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Plex launches live TV for antenna-savvy cord-cutters

Plex Pass subscribers can now connect a supported antenna to a Plex-enabled device to watch (and record) live over-the-air TV.

David Katzmaier Editorial Director -- Personal Tech
David reviews TVs and leads the Personal Tech team at CNET, covering mobile, software, computing, streaming and home entertainment. We provide helpful, expert reviews, advice and videos on what gadget or service to buy and how to get the most out of it.
Expertise A 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics. Credentials
  • Although still awaiting his Oscar for Best Picture Reviewer, David does hold certifications from the Imaging Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on display calibration and evaluation.
David Katzmaier
4 min read

New options for cutting the cable TV cord just keep coming, and some of the most intriguing use a good old broadcast antenna.

Plex, the media service best known for allowing easy access to your video, music and photos from just about anywhere, has a new capability that should further enhance its stature among people loath to pay for TV. 

Called Plex with Live TV, it enables you to connect a compatible antenna tuner to a Plex server and watch live TV anywhere in the world. The service also includes Plex's existing DVR function, so you can schedule and play back recordings of antenna shows, and the ability to pause and resume an in-progress recording (time shift) is coming soon.

The catch? It won't work with the free version of Plex. Instead you'll have to pony up for Plex Pass at $5 for a month, $40 for a year or $120 for a lifetime pass.

Watch this: Plex Live TV is here for cord cutters

How does it work?

Just about every TV has a built-in tuner that allows you to watch live TV from an antenna right now, for free. With Plex's new service you can watch it on a TV too, as well as on a phone or tablet, either inside or outside the home. The service is also less expensive than existing antenna DVRs, either traditional models like the Channel Master DVR+ or app-driven options like Tablo.

Plex now gets live TV from an antenna

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Plex co-founder Scott Olechowski showed me a quick demo over video chat. The interface lacks a grid guide (something he said was on the list of features coming soon) but the thumbnail images of shows looks nicer and serves a similar purpose of surfacing stuff you can watch now. 

Data goes out for 14 days and is supplied by Gracenote. You can favorite and exclude local channels, filter and sort shows by genre and other criteria and tackle recording conflicts -- something that's easier if you connect a dual-tuner device. Video quality is optimized for mobile or in-home viewing, and as with other Plex streams it can take advantage of hardware transcoding, if the server is robust enough. I'm curious to see how the pristine quality of over-the-air high-def holds up when passed through Plex. 

How can I get it?

Plex says its live TV service is still in beta, so device support is limited. You can watch on your iOS device, namely an iPhone or iPad, or on a TV using an Android TV device like Nvidia Shield. Support for Android phones and tablets, as well as Apple TV, is coming soon, with more devices to follow.

Olechowski called out the $200 Shield, which added Plex server capability last year, as an ideal device to use with Plex live TV. In conjunction with the Plex news Nvidia announced today that version 5.2 of its Shield Android TV software would roll out over the next couple of weeks, adding live TV support and a couple of other extras, like the ability to record TV shows and movies directly to their network attached storage (NAS) via Plex. To further tempt current and potential cord cutters, buying a new Shield today entitles you to six months of Plex Pass (a $30 value) for free.

To set it up you'll need to run a Plex server, typically a Windows, Linux or Mac computer, a NAS or Shield, and connect a compatible tuner, typically via USB. The Silicon Dust HDHomeRun (starting at $99) will work with every type of Plex server, but other tuners like the $55 Hauppage Digital TV for Xbox One will work with Windows and Linux servers, and the $70 dual WinTV USB tuner from Hauppauge works with Shield. Plex is working to add additional tuner support soon.

Of course you'll also need to connect an actual antenna to the tuner. Typically outdoor antennas work best, but it all depends on your location, and in some areas inexpensive indoor models work well too.

As usual Plex is aiming for a more tech-savvy crowd of cord cutters with its latest feature upgrade, and getting it set up is certainly a lot more complicated than simply paying for a live TV streaming service with local channels like Hulu with Live TV, YouTube TV, DirecTV Now or PlayStation Vue. Those options start at $35 per month, however, and in many areas of the country you don't get access to every channel. Plex offers a more economical choice for antenna users, and combined with its other media offerings it remains one of the best weapons in a budget video consumer's arsenal.

Check out Plex's video below for more info.