There are two main ways to watch local TV channels without cable: through a traditional OTA (over-the-air) antenna setup and via internet-based cable replacement services.
Read on to find out everything you need to know about:
- How to watch local TV on computers, game consoles, smart TVs and streaming sticks
- How to record and playback local TV content using free or cheap software
- Which internet streaming services offer local TV channel access
- The best and most popular TV tuner and antenna brands
The Best Option: Use a TV Tuner to Access OTA TV
If you can’t live without your local news and sports broadcasts, the best way to tune in is the old fashion way – via a TV tuner and antenna.
With OTA, you get:
- Dozens of channels
- No fees
- 1080p picture quality (better than cable)
If you opt to tune into local TV via a paid internet streaming service, you might not get all your local channels due to complicated licensing rules and regulations.
Picking out an antenna
The first thing you’ll need to pick up local TV broadcasts is a good quality TV antenna.
Amazon Basics and Mohu are two of the most popular OTA antenna manufacturers. Both brands have similar prices and specs. However, Mohu’s antennas come in several different models and generally look more stylish. Additionally, Mohu’s antennas extend a bit farther than Amazon’s.
Four different types of Amazon Basics OTA antennas are available (25 mile, 35 mile, 50 mile and 60 mile) and they are all capable of pulling in 1080p HD quality signals.
More power doesn’t always equal better reception – it all depends on where you live. Amazon’s powerful 60 mile antenna could be a good choice if you live in the middle of nowhere, but it may not be ideal if you live near a metropolitan area because interference could become an issue.
There are three main types of Mohu antennas: Leaf, Sky and Curve. Leaf antennas are extra thin and can be mounted on windows. Long range Sky Mohu antennas are designed to be mounted outside and can pull in feeds from 65 miles away. The Curve line of antennas are for people who live closer to cities and are designed to be mounted on shelves and desks.
Picking Out a Tuner
The next piece of equipment you need for grabbing OTA TV is a TV tuner. There are many TV tuners on the market, but the two best brands are HDHomeRun and Hauppauge.
In my opinion the best TV tuner brand out there right now is HDHomeRun. HDHomeRun devices are affordable (the cheapest model is $79.99) and easy to use. All you have to do is plug your antenna into your HDHomeRun and connect it to your local network. Once you’re up and running, you can access OTA TV channels from any HDHomeRun app. HDHomeRun makes apps for pretty much every platform, including Mac, PC, Xbox One, PS3 and PS4, Android, Kodi, Plex and more.
Hauppauge TV tuners are solid, but they are not nearly as flexible as HDHomeRun. For example, you have to buy a specific type of Hauppauge if you want to use it with Xbox One – but you can use HDHomeRun on any platform that has an HDHomeRun app. Additionally, Hauppauge tuners are USB devices and have to be plugged in directly. HDHomeRun tuners connect to your network via WiFi, so you can set them up anywhere in your home.
Accessing OTA TV on your Laptop / Desktop computer
It’s easy to grab live TV with a Mac or PC. Essentially all you have to do is plug in your tuner, attach your antenna and pick out whatever type of player you want to use to watch TV.
Hauppauge and HDHomeRun both bundle their tuners with TV software, which you can use to watch local TV on your device as soon as you plug everything in.
The downside of using a computer to watch a TV is that you’ll be limited to watching TV on your computer’s monitor. One way around this limitation is to pay for a subscription ($4.99/mo, $39.99/year, $149.99/lifetime) to Plex. Plex allows you to pipe recordings and live feeds of local TV stations into all your devices via Plex apps.
On Your Smart TV
Smart TVs can’t easily be upgraded, but the investment may be worth it if you want an easy TV solution. With a smart TV, everything is built-in and no setup is required.
Roku makes very solid smart TVs. All you have to do is plug in an antenna and download an OTA TV-capable app to start enjoying free local TV broadcasts.
To see Roku TV in action, play the video embedded below:
Roku TV doesn’t have full DVR functionality, so you’ll need to buy extra hardware (a Tablo or some other compatible DVR system) if you want to schedule recordings. On the other hand, Roku TV does allow you to buffer up to 90 minutes of live TV. This allows you to pause a live TV game and fast-forward through commercials.
Via Your Gaming Console
If you have a game console, you may already have most of the hardware you need to enjoy free local TV content.
Microsoft recently partnered up with Hauppauge. Hauppauge interfaces directly with the Xbox operating system – so you don’t need any extra software to use it. Once you plug in your Hauppauge, you can use Xbox One’s built-in TV guide to watch local TV broadcasts.
Watch this video to learn more about how OTA TV works on Xbox One with Hauppauge:
The main weakness of the Hauppauge Xbox One tuner is that it doesn’t offer a recording solution.
In my opinion, a better alternative to the Hauppauge tuner is HDHomeRun. With an HDHomeRun tuner and the HDHomeRun Xbox One app, you can buy into HDHomeRun’s $35-a-year recording feature.
You can’t record directly to Xbox One with HDHomeRun, but if you have extra hard drive space on your PC you can use that to record your shows. If you don’t have enough room on your PC for TV recordings, you can get a NAS (Network Attached Storage) and use it instead.
If you have a PS3 or PS4, HDHomeRun is the only way to get OTA TV.
