Tech Guide

Amazon has a new way to record HD TV shows even if you don't pay for cable — here's how it works

Key Points
  • Amazon's Fire TV Recast lets you record and stream free over-the-air broadcast TV channels.
  • You can record multiple channels at once and watch them on Fire TVs around your house or on your phone anywhere.
  • It works well, but there's not a ton of great content.
The TV guide on an Amazon Fire TV looks great and is easy to use.

Amazon began selling a new product called the Fire TV Recast earlier this month. It's meant for folks who no longer want to pay a cable bill but still want to record and watch TV shows from broadcast networks including ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, PBS and The CW.

Recast lets you record local TV shows that you can get for free over the air with an HD antenna, and then watch them on any TV with a Fire TV stick connected to it, or on your phone or tablet. So you can record the local football game on a Sunday and then watch it whenever you want to, sort of like you would if you paid for cable and a DVR box.

It works well, but it's pretty expensive for what you get, and has some shortcomings that you should know about.

Here's what you need to know about the Fire TV Recast.

How to get started

A Fire TV Stick, an HD Antenna and a Fire TV Recast.

Let me just step back real quick and explain what you need to get the Fire TV Recast up and running.

First, you need an Amazon's Fire TV stick, which plugs into your TV and gives you access to Amazon's video and music content, Alexa, Netflix and lots of other apps. They start around $40.

Then you need an HD antenna that lets you receive local channels over the air. These cost about $20 to $30 on Amazon. You'll plug it directly into the Recast.

The Fire TV Recast box

And finally, you need the Recast itself, which is just a plain black box with storage for saving TV shows you want to watch later. Two models are available, and neither is cheap.

The lower-priced one costs $230. It has two tuners and 500GB of storage, which lets you record two TV shows at the same time and store 75 hours of HD TV content. There's also a $280 model with four tuners and 1TB of storage, which lets you record four channels at once and store 150 hours of HD shows.

Most people will probably do fine with the two-tuner model. I never really found enough content that made me want to record more than two shows at a time.

What's good

The antenna screws into the back of the Fire TV Recast.

It only took me about 10 minutes to plug the antenna into the Recast and connect it to my TV. Once it was set up, I noticed a "guide" option that let me browse through TV shows that are currently being broadcast live over the air. It's a similar experience to the TV guide you get from a cable TV provider and offers a clean interface that displays what shows are on when, although it loads a bit slowly.

I was able to receive about 60 channels in my house, but a lot of them were duplicates, broadcasting the same TV show. The number of channels you'll get will depend on a lot of things, like how your antenna is placed and where you live.

The TV guide on an Amazon Fire TV looks great and is easy to use.

I like the Fire TV app for iPhone and Android. With it, you can stream the live broadcast TV shows, view recordings, or record TV shows from anywhere.

The app is smart in how it records: I started to record Sunday football games, for example, and noticed that it automatically set itself up to record future Sunday games. It can be a bit slow to load a live TV show, but once it does, the stream works well -- live TV even played smoothly over my phone's cellular connection at work. (The experience wasn't as smooth with recorded shows, which I'll talk about later.)

Browsing through live content on my phone.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Broadcast TV has a fairly limited selection of shows, which is why cable TV became popular in the first place. But, if you know what you want to watch, you can ask Alexa to record TV shows for you. I said "Alexa, record 'Jeopardy'" into the Fire TV remote, and it knew to record the show right from the broadcast antenna and save it to the Recast.

A list of recordings on my phone.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Also, there's plenty of storage for what I wanted to record, which was mostly football games. It was also easy to delete shows I already watched, which kept me from running out of storage.

What's bad

The Fire TV Recast box with an HD antenna and a Fire TV Cube.

The price is a little crazy. You need to spend about $300 to get up and running, which is a lot of money for what you get. That includes a Fire TV Stick that starts at $40, the Fire TV Recast which starts at $229 and an HD Antenna for about $25.

On the other hand, you could pay $20 for an HD antenna and hook it to your TV and still get all of this content live. You just won't be able to watch it through a Fire TV stick or record it onto the Recast.

Also, I really had to spend time figuring out how to place the antenna perfectly so that the signal was clear. I set it up as advised in the third floor of my house in a window. Then I set up a bunch of TV shows I wanted to record, like "Jeopardy," "All in the Family," "Saturday Night Live" and "Three's Company."

I was able to stream recordings of football games even while at the office.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

However, later that week when I went to tune in to a football game I'd recorded, I noticed that the signal was terrible and that I couldn't see the whole game. I went back upstairs and noticed that the antenna's stickers had detached from the window and it was hanging incorrectly. So, make sure it sticks real well so you can maintain a good connection.

I liked that I could watch old TV shows, but some people might not be familiar with the content.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The biggest problem: There just isn't a whole lot of stuff on broadcast TV that that I find compelling. I love "Saturday Night Live" and football, which I might not have been able to record as easily without the Recast.

But I'm not really the target audience for some of the rest of the content. I don't really watch shows like "Let's Make a Deal" or "Judge Joe Brown," but I know there are probably lots of people who do who would find this useful. And there are hidden gems you might stumble upon; for me, one was "Dennis the Menace" in black and white.

Finally, while real TV mostly streamed to my phone well, it was a less reliable when I tried to stream recordings. They'd cut out with an error or the app would just crash. It didn't happen often, but it happened enough that I noticed it.

Should you buy it?

Viewing recordings on a Fire TV.

The Fire TV Recast works well, but it's not for me.

It's a good option if you really don't want to pay for cable and a DVR but feel like you must record the football games or certain TV shows that are broadcast locally over the air. If you don't really need to record them, you can save about $280 and just get the HD antenna for access to that content on your TV.

Personally, I'd rather pay for a service like Hulu, which costs $7.99 per month and lets me watch "Saturday Night Live" and a bunch of other shows whenever I want.

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