How to record all the free streaming TV before it's gone

HBO and others are giving away content during the coronavirus crisis. PlayOn can help you save it forever.

Jared Newman / IDG

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To help people pass the time at home during the coronavirus pandemic, several TV networks have been streaming movies and shows for free. HBO, for instance, has opened up nearly 500 hours of free programming to non-subscribers, while CBS All Access has offered 60-day trials even to previous customers. Epix is also offering a 30-day trial through Amazon Prime, and several more services are providing extended trials through the Roku Channel.

These aren’t simple acts of generosity. Eventually, the free trials will run dry and the giveaways will go away, at which point you’ll be expected to pay for all those shows you’re in the middle of watching.

Fortunately, there’s a workaround: With a service called PlayOn, you can record movies and shows from online sources like Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO, and CBS All Access. The resulting video files are yours to keep, even if you’ve stopped subscribing to the services from which those files came. If we’re going to remain mostly at home for the foreseeable future, now might be the time to stock up on free movies and shows to watch later.

How PlayOn records streaming video

PlayOn offers two versions of its service. PlayOn Desktop records videos to any Windows PC and is currently on sale for $35. It’s also available as a subscription, priced at $5 per month or $20 per year.

For those who don’t have a Windows computer, PlayOn Cloud can record videos through its own servers, then save them to its mobile app for iOS or Android. This service quickly becomes pricier than the desktop version, though: A current sale lets you save 100 recordings for $15, with monthly subscriptions also available.

playonhbo Jared Newman / IDG

For each streaming source, PlayOn presents a list of programs that you can drag into the recording queue.

In both cases, the process is similar: Log into your streaming services through the settings menu of the PlayOn app, then select the streaming service (or “channel”) whose programs you want to record. (If you have a desktop computer with a secondary or external hard drive, you should also select that drive in PlayOn settings before recording anything.) PlayOn then lays out each channel’s content in a series of lists you can browse through.

To start a recording, drag any show into the Record Queue on the left sidebar, or click the record button for any individual season or episode. PlayOn also offers an “Off-Peak” DVR option, which you can use to schedule recordings overnight when fewer people are vying for bandwidth. This can also help reduce the strain on your PC during the day if you’re using it for work.

playonrecording Jared Newman / IDG

PlayOn lets you set up recordings during off-peak hours, so you can free up bandwidth and computing power during the day.

After making some recordings, you can use the PlayOn app to watch the videos, stream them onto other devices, or host them with alternative media server software such as Plex.

Finding the free stuff

After setting up PlayOn, you’ll still have to track down all the content that TV networks are giving away for free.

For HBO’s freebies, the best path is through the Roku Channel, which works even if you don’t own a Roku player. Just head to the Roku Channel website, create a free account, and log in with that information through PlayOn’s Settings menu. You can then navigate to the Roku Channel section of the PlayOn app, where “HBO - Free TV Shows” is one of the folder options.

playonsettings Jared Newman / IDG

To record free programs from the Roku channel, you’ll need to use a Roku account.

Some premium video services are also offering extended 30-day free trials through the Roku Channel, including Showtime, Noggin, and Smithsonian Channel Plus. Once you’ve added those subscriptions, you can find and record them through PlayOn’s menus as well. Remember that you can immediately cancel these free trials (using this link) and still use them for the duration of the trial period.

These same tricks also work with Amazon Prime Video, though you’ll need a Prime membership to take advantage. If you’re already a Prime member, consider adding Epix’s 30-day free trial to record its movies and original shows. (Again, you can immediately cancel after doing so and still enjoy the trial.)

playonprime Jared Newman / IDG

With Amazon Prime’s add-on subscriptions, you can navigate to the “Your Channels” menu to find them.

Meanwhile, CBS All Access has been offering extended trials even to those who’ve previously subscribed to the service. Try using the code “GIFT” during checkout to get 30 days free, then use the code “ENJOY” to get 30 more. After doing so, you can use PlayOn to record all that new Star Trek content (Picard, Discovery) that CBS has been putting out.

Is PlayOn worth it?

If you’re wondering whether any of this is legal, PlayOn has always likened itself to any VCR or DVR that copies videos for personal use. The user’s name and IP address appear at the start of each recording to discourage sharing, and while some streaming providers might point out that their terms of service don’t allow recording, running afoul of those terms isn’t the same as breaking the law. The fact that PlayOn has been around for more than a decade is a strong indication that the service is legally in the clear.

The bigger issue, at least with PlayOn’s desktop software, is that it automatically installs Adobe Flash. PlayOn works by capturing video as it runs in a hidden window, and some video sites still require Flash for playback despite its history of security vulnerabilities. I’ve always avoided keeping PlayOn installed on a long-term basis because I don’t want Flash to have a permanent home on my PC.

The good news is that Adobe plans to deprecate Flash at the end of 2020, at which point all major browsers will stop supporting it. Jeff Lawrence, the CEO of PlayOn developer MediaMall Technologies, told me via email that the software already works with sites that use HTML5 instead, so hopefully it can drop Flash for good once every video site has stopped using it.

PlayOn’s software also has some other flaws. While putting together this column, I had to reschedule several recordings after they failed for no clear reason, and at one point all of my recordings disappeared from the PlayOn app. They’re still on my hard drive, accessible via my Plex server, yet PlayOn no longer recognizes them. PlayOn is also missing some content sources that might be nice to have, such as Apple TV+, Pluto TV, and the vast majority of individual channel apps that use TV Everywhere authentication.

Keep in mind as well that PlayOn records videos at a maximum 720p resolution. That won't be an issue for many cable or broadcast TV shows, but if you're hoping to record Netflix or Disney+ programming in 4K or even 1080p, you'll be out of luck.

Those issues add up to a feeling of ricketiness that PlayOn has never quite managed to shake over the years, and I don’t expect that to substantially improve. Lawrence told me that while MediaMall will continue to maintain PlayOn Desktop’s channel support, it’s not developing new features for the software as it focuses more on the PlayOn Cloud service. (I’m guessing it’s more lucrative given the recurring revenue model.)

Yet in the end, PlayOn does work as advertised, and there’s nothing else quite like it. Even as a short-term subscription, using PlayOn may be worthwhile just to grab as much free stuff as you can. Otherwise, you’ll pay a lot more for that same entertainment in the future.

This story has been updated to point out PlayOn's video resolution limits.

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