The best over-the-air DVR power tools for cord-cutters

Using Tablo, TiVo, or HDHomeRun to record free broadcast TV? Here are some advanced tricks you should know about.

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One of the great things about using an over-the-air DVR to cut the cord is the amount of control it offers. Unlike with cable or live TV streaming services, DVR products such as Tablo, Plex, and HDHomeRun give you free reign over your recordings, so you can copy, transfer, and modify them at will.

With this level of control—and the right tools—the possibilities are plentiful. You can back up your recordings to a separate hard drive, transfer them to a phone or PC for offline viewing, and even permanently remove commercials.

To be clear, these tricks aren’t for everyone, and they’re not necessary for the basic act of watching live or recorded programs on your television. But if you’re feeling brave and want to go a step further with your DVR, here are some tools you can use:

First, get a hold of your files

Before you can start stripping commercials or loading videos onto your phone, you’ll need to gain access to your DVR’s video files.

With Plex, Channels DVR, or Emby, your files are simply stored in a folder on whatever PC or NAS box you’ve used to run the recording engine. You would have specified this folder during the setup process. Likewise, if you’re using a cheap tuner box with DVR features, such as the Mediasonic Homeworx, the files will appear in a folder on whatever hard drive or thumb drive you’ve hooked up to the box.

Tablo DVR requires some heavier lifting. To access your recordings from a Windows PC, use the free Tablo Ripper app. (The free Tablo Exporter provides a similar service for Mac users, but I have not tested it.) Once installed, it will automatically detect any Tablo devices on the same network and present a list of recordings. Double-click any recording to move it into the transfer queue, then click “Start” to download them from your DVR.

tabloripper Jared Newman / IDG

Tablo Ripper can detect and download files from any Tablo DVR over Wi-Fi.

Under the “configuration” tab, you can also change the download folder and schedule Tablo Ripper to run in the background on a daily basis.

Got a TiVo over-the-air DVR instead? You can export recordings with the free PyTivo Desktop app for Windows or Mac. Once the app is running, it will detect any TiVos on your network and let you download individual programs, full series, or the entire recording list with one click. (More tech-savvy users should check out kmttg for Windows, Mac, or Linux. It’s trickier to set up, but has ad removal and encoding options built in.)

pytivodesktop2 Jared Newman / IDG

PyTivo Desktop provides an easy way to transfer over-the-air TiVo recordings to a PC or Mac.

Unfortunately, these tools do not work with the latest TiVo Edge DVR, and it’s unclear whether the company will fix the problem.

If you’re using HDHomeRun’s new Scribe or Servio DVRs, downloading your recordings to a PC is more laborious, but not impossible:

  • Visit my.hdhomerun.com, then click the name of your DVR. In your browser’s address bar, you’ll see a local network address such as 192.168.1.50 or something similar.
  • Add “/recorded_files.json” (without quotes) to the end of the network address, resulting in something like “192.168.1.50/recorded_files.json” in your address bar. You’ll see a long, unwieldy list of text describing all your recordings.
  • Search for any show you want to record, then copy the address that appears next to it under “PlayURL.” Paste this into your address bar, and it will begin downloading a file called “play.mpeg.” Rename this file to reflect the name of the recorded program, but don’t change the file extension (.mpeg).
hdhomerunjson Jared Newman / IDG

Grabbing recordings from an HDHomeRun Scribe or Servio DVR requires parsing, copying, and pasting text into your browser’s address bar.

Unfortunately, I have not found a way to pull recordings from an AirTV or Channel Master Stream+, and grabbing recordings from a Fire TV Recast takes significant effort.

Get rid of the commercials

Now that you’ve grabbed some files from your DVR, the real fun begins. With a program called MCEBuddy, you can easily produce commercial-free versions of your over-the-air recordings. (For the free version, head to this link and scroll down to “MCEBuddy 2.3.13 Free 64-bit.”)

Once you’ve installed the program, click “Settings.” Under “Monitor locations,” you can set up MCEBuddy to automatically strip commercials from files in specific folders. With Tablo, for instance, you can set up MCEBuddy to monitor TabloRipper’s output folder. Meanwhile, under “Conversion tasks,” you can decide where to store the ad-free versions and whether to encode them to save more space. (I suggest selecting “MKV High Quality” under the “Profile” section if you want to maintain HD video quality.)

mcebuddy4 Jared Newman / IDG

MCEBuddy is a powerful encoding and ad-stripping tool that works with over-the-air DVR recordings.

After configuring these options, go back to the main menu and hit “Start.” You can then add any files you want to convert, or just wait for MCEBuddy to work on the folders you’re monitoring automatically. This process can take a while; MCEBuddy sells a $30 premium version if you’d like it to run faster.

Keep in mind that Plex DVR has an ad-removal feature built-in, while Tablo, TiVo, and Channels DVR have ad-skipping features that leave the original recording intact. Still, MCEBuddy can be useful if you want to create ad-free or encoded copies while preserving the original.

Take your recordings with you

Now that your recordings are compressed, ad-free, and liberated from your DVR, you can put them to use in all kinds of situations. If your car has overhead video screens and a USB port for media playback, you can load up a thumb drive for road trips. And if your streaming box or smart TV has a USB port, you can keep a stash of videos handy for your next internet outage.

Better yet, load up some videos on a phone or tablet for offline viewing.

If you’re using a Tablo DVR and an Android device, the easiest way to do this is with OTA2Go, which can download recordings while you’re on the same Wi-Fi network. It even allows for commercial skip when you view recordings through the app, though it requires a $3 in-app purchase to remove a 20-minute limit on downloads.

ota2go Jared Newman / IDG

The OTA2Go app lets you download Tablo recordings to an Android device.

Plex DVR users, meanwhile, can use the sync tool that’s built into Plex’s mobile apps. Just look for the download button while viewing any movie, TV series, or episode.

In all other cases, you can use the free VLC app for Android, iOS, and Amazon Fire devices.

With iOS, you can either use VLC’s Wi-Fi upload tool or transfer the files through iTunes. With the latter option, you must click on your device icon in iTunes, navigate to “File Sharing,” and select VLC under the “Apps” list. To transfer videos, drag them into the right-hand column.

vlcitunes Jared Newman / IDG

VLC lets you transfer recordings to an iPhone or iPad using iTunes.

On Android and Fire devices, you can plug the device into your computer, then transfer your video files into any directory on the device. (You might need to tap on a USB notification and select “file transfer,” first.) Alternatively, you can load up a microSD card with video files if your device has a card slot.

Got questions about these tips or suggestions for any DVR tools I missed? Power users are known to have opinions, so I’ve love to hear yours over email or on Twitter.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the OTA2Go app does not support commercial skip for recordings.

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