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Channels DVR is a service that caters to the pickiest of cord cutters.
No other cord-cutting DVR does as fine of a job combining slick software and powerful features, and no other service can record both over-the-air and streaming channels in one place. By pairing Channels DVR with the right hardware, you can set up an experience that’s almost identical to a cable DVR, most likely at a fraction of the cost.
Editors’ note, September 2, 2020: Channels has evolved, so this is our opinion of the product as it is today. If you’d like to read our opinion of the previous version of the software, our earlier review is at this link.
This setup doesn’t come easy, though. Like other DVR services that run on third-party hardware, Channels DVR requires a lot of disparate components that you must cobble together yourself, including a server device with sufficient computing power, an HDHomeRun networked TV tuner, hard drives with ample storage, and compatible streaming players. Channels’ subscription fee of $8 per month or $80 per year is also higher than other do-it-yourself solutions.
Most cord-cutters should instead look to simpler options such as Nuvyyo’s Tablo DVR or should avoid over-the-air DVR entirely. But for power users who don’t mind the added setup and extra expense, Channels is the best cord-cutting DVR you can get.
How Channels DVR works
The Channels DVR service consists of two main pieces.
First, you must set up the DVR server software, which can run on a desktop computer (Windows, Mac, or Linux), compatible NAS box, Nvidia Shield TV Pro, or Raspberry Pi. The server captures live TV from an antenna or streaming sources, then stores your recordings on a hard drive.
To actually watch those recordings, you must use Channels’ streaming apps, which are available on Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, iOS, and Android. Channels acts as a whole-home DVR, with one server sending video to multiple streaming devices over Wi-Fi.
Figuring out the best way to set all of this up is where things can get tricky.
In all cases, though, you’ll likely need some extra hardware to make things work:
An HDHomeRun networked TV tuner is necessary for capturing over-the-air broadcast channels from an antenna. It starts at $100 for a dual-tuner model (which plays or records up to two channels at once) and must be hardwired to your router.
An external hard drive—preferably with at least 500 GB of storage—is a must for Nvidia Shield TV and Raspberry Pi users, because neither device has enough storage on its own. Desktop PC and NAS users may want to add some extra storage as well.
Once all the hardware is squared away, you’ll need a subscription to the Channels DVR service. You can try it free for a month, after which it costs $8 per month or $80 per year. Other over-the-air DVR options are cheaper, including Plex DVR ($5 per month, $40 per year, or $120 for life), Emby DVR ($5 per month, $54 per year, or $120 for life), and TiVo ($7 per month, $70 per year, or $250 for life).
A slick TV experience
Why go through all the trouble to set up Channels DVR? For one thing, the aforementioned combination of over-the-air and live streaming is unique among cord-cutting DVRs. This would allow you, for instance, to combine local channels with a $20-per-month Philo subscription and access everything in one place, or use Locast to record over-the-air streams without an antenna.
But even if you’re only relying on an antenna, Channels DVR just does a nice job putting everything together.
Practically all of the table-stakes features you’d expect from a cable DVR are present in Channels’ apps, including a 14-day channel guide, a search function, progress indicators for the shows you’re watching, and visual previews as you fast forward through content. Channels will even auto-record any live channel you’re watching, so you can pause or rewind; and yes, you can watch recordings while they’re still in progress and skip through the commercials.
For the DVR, granular recording options abound. You can create series passes for TV shows and sports teams, avoid recording reruns, add start and stop padding times, limit how many episodes to keep from a given show, and set up auto-delete rules for programs you’ve already seen. All these features make it easy to find new shows to record and to avoid filling up your hard drive with unwanted episodes.
Channels DVR also goes beyond the typical cable DVR in several ways. The service includes ad detection at no extra charge, and you can either auto-skip commercials or use a remote control shortcut to bypass them manually. (Unlike Plex DVR, which can delete commercial breaks from its actual recordings, Channels retains them in case there’s an issue with the ad detection.) You can use a web browser to manage the DVR and access recordings, and you can watch TV away from home on phones, tablets, computers, and compatible streaming players.
The interface is deeply customizable as well. Want quick access to your recording schedule? Add a button to the sidebar menu. Got kids at home? Add a “Kids” section to keep their content separate from your shows. The grid guide can also be filtered by genre and can also show just your favorite channels, as can the mini-guide that appears as an overlay while watching live TV.
Meanwhile, video and audio quality are top-notch, at least for over-the-air recordings. If you have enough Wi-Fi bandwidth, Channels DVR can play broadcast channels at native quality with full surround sound support, and has no issues de-interlacing 480i and 1080i channels for 60-frames-per-second playback. This makes live sports, news, and talk shows look much smoother, like they would with an over-the-air antenna connection, and is a major advantage over Nuvyyo’s Tablo DVR.
Video quality isn’t as solid for streaming sources, but that’s not exactly Channels’ fault. To capture these video sources, Channels relies on the “TV Everywhere” streams that networks provide to their pay-tv subscribers, and many of them still top out at 720p and 30 frames per second. If more networks took streaming quality seriously, Channels would stand to benefit.
Some nitpicks remain
Although Channels displays a strong grasp on what DVR diehards want, it still doesn’t get everything right.
The biggest limitation is device support. Channels DVR is not available on Roku players, game consoles, or most smart TV platforms (except those running Fire TV and Android TV software).
On the recording side, there’s no way to weed out recording conflicts without just manually looking through your schedule for overlap. Although you can prioritize programs so that your favorites don’t get passed over, Channels provides no warnings when your HDHomeRun tuner is overbooked. It’d also be nice if Channels offered ways to filter out recordings based on source quality, so you could avoid programs that air on standard-definition channels. (You can limit recordings to one specific channel, but only through Channels’ web interface.)
And while the Channels grid guide is excellent, it has one major limitation compared to cable: You can’t browse it while live TV plays in the background. If you want to channel surf, you’ll have to use the mini guide overlay instead.
As of this writing, there are also some disparities between Channels’ apps on various platforms. The best Channels DVR software experience is currently on Apple TV, which is the only platform with a kids section, auto-play, and the ability to shuffle episodes of a program. The developers at FancyBits say they’ll add these features to Android TV and Fire TV, but it’s unclear when that will happen.
On the other hand, the hardware experience is better on certain Android TV devices. It’s possible, for instance, to remap the remote control buttons on a TiVo Stream 4K to control Channels-specific features, such as launching the grid guide or flipping through live channels. And if you have an Android TV game controller, you can use all those extra buttons to control Channels functions as well.
Those kinds of details are exactly what makes Channels DVR so compelling. It’s not the simplest or cheapest solution for cord-cutters, but it feels like it’s being made by people who care deeply about a specific kind of TV experience. Those who can’t enjoy TV any other way will find Channels DVR to be worth jumping through hoops for.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.