Plex wants to be the Swiss Army Knife of cable TV cord-cutting, and today the versatile software incorporates another new tool.
Plex users can now use the pre-existing HDHomeRun, a $90 external box that connects to an over-the-air TV antenna, to schedule recordings of TV shows, record and watch them on any Plex-capable device, from computers to phones to game consoles to TV-connected streamers such as Roku and Apple TV.
The beta version of the feature is available today to Plex Pass subscribers, who pay $5 per month for extra Plex features. Users of the free version of Plex won't get access to the DVR feature. Jason Williams, Plex's director of product and growth, said it was because the data to populate the Plex DVRs program guide, provided by a company called Gracenote, isn't free.
Williams walked me through the feature and it seems well implemented, if more limited than a traditional over-the-air DVR such as TiVo Roamio OTA or the ChannelMaster+. The main appeal is that recorded shows are neatly integrated into Plex alongside other video, photos and music, and available to watch not only on the main TV, but on other TVs in the house as well as mobile devices. In that way Plex's DVR is much like Tablo, or HDHomeRun's own software.
To get it up and running a user needs access to an over-the-air antenna connected to an HDHomeRun box, which start at $90 for the two-tuner Connect model. (Versions are available in the UK for around £100 and Australia for around AU$230; the Plex DVR works in those countries too, complete with program guide information). The service also works with HDHomeRun's Extend and Prime boxes in the U.S., the latter offering the ability to DVR non-copy-protected (Clear QAM) shows from a cable system.
The system is mainly intended for cable cord cutters who watch free over-the-air TV, said Williams. Plex's setup finds and connects to the box on a user's home network, and Williams described the process as seamless and quick. Interestingly, he also said anyone with an HDHomeRun could "share" the box with other users elsewhere in the world, allowing them to schedule and view recordings.
Once set up, the interface behaves in some ways like a standard DVR, but with some major limitations, at least at launch. Plex's program guide isn't a standard grid-style channel-centric timeline, but rather a collection of thumbnails for individual shows labeled arranged in Netflix-like rows like "On Right Now," "Starting Soon," and "Upcoming Favorites."
One reason behind the decision, according to Williams, is that Plex doesn't allow users to watch (or pause) live TV through the interface -- you can only watch stuff you've previously recorded. The DVR also can't "time-shift," so there's no way to watch something at the same time as it's recording. You can't, for example, begin a recording, wait 20 minutes or so, and start watching that show from the beginning while it was still recording (and thus skip the commercials). Williams said both of these features, standard on other DVRs, might be available in a future release.
One other issue is that in the initial release you can't use the Plex client app itself to schedule recordings. Instead you'll have to use the web interface. Devices like Apple TV or Roku, which have access to just the app but no web browser, can't be used to schedule recordings; you'll need to use your phone, PC or other browser-equipped device.
The Plex DVR is also currently incompatible with a few Plex servers, including certain models from Qnap and Western Digital, along with the Nvidia Shield. To be clear, you can still use Shield's Plex app to watch stuff you've already recorded, but the DVR won't work on Shield's Plex server. Check out Plex's Supported DVR Devices and Antennas page for details.
Otherwise the DVR has most of the features of other DVRs, including season pass recording, well implemented conflict resolution, the option to add extra recording time if an event goes long (great for sports), a "To Do List" of upcoming recordings Plex calls "Agenda View," and full EPG data with descriptions and thumbnails.
Overall the Plex DVR seems like a solid solution for current HDHomeRun owners or cord-cutters who love Plex. But I think it needs live TV and time-shifting capability before it can really compete with other over-the-air DVRs.