If you’re planning on cutting the cord, a TV antenna should definitely be involved somewhere in your setup. But you may be wondering what your options are when it comes to getting the local channels on your TV, or perhaps several TVs, or even devices that aren’t TVs.
That’s where a smart TV tuner comes in. A smart TV tuner is a device you plug your antenna into, and it then takes the local channels and makes them viewable on a smart device. Before we get into the devices that can do this, let’s go over some reasons you may or may not want to peruse this.
Why You Should Get a Smart TV Tuner
- DVR and program guide — If you get the right smart TV tuner, it will have the ability to record channels over-the-air. Plus, that includes a TV program guide that is usually very in depth.
- You don’t have to get an antenna for every TV — If you have multiple TVs in your house, a smart TV tuner won’t require you to get all those TVs connected to an antenna. Plus…
- You don’t have to wire every TV to a splitter — The alternative to getting an antenna for every TV is to use your possibly existing cable splitter to send the antenna anywhere you have a coaxial cable in your wall. Your antenna works best at its highest point, so you’d have to find a way to get the cable wire from the attic or roof, to your cable splitter, which could be in the basement or some mystery location. Either way, it’s obnoxious.
- You only have to find one location that gets good reception — Anyone who has tried to set up an antenna will tell you how difficult it can be to get a good signal. I’ve experienced scenarios where the antenna works great in one room, and not at all in another. With a smart TV tuner, you just need to find one room.
- Watch TV outside the house — With a smart TV tuner, you can set them up to watch your channels when you’re outside your home.
Plenty of positives, still, you have to consider a few things.
Why You Might Not Need a Smart TV Tuner
- You only have one TV — One positive of a smart TV tuner is its ability to be viewed across multiple devices easily. However, if you really only watch those channels on one TV and have no interest in expanding, it may not matter as much to you.
- You don’t watch a lot of local channels — Everything has a value in life, and you may not find local channels as valuable. Considering you get these channels already for free, you may not want to spend the money on a smart TV tuner.
- Your smart TV is smart enough — If you have a newish smart TV, chances are it has many of these features built in. Many smart TVs these days come with a program guide, and some allow you to plug in a USB flash drive or external hard drive to record, or at least time shift (pause and rewind) channels. If you just want program info and possibly DVR-ish capabilities, check your TV first.
Now that some of that information is out of the way, if you still want to consider a smart TV tuner, here’s a few options to consider.
Best Value: AirTV 2 or AirTV Anywhere
I want to point out right away that me calling AirTV 2 or AirTV Anywhere the best value doesn’t mean it’s the best. Still, you get a lot out of the AirTV without a monthly payment, and that is noteworthy.
Here’s some of the things I liked about the AirTV
- No monthly charge — If you have the mentality that over-the-air TV shouldn’t have a monthly fee, then this is the smart TV tuner for you. AirTV integrates with the Sling app, however you do not need to be subscribed to Sling. Without a subscription, your local channels will still show up, and you’ll still get a program guide, something that will have a cost with the other tuners.
- Easy setup process — Plug your antenna in the AirTV device, then with your phone or tablet, you setup the AirTV through the Sling app. Open the Sling menu, click on over-the-air, and click through the options to setup your AirTV. The process takes less than five minutes. Plus watching the channels through the Sling app outside the house is automatically enabled, which is nice.
- Easy DVR capabilities — The AirTV Anywhere comes with a DVR built in, but the cheaper AirTV 2 can also have a DVR as well. The AirTV 2 has a USB port which can be used to plug in an external hard drive or a USB flash drive. Once you plug that in, DVR setup is done through that same over-the-air menu in Sling, and you should see a button to enable the DVR.
- Great Sling integration — If you are a Sling subscriber, the AirTV will place its channels in the game Sling guide. Plus, your recordings will appear alongside your regular Sling DVR. Sling made the AirTV primarily because if Sling were to make deals with your local channels to include them with the service, that would drive up the cost of Sling TV by almost $10 a month. By you using your AirTV to provide the channels, Sling doesn’t have the pay to run them.
