Elgato's HDHomeRun Offers an Easy Way to Get Free TV Anywhere at Home

Hook it up to a laptop or MacBook and you can watch a show even in the broom closet.

By , Columnist

Image courtesy of Elgato.

Do you want to be able to take TV with you while you're cooking, cleaning, weeding or preening? With Elgato's HDHomeRun and the right computing equipment, you can do that. And unlike most other computer gadgets with that capability, it doesn't require you to have a TV card in your USB socket.

Elgato's HDHomeRun is a black and silver box derived from a design by SiliconDust that can put free TV channels on your computer, iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch via a wired or wireless network. It's small enough and smart-looking enough to sit subtly on a bookshelf. More importantly, it is simple to set up and it works.

What the HDHomeRun is not is a replacement for your cable box. In principle it works like other computer TV cards, bringing free over-the-air or unencrypted Clear QAM digital cable TV channels to your PC or Mac. If you're a fan of channel hopping through the likes of AMC, Syfy or HBO, or if you can't get free channels from an antenna or your cable provider, the HDHomeRun won't be of much use.

Installing the HDHomeRun is a breeze. The device comes with an Ethernet and a coaxial cable. Fitting them into the right holes in the HDHomeRun box shouldn't be a problem because each cable only fits its own socket. A coaxial cable is what probably already connects your TV or cable box to a wall socket or goes from the back of your TV to an antenna. To access free digital cable channels the HDHomeRun is designed to intercept the signal coming from the wall socket before it reaches your TV or cable box. The HDHomeRun box itself doesn't send the signal on to either of these destinations so you'll need to use a cable splitter if you plan on using the HDHomeRun and maintaining a connection to either of these devices. You can also use an unused active cable socket in your house if you have one.

To hook up the HDHomeRun to a signal source you plug one end of the included coaxial cable into the back of the HDHomeRun box and the other into the splitter or spare outlet. Similarly, if you are using the HDHomeRun to get free-to-air channels via an antenna, you plug the antenna's coaxial cable directly into the HDHomeRun or hook up the included coaxial cable to a cable outlet that links to the antenna.

The included Ethernet cable plugs into the square hole in the HDHomeRun and one of the numbered outlets on your wireless router or the LAN socket on the back of your computer. You are better off choosing the former option because using a router allows you to watch TV over a wireless network. Either way, though, the next steps are the same: fire up the setup software, let it detect the attached HDHomeRun box and then scan for channels.

The HDHomeRun comes with software for both Mac and PC users. Mac owners are well served by Elgato's proprietary EyeTV 3 software. With EyeTV 3 you can watch, pause, and rewind live TV, search listings guides, schedule recordings, edit out commercials, and export recordings to iTunes for playback on a PC or an iOS device. When paired with the EyeTV app from the App Store, you can also stream live TV to iOS devices via 3G. You can't eliminate reality TV altogether but even Macs can't do everything.

Unfortunately, there is no Windows version of EyeTV 3. Instead, PC users are given more basic software. This includes drivers for Windows 7 and three programs that help you set up and configure the device, scan for channels, and watch them. Although it is limited in its capabilities, this software suite does what it's intended for and is generally easy to use.

I tested the HDHomeRun on a PC running 64-bit Windows 7 and everything installed with barely a hitch. The setup software had trouble finding the HDHomeRun box when I tested it the first time but the PC was connected directly to the box via the Ethernet cable. The Quick Start Guide warns that this can be a problem and suggests a solution that worked.

The picture and sound quality I got using the included PC software were excellent. The HD channels were sharp and played without stuttering even on a 54 Mbps wireless connection. If you want more software options on a PC, such as PVR capability, consider trying Next PVR or Orb. The latter will allow you to do many of the things that EyeTV 3 can do, including streaming live TV to a smartphone or iPad. Elgato states that Windows Media Center works well with its products but that program currently has a glitch that makes it unable to work directly with some Elgato tuners in Canada. There is, however, a workaround that you can try (you can find it here). I was able to get Windows Media Center to work with the HDHomeRun but it didn't detect as many channels as Elgato's PC software.

A single HDHomeRun unit allows multiple users you to watch different channels and doesn't rely on what the cable box is broadcasting. Given its features, Elgato's HDHomeRun is another convincing entry in the company's range of TV tuners and video recording devices. If it does what you want, it's well worth trying.

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Michael Simpson is a freelance writer, editor, presenter, researcher, instructor, gadget freak and sci-tech consultant based in British Columbia’s beautiful Okanagan Valley. Formerly from the UK, he’s converted from tea to coffee and written and presented on film, TV, science, nature, technology,…

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