Watching Live Digital TV on an iPad Mini or Galaxy Note II

Photograph by Wong Maye-E/AP Photo

Outside the U.S., mobile television is a bit more accessible. Europe and Asia, for example, have heavily used standards with solid backing, while here we’ve seen most efforts turn into relative flops. That leaves it up to the consumer to find solutions. And while there are a number of them, the most popular is likely the Slingbox, a pass-through device that captures your television signal and plays it back over Wi-Fi or mobile broadband on nearly any platform.

I have a Slingbox from years ago—the problem is, it doesn’t support HDTV. And although we have some nice HDTVs in the house, I find that the family uses them far more than I do. I don’t watch much television—live sports, mostly—but it’s becoming difficult to find an unused screen in the house. Then again, I have plenty of smaller screens among my tablets, smartphones, Google Chromebook, and 27-inch Apple iMac. So I reached out to our resident cord-cutting expert, Janko Roettgers, and asked what might be the best solution to watch broadcast television on these devices.

Janko recommended the HDHomeRun, which he featured in a Cord Cutters episode last year. I was able to snag a new HDHomeRun for $85 on, which is far less than a new Slingbox. So what is it?

Essentially, the HDHomeRun is a small box, roughly the size of an Apple TV. You attach an antenna to it—I have a very small one that works fine—and connect the device to your home router. That’s it. Inside the HDHomeRun are two over-the-air tuners, both of which use the same antenna for a signal. The tuners pull in local broadcast digital television and then make the content available over your home network.

That works out well for me because I just upgraded my network router to take full advantage of our 75 Mbps Verizon FiOS connection. I was getting about 15 Mbps wireless speeds with an old Apple AirPort Extreme, but now see 70 Mbps and up from the new Asus RT-AC66U router, which is future-proofed with 802.11ac support. These network speeds are easily capable of streaming HDTV around the house.

My original intent was to use the HDHomeRun to watch content on my iMac, and it works flawlessly. I paired the included HDHomeRun tuner software with VLC to view television shows. There are better alternatives out there that I’ll look at in the future, but for now, this setup is fine. After a day, however, I decided I didn’t want to be tied to my home office just to watch TV.

After a little investigation, I found InstaTV in the iTunes App Store. I tried the free Lite version, and it works as advertised. The software automatically recognized the HDHomeRun tuner, scanned for channels, and in a few minutes I was watching the local news on my iPad mini. The free version limits you to a small, low-resolution window for content, so I upgraded to the full version for $9.99, which supports full-screen playback at native resolution.

Of course, I use multiple devices and platforms, so I set out to find something that would work with Android. Turns out I had great timing.

Earlier this week, a third-party app called HomeRunTV landed in the Google Play store. I found out about it by reading the HDHomeRun user forums and immediately bought it for $2.99. I figured if it didn’t work, I had 15 minutes to get a refund. There was no reason to be concerned, however. After a configuration tweak and one additional download—I had to get VPlayer for the video output—I got the software working on my Samsung Galaxy Note II and caught the late-morning local news.

If you’re going to go this route with HomeRunTV on Android, note that there’s one setting to check. By default, the app is designed to watch television that’s streamed from a PC, likely because there are USB tuner sticks for Microsoft Windows on the market. To get streaming to work on my Android phone, I had to modify this setting by telling the app to “Stream Video Directly to Device.” Prior to that, I was getting error messages.

While I opted for the HDHomeRun over a new Slingbox, there is an advantage to the more expensive, latter option. It’s relatively easy to get a Slingbox to provide access to content via mobile broadband while away from home. I don’t really need that option, but it’s worth a mention for those who do.

I’m also fairly certain there are a few software options that will let me use my iMac as a DVR for content from the HDHomeRun, so I’ll be looking into that as well. For now, I’m just glad I can watch a football game on a Sunday afternoon on any of my devices while the 60- and 70-inch HDTVs in the house are in use. You can do the same on any iOS or Android device with this setup.

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