Here’s some of the things I didn’t like about the AirTV
- Subpar audio/video quality — If you're a subscriber of Sling, I’m sure you’ll find the audio and video quality of the channels to be pretty good. However, I’m sure you’ll find the over-the-air channels to be noticeably poor. The video is okay; you’ll notice if you plug in the antenna directly to your TV and compare that to the AirTV video quality, the AirTV will not look as good, but the audio is the biggest drawback. It is bad. The sound is very compressed so it doesn’t sound as full, so listening to a football game with a crowd will just sound off. And this is regardless of connecting the AirTV through WiFi or Ethernet which won’t make a difference in quality.
- Reliability Issues — I did notice a 1 second buffer roughly every half hour, but certainly every time you tune to a channel after a few seconds. If you can live with that, it connects fine most of the time.
- Can’t pause and rewind live TV — The rest of the devices on this list can do this, but not the AirTV. That’s a bummer.
- Very sensitive tuner — Not all TV tuners are created equal, and some are more forgiving or sensitive than others. I’ve noticed my Samsung TV can get more channels without fuss than my cheap no-name brand TV. The same goes for smart TV tuners, and unfortunately the AirTV is not as forgiving when it comes to channels that don’t come in very well. If a channel has spotty reception in your home, it’s a good bet that you’ll have a lot of issues getting it to come in.
Bottom line — At $99 for the AirTV 2 and $199 for the AirTV Anywhere, the AirTV is gets the job done. There are much better smart TV tuners to choose from, but the AirTV offers an easy setup at a cheaper price with no monthly fee. Its appeal is greater if you’re a Sling subscriber, but if you aren’t, I think you’ll find that this device is just okay.
Best Overall: Tablo
The Tablo is a bit more expensive than the AirTV, but it’s a lot better. There is also a monthly charge for guide data, but I’ll let you come to an opinion on that.
Here’s some things I like about the Tablo
- Deep customization — The AirTV essentially has no options to set up other than rescanning for channels and formatting the hard drive for the DVR. The Tablo allows the user to change most functions on the device, so if you’re having issues getting a channel to load, you can downscale the audio/video quality, change how the app starts up, and much more.
- Great Audio/Video Quality — Looks just as good as plugging the antenna directly into your television, and even offers surround sound where available.
- Pause and rewind live TV — I believe this is important, especially if you’re going to spend over $100 on a device to make your antenna smarter.
- Watch TV outside the house — Same with the AirTV, but this is something not automatically enabled.
- Great tuner — I had less issues with the Tablo’s tuner picking up stations that were a bit too far away.
Here’s some things I didn’t like about the Tablo
- A little pricy — Starting at $149 without storage, Tablo is a little more expensive. You can either supply your own storage or pay $169 for the Tablo with a 128GB hard drive built in. The base unit, like the AirTV, only has two tuners, meaning you can record a show while watching one other thing, or you can record two shows and watch nothing else while they are recording. The quad tuner is priced at $199, so you’ll have to decide how much TV you really need.
- Buffering issues occasionally — Not too bad, but when I changed the live TV quality to a lower resolution, I actually noticed some issues with buffering. When I left it at full resolution (no converting), it actually streamed better. Plus, channel load times are a little long.
- App is a little bland — Especially if you aren’t paying extra for guide data, there’s not a lot in the app to look at, plus it isn’t associated with another streaming app, so it’s on its own and I forgot to use it in the sea of other streaming apps on my TV.
Bottom line — I really liked the Tablo because it allows the user to fully customize the device, while offering a clean interface, great DVR, and forgiving tuner. I think it might be a bit too pricey for some, and I had occasional buffering issues, however I must admit I last used the Tablo a year ago, and I would imagine the software updates it has received could’ve fixed the problems, so keep that in mind. If you don’t mind paying a monthly fee for guide data, the Tablo is a great option.
Best for Media Server Owners: HDHomeRun
I think the HDHomeRun has the most forgiving tuner that I have used, and that was a major factor in me currently owning one.