The PlayStation Store doesn’t have a dedicated HDHomeRun app, but you can still access HDHomeRun TV channels via PlayStation’s Media Player app.
Follow the instructions on the HDHomeRun website to learn how to set up your PlayStation for OTA TV.
Nvidia Shield is a streaming device for hardcore PC gamers. With an Nvidia Shield and a high powered gaming PC, you can stream games from your computer to your living room TV set – and if you connect a Hauppauge or HDHomeRun TV tuner, you can get live TV as well.
Because Nvidia Shield runs Android and comes with Google Play, there are many software options to consider once you plug in your OTA TV hardware.
Perhaps the cheapest option for playing OTA TV streams is the media player known as Kodi. Kodi is totally free and has built-in DVR functionality. Another thing about Kodi is that there are hundreds of add-ons that you can get for it that enhance its technology.
But if you have a Nvidia Shield, you should forget Kodi and get SPMC instead. SPMC is identical to Kodi, but it runs better on Nvidia Shield – plus it has features that the Kodi app lacks like passthrough audio and voice recognition capability. The reason why SPMC is so similar to the Kodi app is that it was created by the same guy – a developer called Koyling. Koyling split away from the Kodi team last year to focus on SPMC. Like Kodi, SPMC is totally free.
If you’re willing to invest in a Plex Pass subscription ($4.99/mo, $39.99/year, $149.99/lifetime) you may want to go with Plex for Android instead. Plex is very similar to Kodi and SPMC, only it can do more when it comes to OTA TV. With a Plex Pass, you can turn your Nvidia Shield into a Plex Server and use it to stream OTA TV channels to all your devices.
With streaming boxes and sticks
Streaming sticks like Roku and Amazon Fire TV make it easy to watch internet videos on your living room TV – but they’re not designed to capture OTA TV.
Streaming boxes like Apple TV do pretty much the same thing as streaming sticks, but they have more memory and faster processors.
Plex offers the best way to watch OTA TV on streaming boxes and sticks. If you get a Plex Pass ($4.99/mo, $39.99/year, $149.99/lifetime) you can set up your Plex server on your computer, plug in your tuner and antenna and watch recorded and live OTA TV via Plex apps. Every major app ecosystem (Amazon, Roku, Android, Apple) has Plex.
Now that Plex works with local TV, there’s really no reason to invest in a physical DVR if all you want to do is record local broadcasts.
The most popular hardware DVR system out right now is Tablo, which costs upwards of $200. To unlock the best features like out-of-home streaming, you have to get the $4.99/mo subscription.
A lifetime subscription to Plex only costs $149.99, and it offers much more features compared to Tablo. With Plex you can set up a DVR on your computer, plus access your content from anywhere via Plex apps.
Tablo lets you watch one channel while recording another, but so does Plex if you use it with an HDHomeRun tuner. Tablo gives you a free EPG – but so does the HDHomeRun app.
The only feature Tablo has that Plex lacks is storage. With Plex, you have to use your own computer for storage because it’s just a software program. Tablo’s dual OTA DVR comes with a 64GB drive.
Option 2: Sign Up With a Cable Replacement Service
As mentioned above, you may not be happy with the amount of local TV channels you get if you sign up for a cable replacement service. The major broadcast networks are still working out licensing agreements with all the major players.
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The sports-centric cable replacement service Fubo TV has deals with FOX, NBC and CBS. However, those deals only apply to stations the networks own directly. If the station in your area is an affiliate station, you may not be able to watch your local team play unless a regional sports channel is broadcasting the game. For example, if you’re a Chicago Bulls fan there’s a 45 percent chance that you won’t be able to watch the game on Fubo TV due to licensing restrictions. Click here to find out whether or not you can see your local team play if you get Fubo.
If local TV broadcasts are what you’re after, you’ll definitely want to check your zip code to see what’s on the menu before subscribing to Sling TV.
Spoiler: No matter where you’re located, you won’t get CBS because CBS hasn’t signed a license agreement with Sling yet.
Hulu has worked out deals with some local ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, myNetwork TV and Telemundo stations. However, whether you can get them in your particular TV market depends on where you live.
You can find out which channels you get before you buy by entering your zip code on the Hulu site. If a network’s local stream isn’t available, you can may still be able to watch on-demand repeats of certain programs. You won’t get local news or sports broadcasts, though.
Unless you live near the center of Pennsylvania, you probably won’t be very interested in what USTVNow Plus offers in the way of local channels. USTVNow is a service designed to let Americans living outside the country access American broadcast TV channels, but the only feeds you can get originate in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Additionally, we’re not sure if UTVNow Plus is even totally legal since it doesn’t seem to play by the strict sports licensing rules that other streaming services have to follow.
Wrapping It Up
Until all the local TV affiliates make their way to the web, the only sure way to get all your local TV broadcasts is to pluck them straight out of the air using an OTA antenna and a TV tuner. All the major internet TV providers offer limited local TV broadcasts now, but coverage is incomplete because they’re all still working out deals.
If you’ve already signed up with a cable replacement service and you’re unhappy with its local TV coverage, you may want to consider adding OTA capture functionality to fill in the gaps. With a TV tuner and an antenna, you can watch local TV channels on just about every major entertainment platform. Once your system is able to access local TV, you can use the free or inexpensive software mentioned above to add DVR capabilities.