OTA Live TV and Plex

Chase Raz

Chase Raz

OTA Live TV and Plex

An antenna array on a roof

Over the past week or so, I’ve been setting up a HDHomeRun device to stream live over-the-air (OTA) television across my home network.  Okay, really, I spent five minutes setting up the HDHomeRun, about a day playing with recording settings in Plex for DVR capability, and almost every other annoying minute fighting with antennas.

As I mentioned, I started with an HDHomeRun device because their TV tuner hardware seems to have the best and widest capability.  The device plugs directly into a router or ethernet switch and to an antenna (or in my case a small array of antennas).  Technically, this is all you need and you’re good to go with just a couple minutes worth of setup. 

Any OTA signals received are now available over your network by installing the HDHomeRun app on Windows (including Xbox), Android, Amazon (Fire TV, Kindle Fire), Linux, macOS, or iOS.  While this is nice for streaming TV, to use the HDHomeRun app’s DVR capability, a $35/year subscription is required to cover EPG (electronic program guide) services and storage space for the cloud-based DVR.  As a Plex Pass user, I opted to not use this service and instead connect my HDHomeRun to Plex to record locally and take advantage of the included EPG service.

Antenna Hardware

I’m using two antennas.  First, a flat Terk indoor antenna which is good at receiving UHF channels.  It has a nice flat design and is multi-directional.  The Terk antenna isn’t great at picking up VHF signals—nor is any square or circular indoor antenna—so I’m also running an HDTV VHF Retrofit antenna from Antennas Direct.  The Terk antenna runs about US$60, and the VHF Retrofit kit was around $30 and it includes a combiner built-in to combine your signal from both antennas.

Scalable Experiment

In trying to stay scalable, I already mentioned that I’m using my existing lifetime Plex Pass to not incur any costs surrounding DVR functionality in terms of either EPG or cloud storage.  Similarly, I started with a simple two-tuner HDHomeRun Connect model.  Other models are available for four tuners, for real time hardware transcoding, or for use with your paid cable service as opposed to OTA signals.  Plex can manage multiple HDHomeRun boxes, so expansion in the future is no issue.

For now, I’m also not running a NAS.  I’m using a spare 1TB hard drive in my production rig as a sixth hard drive.  Eventually I’ll take the time to move everything to a NAS, but I wasn’t willing to put more than $250 into this total experiment including tuner, antennas, coax, and miscellaneous.  A good NAS will cost quite a few multiples of that, although for simple storage of recorded movies and TV shows, a much more economical personal cloud device from the likes of Western Digital would work.

Findings and Conclusions

I like the resulting experience, so far, but the process of setting everything up was tedious… but only because of the damn antennas.  At first, I didn’t know that standard indoor antennas as they’re made now (as squares, circles, or flat sheets) are absolutely awful at picking up VHF signals.  This is because of the length of the actual VHF signal that requires a longer surface for reception. 

I wonder if a cheap-ass $20 antenna with telescoping antennas (“rabbit ears”) wouldn’t have worked better than my combined $90 worth of antennas.  I likely wouldn’t receive as many channels, but it would have been easier to receive the main or “big” local channels that you expect to receive like NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, and PBS.

Speaking of PBS, it’s been the biggest pain so far.  I’m sometimes still uncomfortable setting things to automatically record because the signal seems so prone to interruption.  Considering that recording PBS shows was one of my driving motivations for this whole pursuit, I’m highly agitated.

Like everyone else online, I’d also suggest that OTA streamers who want to record to their own media servers consider the HDHomeRun Extend model rather than the base Connect model.  Having the stream already transcoded into H.264 would save my computer a lot of storage space while recording and a lot of processing power from not having to do post-recording transcoding.

All in all, it’s the antennas that make the process difficult or unpleasant.  Consider whether you already have an outdoor coaxial cable running.  If so, hop up and put an outdoor antenna in your attic or on your roof.  These were not acceptable to me, so I spent more on indoor antennas to get weaker reception.  It’s a give and take. 

If your place is already wired for paid TV service that you’re no longer using, the best thing is to hop up into the attic or down to the basement, or wherever the setup is and connect it to an outdoors or attic based antenna.  I’ll do that in the future, but for now, I’m content with my experiment with only a few feet of exposed coax in my home office.