Hands-On with USB Tuners in Live Channels

If you have a Nexus Player, then you can hook up a USB tuner and antenna. This will turn your device into a cordcutting box, able to stream over-the-air signals as well as record this media using the DVR functionality. How does it work? We take a look in this hands-on article. Since the Nexus Player doesn’t have a built-in screenshot tool, and the USB port was occupied, I took photos on my phone.

Setup

First I attached a USB tuner and antenna to the Nexus Player using its MicroUSB cable port (with a MicroUSB OTG Hub). Then I opened up the Live Channels app and looked for new channels. I didn’t see anything different, so there didn’t seem to be any hardware detection. So, I did a hard reset of the device (unplugging and plugging it back in) and opened the TV app once again. This time, it detected “USB Tuner” as a new source. When I clicked it, the setup began.

USB Tuner Setup

The setup process took a few minutes. It seemed like it scanned a large band and tried to detect any signals. As it did, the channels were shown above. I tried two different antennas, of different sizes, and ended up with two different sets of channels. If you want to try this yourself, make sure you look up the specifications of your antenna and the channels you want to reach. In the photo above, I found FOX channels, but another antenna gave me CBS.

USB Tuner Guide

When I first opened the app, the app requested a permission for location. Using my location, it is able to match the channel data with a program guide. This allows the guide to show what’s on now and what’s to come.

USB Tuner Guide 2

After the second scan, I found channels from FOX and these included photos for each episode, making the guide pretty rich. It looks really good and integrates well into the UI.

As a side note, it’s not clear where this data comes from. I was watching WHYY and The Last Waltz was playing. However, the guide said Pollyanna was on instead. So, keep in mind your mileage may vary with this guide.

Playback

USB Tuner
Overall, video plays pretty well. There were a few times when the device took longer than expected to load, and the USB tuner got fairly warm. When I plugged the same antenna directly into the TV, the quality was roughly the same.

The app has support for some of the more advanced features like closed captioning. When I selected that option I saw one choice, “Unknown Language”. It seemed like FOX was including one CC track without proper labeling and Live Channels gave it a generic title.

USB Tuner Weak

Once I received a “Weak Signal” message when trying to play a channel. It went away after adjusting the antenna a bit.

While most channels have a card in the main navigation directing users to the app, there is no such card here. This makes some sense. USB tuners are built into the app, not part of a third-party app. Still, there could be some neat stuff to be added in the future. What if there was a “Search” card that did a Google search for the show, pulling up the cast and episode list? What if there was a link to watch the show on-demand by renting a season pass in Google Play Movies? There’s a number of additions that could be made here.

DVR

USB Tuner DVR

In addition to streaming, you can also pause, rewind, and record video. It works exactly like you’d expect. However, the Nexus Player does not contain enough storage on-board to use the DVR feature. Users are actually blocked from it unless they plug in a USB flash drive or portable hard drive and take advantage of the adoptable storage feature in Android.

You may have noticed above that items in the guide had a “Recordable” note. Over-the-air programs can be recorded. They are added to the built-in DVR just like from other sources.

Conclusion

If you want to cut the cord, there are a number of services today that can help you out. You can use them to stream just about anything over the Internet. However, there are still many things which cannot be legally streamed. Now, with an antenna and USB tuner, you’re one step closer to getting all the content you want on a single device.

The implementation works. I think there’s potential to make it even better, but for the moment it does everything you’d expect. That’s good news, and as more Android TVs get Nougat, it should make them popular devices.

Nick Felker

Nick Felker

Nick Felker is a student Electrical & Computer Engineering student at Rowan University (C/O 2017) and the student IEEE webmaster. When he's not studying, he is a software developer for the web and Android (Felker Tech). He has several open source projects on GitHub (http://github.com/fleker)Devices: Moto G-2013 Moto G-2015, Moto 360, Google ADT-1, Nexus 7-2013 (x2), Lenovo Laptop, Custom Desktop.Although he was an intern at Google, the content of this blog is entirely independent and his own thoughts.

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  • Not in Los Angeles

    Curious, does Live Channels parse only PSIP guide data if there’s no Internet connection to work with?

  • John Adney

    If you pair a keyboard to your device, you should be able to take a screenshot using the PRINT SCREEN key.

    • That’s a good idea for the future, thanks.

  • Ronald Long

    Nick, can you do an article to compare this option with HDHomeRun?

    • We did a review of the HDHomeRun last year: http://androidtv.news/2015/12/the-hdhomerun-reviews/

      As for which is better, it’s up to you. The HDHomeRun uses CableCard to stream cable, whereas this requires no cable subscription and works with over the air signals. It really depends on what your have and what you want to watch. Cable will definitely have more content than broadcast alone.