Do you remember the good old days? If you needed to record a TV show to watch later, you’d throw a cassette in the VCR and set up the timer. It was easy.
It is relatively simple to turn your computer into a PC TV, and many homeowners once turned to this process as a Digital Video Recorder option. The Windows Media Center application, which was included in some editions of Windows, enabled a PC to record TV shows. When Microsoft discontinued Windows Media Center, PC users turned to other inexpensive commercial software paired with a channel tuner to record their favorite TV shows.
Popular options included SageTV and Beyond TV.
Times Are Changing and So Are PC TV Options
However, the manner in which we watch TV is changing, and most channels and sports events now offer their programming through streaming apps and services. Some of these require a subscription and some are free. Because of the wealth of streamable programming available at any time, many PC owners no longer use their computers as DVRs, and the formerly popular DVR applications have fallen on hard times. SageTV was sold to Google and is now available as open source software. The developers of Beyond TV are no longer developing that product, although it is still supported.
In spite of this, DVR alternatives are available for Windows PC owners who still want to record shows on their computers. Among the best of the new options are Tablo, Plex, Emby, and HDHomeRun DVR. Although they are not free, they are low cost—much lower cost than a satellite or cable subscription.
How to Receive a Signal
Broadly speaking, there are three ways to receive a live TV signal on your computer screen.
Over-the-Air (OTA) Antenna
An OTA antenna can pick up any free-to-air channels in your area. You can pick up cheap OTA antennas at your local supermarket, but for a sleek high-end option, check out the popular Mohu Leaf.
You can pay a cable company for access to premium channels. The packages vary from $20 per month through to a couple of hundred. The average cable bill in the U.S. is $103.
For both cable TV and an OTA antenna, you will also need a TV tuner if you want to watch the content on your computer. You can either use an internal Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) card, an external USB card, or a network attached device. A network attached device – such as the HDHomeRun – is the preferred option.
Getting a cable TV signal onto your computer is further complicated by the channel encoding format. It is called Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM). QAM frequencies vary between cable providers; it can be difficult to establish the correct frequencies for your provider.
Luckily, there’s a workaround. We’ll discuss it shortly.
There are an increasing number of online services which offer live TV. The three most popular are SlingTV, DirecTV, and PlayStation Vue.
These services are the easiest way to get live content on your computer, but they are the most fiddly to record. You will need to decide whether the tradeoff is worth it.
Great, let’s take a closer look at some of the apps and devices that can help you record live TV.
Plex offers a premium service called Plex Pass. The subscription costs $14.99 for three months, $39.99 for a year, and $119.99 for a lifetime.
One of the best features of Plex Pass is access to live TV. If you pick up an antenna and a digital tuner, you can watch any OTA channels in your area. The content is displayed on a full electronic program guide (EPG).
Plex Pass also provides you with a DVR. It means you can use the EPG to set programs to record. When the recording has finished, it will be available on your Plex server. You can watch it on any of your Plex apps.
2. Movavi Screen Recorder
Using the skinny bundle services has advantages from a budgeting standpoint. You can “shave” the cord; reduce your existing cable TV package down to a basic package and sign up to one of the three providers. You’ll have more TV channels to choose from, but your monthly outgoings will be lower.
SlingTV offers a DVR facility, but it costs $5 extra per month and only permits you to store 50 hours of footage. PlayStation Vue also offers a DVR facility. It’s free, but there are no custom timer options; users frequently complain about the end of programs getting cut off. DirecTV does not offer a DVR feature.
The solution is to try a screen recorder. The Movavi app works well. It has a customizable capture area. Just fire up the app and drag the capture area over the top of the live stream. You can convert the file into the format you want at the end of the process.
Remember: It is illegal to distribute footage you record using the above method.
Download: Movavi Screen Recorder
Let’s look at the problem from a different angle.
The two solutions we’ve discussed above both assume you want to record TV footage that’s coming through your internet connection. But what if you’re not a cord cutter? What if you still have a cable subscription and want to retain copies of shows, just like we used to do with VHS cassettes?
You will need a Hauppauge HD Personal Video Recorder (PVR) 2.
Setting up the device is relatively straightforward. You will need to connect component video and audio cables between your cable box and your Hauppauge device, then connect the USB cable from the PVR to your computer.
Install the necessary drivers and software on your machine, then follow the on-screen instructions to start recording. You can configure the audio and video settings, the recording format, and the bitrate.
Once you become proficient in using your new setup, you can perform more advanced tasks such as scheduling recordings and burning Blu-ray disks.
If you have an HDHomeRun tuner, then HDHomeRun DVR service is the best way to record TV. It is the simplest of all the software DVRs to set up, and it does this one thing well. It does not function as a home media library. A minuscule annual subscription is required for the use of this program.
HDHomeRun devices come in either a two-tuner or a three-tuner model. Both have the ability to record footage.
However, like SlingTV, HDHomeRun requires a subscription in order to use the DVR features. The subscription costs $35 per year, but also adds a 14-day TV guide, the ability to pause and rewind live TV, and a way to watch live TV while simultaneously recording another channel.
There are even a few quirky options, such as being able to set your favorite sports team and automatically record all its games during a season.
HDHomeRun recordings can be managed from your computer or through one of the mobile/smart TV apps. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to remove your recordings from the cloud and share them offline.
Alternatively, you could check out Tablo. Tablo is a hardware tuner and DVR that you can access through Windows applications. It connects to your home high-speed network, and it has a built-in hard drive. Using the Tablo apps, you can watch live TV and schedule recordings. Tablo is not a home media center, but it is an easy way to watch and record TV.
You can use Tablo’s DVR for free, but the $4.99 subscription introduces additional options such as series recording, a 14-day EPG, metadata, and artwork.
There is one other way to record live TV on your computer, but it’s not user-friendly.
The app is called MythTV. It’s a free, open-source video recorder. It started life back in 2002 as someone’s pet project but has since grown to become a viable alternative to the now-defunct Windows Media Center.
So, what’s the downside? Well, the installation process is a nightmare. You will need to compile the app yourself as the developers don’t offer an EXE file. Explaining the process is beyond the scope of this piece, but you can check out the instructions on the app’s official wiki.
How Do You Record TV Shows on Your PC?
We’ve shown you four different ways you can use your computer to record live TV. Some methods – such as the Hauppauge PVR and the Movavi app – will create an offline version of the show which you can use anywhere.
Others – such as Plex and HDHomeRun – don’t provide you with portable copies of your recordings but do allow you to watch the videos from anywhere in the world through their families of apps.
Now it’s over to you. How do you record TV shows on your PC? Which apps, devices, and services do you use?