Cutting the cord is one of our favorite topics here at Tom's Guide. It's something that not only interests our readers, but ourselves — I chronicled my process to cut the cord and save on my astronomical cable bill. My colleague Henry T. Casey undertook a similar journey (and we ended up picking the cord-cutting method!).
But both Henry and I approached our quest to get rid of cable by looking among the best cable TV alternatives, live TV streaming services like Sling, Fubo and YouTube TV. We wanted a list of certain channels and the ability to watch them live or DVR them. Then, I got an email from a reader named Skip, who asked if there was a way to watch local channels on his computer but without paying for a monthly subscription to a live TV service.
And that's how I discovered USB TV tuners.
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What is a USB TV tuner?
You're probably familiar with television antennas. The best TV antennas pull in over-the-air channels for free. There are several different types, ranging from old-school rabbit ear antennas to newer flat mat-like options to larger outdoor models. Many feature dual VHF/UHF reception and amplifiers to boost signals. Most of them connect to your television or to another device via coaxial cable.
USB TV tuners connects an antenna directly to your computer instead of to a television. The coaxial cable hooks up to one side of the tuner, while the USB side is plugged into a port in your computer.
Usually, these USB TV tuners come with software with DVR functionality, allowing you to record shows and even watch one show while recording another. Some support QAM service, which brings in unencrypted cable TV channels provided by some cable companies.
Looking around, the AVerTV Volar Hybrid Q USB TV Tuner and the Hauppauge WinTV-DualHD Dual USB 2.0 HD TV Tuner are well-rated on Amazon and cost around $60, while the AllAboutAdapters Digital TV Tuner seems like a decent budget choice.
The other great thing about these USB TV tuners is that they are portable — as long as you travel with the antenna. If you're going somewhere that doesn't have a television, you can still watch and record live news, sports and entertainment shows. They won't be on the exact same local channels you get at home, but you can still access broad ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC programming.
But here's the rub ...
A USB TV tuner sounded like the answer to Skip's cord-cutting dilemma. I also considered how one might work for me.
However, I ran into some issues. The first is that Skip asked specifically about watching local channels on a MacBook. I also have a MacBook, so the question particularly resonated with me.
Unfortunately, most USB TV tuners are only compatible with PCs. All three of the models mentioned above work on Windows.
For Macs, Elgato's EyeTV line set the standard for TV tuners but the company no longer makes them for the U.S. market. You can still find them for resale on Ebay and the like.
Geniatech makes its own version of the EyeTV U6 Pocket-Sized Tuner Stick , though it's pricier than the PC options at $95. Then again, Macs tend to cost more than PCs, as do their peripherals and accessories. It lets you live TV on Macs, iPhones and iPads as well as PCs and Android devices. It supports DVR, an electronic programming guide and saving favorite channels.
Beyond Geniatech, though, there aren't really any other options for Macs.
At the end of the day, a USB tuner doesn't really make sense for me, mostly because I want both broadcast and a lot of top cable channels. I'm fine paying for a live TV service like Sling, because it has all the content and functionality I need at a much lower price than my old cable bill. Even if I wanted to pare down all the way to locals only, having a MacBook essentially means I have just one hardware choice.
But other people, like Skip, might find this to be a good solution. A USB TV tuner is a one-time investment with no monthly subscription fees. Fortunately, cord cutting has become a lot easier thanks to a variety of methods — in fact, since I wrote this article, I've discovered another new way cord-cutters can watch and DVR broadcast TV. It's all about finding the right one for you.
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Edit: I realize this looks like an advert, but I'm just a huge SD fanboy.
"USB TV tuners connects an antenna directly to your computer instead of to a television."
Right there fails the WAF (*)
* - Wife Acceptance Factor.
but microsoft cutter
unless it works on a Chromebook
i got better options for any viewing i want
switched to nocable.com
the last time i used sling was when CompUSA was in business, circa 2010.
Bought a Sling device there for $399.
Returned it shortly thereafter.
This was the breakthrough era of Tivo and Replay, if you even know what I refer.
Using a USB tuner and a laptop is mainly what college kids or business travelers living in hotels do. Most of the people I know that build their own HTPC/DVR have nice cases like I do and use a 4K TV as the display, a soundbar or A/V receiver connected to surround sound speakers, and control everything with a remote control and occasionally use a wireless keyboard to install updates or make other software changes. Building your own HTPC allows unlimited storage for recording TV shows and you can keep your entire video and music collection on one system and access everything via remote control from anywhere in the house without having to get off the couch to look for a Blu-Ray disk. You just use a smart TV or streaming device connected to each TV to access your HTPC and media. All you have to do to get more storage is add another hard drive to your HTPC or media server and they come in sizes up to 16-18 terabytes now.
At one time Microsoft had a HTPC program called Windows Media Center that came out as a special version of Windows XP but was later included free in Vista and Windows 7. Most people never knew about it or confused it with Windows Media Player but it was a full blown DVR/HTPC program with a program guide included. All you needed to add was a TV tuner card from a company like Hauppauge or a networked tuner like an HDHomeRun. You could also stream videos, add an FM radio tuner, play your entire music collection, or watch a slideshow of family or vacation photos. Microsoft also had Windows Home Server that you could run on a whole home media server to store all of your videos, music, and photos but Microsoft discontinued both a while back. MythTV, SageTV and BeyondTV also came out in the early 2000's around the same time as WMC but BeyondTV is now just a commercial program. Most people now use Emby or Plex as their HTPC software on either a Windows or Linux system.
The article does take some liberties in stating that you can just insert the USB into any computer. I'm sure there is some software that also needs to be installed and that may not be kosher with the owner of the PC.