SiliconDust has not developed or released a single Android TV device. But, their lineup of network connected tuners are so important to Android TV users (especially the cord-cutters among us) that I have decided to go in-depth with their HDHomeRun products.
What is a Network Connected Tuner?
A network connected tuner is a device that centrally takes a TV source and broadcasts it on your network instead of plugging it into a specific TV. The HDHomeRun brand is currently the only supported and integrated IP-based tuner (though Tablo TV has an Android TV app and is working on Live Channels integration).
The simple diagram above shows how it works. The broadcast is fed from your HDHomeRun tuner to your router and then the feed is accessible to any device on the network. For Android TV users, this gives you the ability to access live TV channels right through your device. No input switching. Cord-cutters rejoice! SiliconDust currently offers three different devices achieve this: the HDHomeRun CONNECT, the HDHomeRun EXTEND, and the HDHomeRun PRIME.
The HDHomerun CONNECT is SiliconDust’s base model. In the box you will find the device, Cat5e cable, power supply, and quickstart guide. The device itself is small and simple. Three small green LEDs in the front show power and connectivity. Three ports in the back connect coaxial, ethernet, and power. The device features a dual ATSC/QAM tuner which is used to receive Over The Air television channels (or Clear QAM cable channels). This means that you will need to supply your own antenna to feed the channels to the CONNECT. It also means that you can have two different channels playing simultaneously on different devices.
The box promises HD resolution if your device is hardwired to the router and SD resolution if your device is on Wi-Fi. However, in my experience, I saw no visible difference in picture quality when my Nexus Player was wired or wireless. This was a bit confusing to me, but it seems SiliconDust is cautious of over-promising if your conditions aren’t as optimal.
The HDHomerun EXTEND is the next step up. Again, in the box you will find the device, Cat5e cable, power supply, and quickstart guide. The only real physical difference you will see between this and the connect is that the device is slightly larger and it has a black visor across the front with an “HD” logo front and center. But, just like the CONNECT, it sports a dual ATSC/QAM tuner and the same ports. The main difference is the between the CONNECT and EXTEND is the EXTEND’s ability to transcode the incoming video files on the fly to H.264 AVC. This saves a ton of bandwidth over the native MPEG-2 encoding so SiliconDust is comfortable guaranteeing that you will be able to receive HD over Wi-Fi.
The HDHomerun PRIME is a different animal altogether from the other two in looks and in function. The PRIME sports a triple CableCARD tuner that allow for the streaming of your local cable channels. So if you are not quite ready to cut the cord like with the two, you can still shave some costs and add wireless function to your current setup. Like the CONNECT, the PRIME can only output MPEG-2 so HD is only promised over ethernet.
Setting Up an HDHomeRun
Setting up an HDHomeRun is pretty straightforward but can be intimidating. The included QuickStart Guide does the job. But, at the request of our fans, I will go through the set up with as much detail as possible.
First, we will need to hook up the box properly. I am assuming that there is already a functioning Wi-Fi network and, for the CONNECT and EXTEND, I am assuming you have an antenna in position.
First, you will attach the coaxial cable from the antenna to the corresponding jack in the back of the HDHomeRun. Next, you will connect the Cat5e cord to the ethernet port. The other end of the Cat5e cord should be plugged directly into your home router. Finally, the power supply should be connected to a wall outlet and the remaining port in the back of the HDHomeRun. See? Simple.
Once again, the PRIME is a little different than the CONNECT and EXTEND. Without using an antenna, you will need a little cooperation from your cable provider. Here is how it would work: You take back your cable boxes to your provider and ask them for a CableCARD. You will save that monthly fee on every cable box you had and may even get a small monthly credit for switching to a CableCARD. The CableCARD slides into the PRIME and the coaxial cord that used to plug into your cable box goes into your PRIME. Then you connect the ethernet and the power just the same as the others.
This part of the setup is slightly more complicated than the last, but still relatively simple. Once everything is properly hooked up, you can use SiliconDust’s download page to acquire the appropriate software for a computer on your network. The “Setup” application of this software will guide you through the process of running a channel scan and then making them available on the network.
