Editors' note: This review has been updated since its original publication to clarify the difference between the Elgato and SiliconDust versions of the product. See the "two versions" section below for more information.
If powerful, inexpensive consoles such as the PS3 and the Xbox 360 turned the once-popular gaming PC into a niche product, then by comparison a rash of cheap set-top boxes have crushed the need for the already-niche Home Theater PC (HTPC).
Yet, despite the proliferation of Apple TVs and Roku boxes, many people still want to watch TV on their PCs--whether they're hooked up to a separate TV or not. In fact, a recent survey suggests PC users spend an hour and a half a day watching video content on their devices.
If you're serious about using your PC to watch TV, eventually you might want the flexibility of filling its screen with (legal) free, live TV channels from an over-the-air HDTV tuner. While USB tuners like the Elgato Eye-TV Hybrid are available, they can only be used on the PC they're plugged into, and are not mobile-device-friendly. To the rescue comes the HDHomeRun Dual, which offers two tuners and multiple viewing options.
Before we get to the details of the product, let's clear up some confusion. The hardware is created and sold by SiliconDust--but it's also licensed and sold by Elgato. Here's a quick cheatsheet:
SiliconDust HDHomeRun Dual: The version sold by SiliconDust includes no software, and is designed to run with Windows Media Center, which is present on nearly all versions of Windows Vista and Windows 7 except the Starter Edition (usually found on netbooks). Retail price is $130, but it can be widely found online for $100. As a result, this version is best for Windows users (and for Linux users, who can use MythTV).
Elgato HDHomeRun: In addition to the exact same SiliconDust hardware listed above, the Elgato version of the product includes the EyeTV software for Macs. The Elgato retails for $180, but can be found for as little as $150. Because it includes the EyeTV software ($80 value), it's the best choice for Mac users--including those who want to stream live video to their iPad or iPhone via the EyeTV app.
With that out of the way, let's talk about the product itself.
Design and features
The HDHomeRun Dual is a twin tuner box that connects to your home network and can serve over-the-air TV to your PC, Mac or mobile device while in the home.
The dual tuners enable both standard-definition (SD) and high-def (HD) programs to be watched and recorded. It's up to you to supply the antenna. Alternately, you can plug in a raw cable TV connection (straight from the wall jack) to get unencrypted "ClearQAM" TV channels. Just be aware that more and more cable systems are starting to lock out these channels, so selection may be increasingly limited.
The box itself is quite small--about the size of a pack of cigarettes--with just a power light at the front and an Ethernet port and RF cable connector for the antenna on the back.
The HDHomeRun has no wireless capability, so it needs to be put someplace that has access both to an Ethernet cable (for your home network) and an antenna (or cable TV connection), as well as an AC power source. That said, it doesn't have to be near your TV or computer at all--it could be set up in a spare bedroom, an attic, or any place else, so long it was access to those three key connections.
Setup on a Windows machine involves downloading a small app from SiliconDust called HDHomeRun QuickTV. Once installed, you use Windows Media Center to actually watch and record TV shows. (The HDHomeRun is also compatible with third-party DVR software, including BeyondTV, SageTV, and TotalMedia.)
Running the drivers on a PC, the program detected the HomeRun instantly and downloaded the latest firmware. Heading to Windows Media Center, the Live TV option found the tuners without any extra fiddling and let me record one program while watching another. If you have two computers using the tuners, the device will allocate one per PC.
When running it on a wireless network, I found that the HDHomeRun required a lot of bandwidth; even with with a 20Mbit Wi-Fi connection the feed was unwatchable on my PC. I could only get a stable picture by connecting an Ethernet cable. The picture was quite good, though, with no noticeable artifacts. Your wireless mileage may vary, but if you live in an apartment with other routers around, you may find you have no option but to go wired.
If you're interested in Mac performance, please see the Elgato HDHomeRun review.
If you have a solid signal to your router, then the HDHomeRun could be a good option for PC users, with a high-quality picture and relative ease of use. We'd still recommend wired if you want to stream HD or more than one channel.