video?" A common question with a complicated answer.

Jared Newman / TechHive

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One question I often get about cord cutting is whether it’s possible to record streaming video, like you can with cable or over-the-air television.

This might seem like a straightforward question, but the answer is complicated. Some streaming services do offer DVR, but in formats than a traditional cable DVR. Others, such as Netflix, don’t allow you to record shows, but offer all their content on demand anyway. And while a workaround exists for streaming services that don’t offer DVR, this brings its own set of trade-offs.

In the interest of having an article to reference whenever someone asks me about streaming DVR in the future, here’s a rundown of all your options:

DVR for live TV streaming

If we’re talking about live TV streaming services—that is, those that provide a bundle of cable channels over the internet—then yes, DVR is available with all of them. Instead of saving shows to your device, these services store their recordings in the cloud, so you can access them from anywhere. Still, not all services have the same idea of what an online DVR should be.

Sling TV, Hulu with Live TV, AT&T TV Now, and FuboTV all take an approach that’s similar to cable: You get a certain number of recording hours, and those recordings are stored indefinitely.

  • Sling TV offers 10 hours of recording time for free, and charges $5 extra per month for 50 hours.
  • Hulu + Live TV provides 50 hours of recording time, and charges $10 per month for 200 hours.
  • FuboTV provides 30 hours of recording time, and charges $5 per month extra for 500 hours.
  • AT&T TV Now includes 500 hours of recording time.

YouTube TV and Philo approach streaming DVR differently. They allow you to record a practically unlimited number of programs, but you can only store them for a limited time. YouTube TV saves shows the longest, at nine months, while Philo stores programs for 30 days.

directvnow1 Jared Newman / TechHive

Live TV streaming services such as AT&T TV Now all offer cloud-based DVRs.

In the early days of live TV streaming, most of these services had restrictions on how their DVRs worked. Some wouldn't allow recording on certain channels, while others prohibited ad skipping for certain recordings. Those restrictions have mostly been lifted, with one notable exception: The DVR in Hulu's $55 per month live TV package doesn't allow you to skip commercials. For that, you'll have to spend $10 per month extra on Hulu's expanded DVR, which also includes more storage.

DVR in other streaming services

Outside of those live TV services, DVR generally isn’t available. You’re not allowed to record shows from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or Hulu’s on-demand service, for instance, and if you download apps from individual networks such as NBC and Fox, you won’t be able to record those programs, either.

In theory, DVR shouldn’t be necessary with these services, because all their programming is available on demand. Netflix and Amazon Prime also support downloading videos to your phone or tablet for offline viewing, and many services offer their own watchlists that approximate the organizational aspects of a cable DVR. If you have a Roku or Apple TV, these devices also have their own watchlist features that can track shows across multiple streaming services.

rokufeed Roku

The “My Feed” feature on Roku players tells you when new episodes of your shows arrive—sort of like a DVR would.

But in reality, there are still times where a proper DVR for Netflix and other standalone services might be helpful. You might, for example, want to skip the commercials in an ad-supported video, download a TV show in an app that doesn’t support offline viewing, save a program that’s about to be removed from one of your streaming services, or avoid buffering during busy periods by storing videos offline.

One workaround for this is PlayOn, a Windows program (currently $30) that creates a local copy of videos from online sources. You can then transfer the video file to other devices, or stream it to other devices in your home over Wi-Fi. If you use Plex to record and watch over-the-air broadcasts, you can even have Plex serve files from your PlayOn folder, so that all your recordings are available through a single app.

playon Jared Newman / TechHive

PlayOn’s Windows software can record shows from streaming services such as Netflix.

Like the practice of password sharing, PlayOn operates in a moral and legal gray area. Its creators argue that they’re protected by the same statutes that allow cable DVRs and VCRs to exist, which may explain why PlayOn has been around for more than a decade. Still, streaming services such as Netflix don’t allow copying videos in their terms of service, and they have licensing agreements with content providers that forbid the practice.

The bigger catch with PlayOn might be the software itself. While it does work most of the time, in some cases videos can fail to record properly or at all. And to use PlayOn in the first place, you must have Adobe Flash installed on your computer. Flash has been prone to security vulnerabilities in the past, and while it's being discontinued at the end of this year, for now there's no way to use PlayOn without it.

If you’re looking for a single, all-encompassing DVR that covers everything you might want to watch online, no solution exists. Such is life in the world of online video, where nothing is neat and orderly, but interesting options are everywhere.

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