One thing I wish SiliconDust made note of was that you can actually accomplish everything you need using their web interface. This is extremely useful when you are in household that doesn’t have any true desktops (Chromebooks perhaps). All you have to do is open your browser and navigate to my.hdhomerun.com. It will automatically detect an HDHomeRun on your network, and you can initiate a channel scan from there. You will still need the desktop application for more advanced functions like updating the firmware, but basic configuration can be done with the web interface. It can even be done on mobile. Once you have finished there, you are ready to access your streams!
Viewing Your Channels
Once the channels are live on your network, you can access them from any compatible device. SiliconDust has worked hard to be available on as many devices as possible and it shows. You can access the streams from a desktop, video game console, Windows Media Centers, Kodi, Android app, and ANY DLNA enabled device. That is a big net. For the purposes of this review, I will focus mainly on the Android App experience on the Android TV. However, I also did minimal testing with the phone and desktop applications (they functioned as expected).
For Android, you will need to purchase the HDHomeRun VIEW app for 99 cents. This is a one time fee to your account and then can be installed on any android device you are signed into (I have it on 3 Android TVs and 2 phones). RIght now, the Android app is functional. There really is not a ton of features but it is actively being developed. You get a pop-up ribbon along the right side that gives you programming information and a search bar at the top. Navigating up and down will select different channels, while navigating left and right will open the “Channel Slice” view (beta only right now). This allows you to see what is playing next. For OTA viewing this should suffice, but If you happen to have tons of channels, like with cable, you will struggle to navigate them quickly.
On Android TV, the installation of the HDHomeRun View app allows access to Google’s own “Live Channels” app. You can learn more about Live Channel here. But basically it allows you to integrate live video from various sources (including your HDHomerun) in a traditional TV interface. For example, I have Pluto TV and HDHomerun both installed on my device. Using Live Channels, I can flip seamlessly between NBC and Cats 24/7. It is a glorious thing. I also prefer the Live Channels interface over the View app for now. It has a more traditional guide and feels sleeker.
Odds & Ends
Here are a few tidbits of information I couldn’t squeeze into the above sections:
- Pricing: CONNECT – $71.24, EXTEND – $149, Prime – $99.99 (current Amazon prices)
- Now that the all current Android TVs support MPEG-2, The EXTEND and CONNECT are functionally the same. Again, this is Android TV specific, but the CONNECT is a major value. I purchased the EXTEND and wish I would have went with the CONNECT.
- The EXTEND has an internal fan that can create noise if it isn’t tucked away. It is also another moving part that can breakdown (mine did).
- SiliconDust has excellent customer support. They replaced my broken EXTEND 🙂
- Only the VIEW app can view premium DRM channels (like HBO). The Live Channels app doesn’t support this yet.
- SiliconDust is currently working on an HDHomeRun DVR product that would allow you to record and pause live TV with the help of a NAS or computer storage. This would require very little configuration and would be a great service for Android TV users.
- HDHomeRun is already compatible with many 3rd party DVR solutions if you enjoy a little configuration.
- In stress tests, my Nexus Player (using PRIME, the CONNECT and EXTEND were fine!) would sometimes freeze on a channel (requiring a quick channel up/down to refresh). I suspect it is a combination of a sudden weak signal (from Comcast) combined with the Nexus Player being unable to recover. My Nvidia SHIELD TV, phone, and computer showed no such problems.
- A SiliconDust representative informed me that they have completely rewritten the entire decoder and demuxer to optimize it for live TV. The freezing issues on my Nexus Player MAY be solved with a future update.
- There are a lot of moving pieces in these setups. Depending on your network environment/antenna placement, you could have a better or worse experience. YMMV.
In conclusion, I am very impressed with SiliconDust’s HDHomeRun line of products and company. They filled a hole that I was left with after the demise of Google TV. In my opinion, having your live TV right alongside your internet media and apps is very important for smart TV platforms. When Android TV launched with a lack of HDMI passthrough, I was disappointed to lose that functionality. Luckily for me, SiliconDust brought this integration back to me in an even better (though less straightforward) way. I wish that Google would promote their support for network based tuners and the Live Channels app in a much better way (read: in any ways at all).
Bottomline: Android TV + HDHomeRun is an actual home run and should be seriously considered by all cord-cutters and cord-shavers.