Here are some things I liked about the HDHomeRun
- Integration with other services and apps — The HDHomeRun is probably the most open smart TV tuner. You can use the HDHomeRun app (which I find confusing), but you can also use Android TV’s Live Channels app, or your Plex Media Server. The HDHomeRun shows up as a network device, so you can tune to a channel in the Windows File Explorer. My Samsung smart TV also shows the HDHomeRun as a network folder that I can tune to specific channels. The point is if you don’t like the HDHomeRun app, you have several options to choose from.
- Very forgiving tuner — When I first set up my HDHomeRun a year ago, I was able to receive low powered and far away channels I couldn’t get through my Vizio. That’s a massive plus.
- Great for power users — If you want to control exactly how your channels appear or get recorded, the HDHomeRun is great for those who are tech savvy or love to tinker.
- High quality stream — Very high-quality streams, similar to the Tablo.
Here are some things I didn’t like about the HDHomeRun
- It’s great for power users — This is a negative as I can’t really recommend the HDHomeRun for regular people. If rolling your own media server is not something you care to do, the HDHomeRun may not be for you.
- No WiFi — The power users won’t care that this doesn’t have WiFi, but this certainly does limit where you can place the HDHomeRun, so keep that in mind.
- No easy way to set up DVR — The HDHomeRun can time shift without a DVR set up, but to record shows, you will need a computer or a server to connect to, as well as a fee, either monthly or annual to HDHomeRun if you want their DVR, or a service like Plex.
Bottom line — The HDHomeRun is great for power users, but not so much for regular consumers. I can’t recommend this to those who are not comfortable with troubleshooting or just want something that will be easy to configure. At $99 for the dual tuner, $149 for the quad tuner, $179 for the dual tuner with 150 hours of storage, and $199 for the quad tuner with ASTC 3.0 (the next technology for over-the-air channels that you’ll need an ASTC 3.0 compatible tuner to use), the HDHomeRun is priced fairly, but you will have to factor in your time and patience to set it up.
Great for Fire TV owners: Fire TV Recast
If you’re a Fire TV user, you’ve definitely noticed the Live tab on the top of the screen. It’s used to showcase the live TV apps you can download, and even serves as a channel guide and hub for your existing live apps. It’s also used for the Fire TV Recast, and if you have a Fire TV house, the Fire TV Recast should be at the top of your list.
Some things I like about the Fire TV Recast
- Easy setup — The Fire TV Recast comes with storage for DVR, so there’s nothing extra to set up. Having built-in storage raises the price, but it’s actually priced in line with its competitors. Plus, you can watch outside the house.
- Pause and rewind live TV — Always a plus
- Deep integration with Amazon stuff — Watch your local channels on all your Fire TV devices, your Fire TV, your Echos, and your iOS or Android phone or tablet.
- 500GB of storage — That’s a lot more than the competition.
Some things I don’t like about the Fire TV Recast
- Only compatible with Fire TV — If you have a Roku, Chromecast, Android TV, or Apple TV, this won’t work, which is a bummer.
- Reviews indicate an okay experience — Some of the reviews I read stated they found the interface limiting, and watching channels to be a little stuttery. Read the reviews and come to your conclusion if this is something you want to use.
Bottom line — I didn’t go with the Fire TV Recast because I don’t like the idea of being locked to just using Amazon devices. I have a Roku, a Fire TV, a TVision Hub, a Chromecast, and a Samsung smart TV, and the Fire TV Recast is only compatible with one of those. However, if you have an Amazon home, you may like the Fire TV Recast. Just check the reviews to see what real users think of it first.
Best for Avid TV Viewers: TiVo OTA
Bottom line — I’ve never used the TiVo OTA simply because it’s a little too pricey for me at $200 and $7 a month for service, and $200 for additional boxes, but it simply is the best interface and remote for TV fans. Unfortunately, I don’t watch enough TV to justify the cost, but if you can, it really is a phenomenal experience.
Hopefully this either helped you find a smart TV tuner, or dissuaded you from spending the money. No matter what you choose, over-the-air is a great way to stay entertained while spending less.