For cord-cutters, Channels DVR is what Plex might have been

If you’d asked me a couple of years ago to pick the best way for cord-cutters to run their own media servers, I wouldn’t have hesitated to choose Plex.

Plex lets users host their own media files—movies, TV shows, music, and pictures—on one computer, and then stream them to other devices over a local Wi-Fi network or via the internet. In 2016, it added the ability to record over-the-air TV channels from an antenna, and that feature, along with Plex’s overall level of software polish, made it a great option for users who had large libraries of media files and wanted total control over their TV setups.

Lately, though, Plex has been looking for other ways to grow its business. Instead of just building out its media server features, Plex has made forays into streaming content, with ad-supported movies and shows, round-the-clock streaming TV channels, web videos, and podcasts. While Plex is still investing in the media server side, it’s no longer the company’s sole focus.

That’s left an opening for a relative newcomer called Channels from an indie developer called Fancy Bits, which launched its own over-the-air DVR software in 2017 and has been piling on impressive new features ever since. In a way, Channels feels like the new Plex, or at least a continuation of what the old Plex might’ve become had it doubled down on recording and serving local media.

Beyond the TV tuner

Viewed strictly as over-the-air DVRs, Plex and Channels have more similarities than differences. They both require an over-the-air antenna, a compatible TV tuner (such as SiliconDust’s HDHomeRun Connect), a hard drive with ample storage, and a computing device powerful enough to run either service’s media server software. That device can be a desktop computer, a NAS box, or an Nvidia Shield TV Pro streaming box.

channelsdvrgridcombine Jared Newman / IDG

Channels DVR can record live broadcasts from an antenna, along with some streaming sources.

Both DVR services also require a subscription, with Plex charging $5 per month, $40 per year, or $120 for life, and Channels charging $8 per month or $80 per year. You can read my reviews of Plex DVR and Channels DVR for more details on how they handle recordings and playback, but lately I’ve given an edge to Channels for its superior level of polish despite the higher price.

Where Channels really stands out, though is in what it can record beyond just over-the-air broadcasts. Last year, Channels added support for capturing TV Everywhere streams, so if you have a pay TV login, you can use the DVR for cable channels. It also added support, so you can record local channels without an antenna in certain markets.

Last month, Channels took things a step further: For any legal video source that generates an M3U playlist, you can now add it to Channels and record its content. That means it’s now possible to record free streams from Pluto TV or Stirr, add a live webcam to your channel guide, or even roll your own round-the-clock channels from locally hosted media.

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