Remember the great American Digital TV Transition of 2008? Our elected representatives explained that while some would see more channels and far better image quality, those who did not have “a properly oriented, high-gain antenna mounted 30 feet in the air outside” would lose free access to broadcast television. They told us that, sadly, a combination of patents, the DMCA and the burgeoning power of cable TV would vastly increase the cost of time-shifting broadcast (OTA) television. They hung their heads and admitted they were completely corrupt …
Ok, so they didn’t say any of those things. We had to learn most of them the hard way, though we knew about the corruption bit. I’d mostly ignored television from 1997 to 2013, so my light bulb only lit up when I bought a Samsung Smart TV and learned that the USB digital output was disabled . Suddenly, everything made sense.
Ever since then I’ve been looking for a sane way to record OTA TV without devoting my life to hacking MythTV. Sure, we could afford to pay the monthly Tivo tax (which presumably goes to the cartel patent holders), but this kind of thing bugs me.
Alas, this is harder than you’d think. A legitimate manufacturer is going to be hit with the patent/cartel tax — turning a $50 product into a $600 (over 5 years) monster. There’s no Chinese market to draw from, I assume they just stick a USB device in their TVs. There are several startups that do sort-of-interesting time shifting things with OTA DTV, but none of them connect easily to, you know, a television. Presumably to dodge the cartel they have to connect to everything BUT a television (so you use AirPlay to get signals from an iPad to a TV).
The only source is going to be shady, something from China sold under a range of disposable brand names for a few months at a time. That’s what I found on Amazon, the home of things that fell off the back of container ships. Alas, the quality was incredibly low — it’s easily the crummiest product I’ve bought in decades. Even so, I was tempted to keep it. It kind of worked…
This is a FASCINATING device in so many ways. It is pure Chinese manufacturing of absolutely the lowest possible quality (one of the four base pads was missing), but it’s only of interest to the US market. The rest of the world doesn't need this -- they simply stick USB devices into their TVs and record directly. It's only in the US that a combination of cartel patents and corrupt politicians makes recording of OTA TV extremely expensive and difficult. When we buy a Samsung TV, for example, the recording features are disabled.
In China this is probably used to convert digital signals for the few analog TVs left in China. It probably costs $10 to make, including what I assume is a very low quality (risky!) internal switched power supply (no power brick). In the US it's sold, somewhat covertly, as a low cost no-subscription simple digital TV recorder.
The good news is that if you ignore the manual, and work through the incredibly crude displays hacked to to show English labels, and convert from the strings on the weird remote to the screen, it's not hard to configure this. You can even set up the antenna as pass-through so the signal goes to the ViewTV and is also available for TV input. It does record (!) and you can play back the recording. It even shows a list of available TV shows.
The bad news is that the tuner in my device sucked. OTA Digital TV barely works in many US settings -- we need top notch tuners. The one in our Samsung Smart TV gets barely enough channels to meet my son's sporting thirst. The tuner in this device missed most of them.
I also worry about the internal switched power supply. This ships with all the usual inspection/certification labels, but I'd be amazed if any of them were legitimate.
If only they'd shaved their profit margin a bit. It costs nothing to build what's in this box. We actually own a decent (Chinese made of course) Digital TV converter box that cost $45 — it’s much higher quality than the “ViewTv" with a far better tuner.
I hope someone else will do that -- but we have to remember the reason these features are disabled from US TVs. Anyone doing this properly is going to be hit by the US OTA patent cartel -- and forced to charge high subscription fees.
There may not be anything better in the near future. So if you have a strong antenna and good signals, and you're feeling lucky, it's worth a shot. Just be ready to return, and if you're feeling nervous leave it unplugged when you're not using it.
I tried to make this thing work, but the tuner was just too crummy. I had to return it.
- fn -
 The only explanations I’ve read are something like "Disclaimer: Only European TVs have USB recording. US models have the feature disabled due to legal issues.” I presume the “legal issues” are DMCA and patents. Explaining the full story would take a real journalist — would be a fun article for, say, The Atlantic. Might run into some dangerous characters though…
- Gordon’s Notes: After the Smart TV debacle: what we really want: modular design
- Channel Master is developing a whole-home DVR solution for cord cutters — Tech News and Analysis: seems to be dying already. Very expensive for what it does - $300 to start, iffy tuner, no antenna pass through, mediocre Amazon reviews. Most of the cost must be paying patents.
- Gordon’s Tech: How to clean up the Samsung Smart TV you shouldn’t have bought 12/2013
- Gordon’s Notes: Four decades of television: last of the rabbit ears 2/2007. An A/D converter, a simple monitor, and an old VCR has advantages over our modern Samsung.
Update: I updated my 12/2013 Samsung Smart TV post with notes on hacking it to restore recording functionality.