By Jason Snell
January 4, 2023 1:36 PM PT
Tuning in to the Channels app
Though I had heard a lot about Channels from various people—mostly Casey Liss—I never really thought it would be relevant to me. Channels is a server that runs on a device in your house and records TV shows to your hard drive, which you then play back via a web browser or the Channels app on your mobile device or TV streamer box.
In short, Channels is largely intended for people who want to build their own DVR by connecting a local device to an over-the-air antenna or a box containing a CableCard. I don’t get over-the-air channels and cut the cord in 2021—so it was never really on my radar.
Funny thing about that. A few weeks ago, after a month-long free trial, I signed up for an $80 annual subscription to Channels. It’s that good. Let me explain how I’m using it.
TV Everywhere and Virtual Channels
The moment when Channels became instantly relevant to me was when I discovered that it supports TV Everywhere, a system where you provide your credentials from your cable, satellite, or over-the-top streaming provider and gain access to live streams of some cable channels directly from the channel provider itself.
Using the TV Everywhere support built into Channels, I could authenticate with FuboTV and give Channels access to more than 150 different streams, including my local broadcast channels. Channels can tune these streams in without using anything but my Fubo login, and I can view or record them within Channels. Recordings are saved to the hard drive of the Mac mini I’m using to run the Channels server and can be played back later. (Unfortunately, not all cable channels support TV Everywhere, but most of the ones I watch do.)
The next revelation was when I discovered Channels’ Virtual Channels feature. Using existing recordings you have—I used the contents of my Plex library, which integrated easily with Channels—you can program faux “linear” channels yourself.
I realize Virtual Channels may seem like a perplexing concept when I’ve got access to any episode of any show, or any movie, for playback via Plex itself. But sometimes you don’t want to pick something specific. Sometimes you want that old-school feeling of serendipity or randomness that you used to get when you flipped on the TV to see what was on. Streaming services are realizing this—there are now a bunch of streaming linear channels programmed like TV stations of old for this very reason.
But Channels lets you use your video archive to build linear stations of your own. So I created Miyazaki+, which shuffles through my entire library of the works of Hayao Miyazaki. When I tune in Miyazaki+, I’ll get something by or related to the great Japanese animation director, but I won’t know what. (Right now, it’s showing “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind”, followed by “Porco Rosso.”) I’ve got channels devoted to Marvel, Star Trek, Doctor Who, “NewsRadio”, “MASH”, and “Stargate SG-1.”
Now, these channels aren’t really streaming live, 24/7. Instead, Channels builds a schedule based on rules you set, including whether you want shows to run linearly, shuffle randomly, or appear in “mini-marathons.” When you tune to a virtual channel, Channels drops you into the show that’s been scheduled for that particular time—and the stream begins. You can back up to the beginning of the movie or episode or just take it where you came in and watch through the next couple of episodes as they appear.
It’s really a clever idea. I love it.
Where Channels wins out
So why should I care about getting a subset of my Fubo-provided channels inside the Channels app? After all, doesn’t Fubo offer a cloud DVR feature and access to my TV content wherever I go?
Wellll…. sort of. There are a bunch of catches. First, cloud DVRs just can’t offer the same latency that playing back a file that’s sitting on a hard drive on your home network can. When I want to skip commercials in “Jeopardy!” on Fubo, I’m awkwardly battling streaming lag and latency. The jumps and seeking in the Channels DVR are instantaneous, like I’m back using my TiVo.
Also, there’s the fact that the shows I record on Channels are resident on my hard drive—and I can save them forever. There are no storage limits other than the size of my drives, and if I want to take a movie and copy it to my Plex library to keep forever, I can.
Then there’s the issue of region changes. When I leave the Bay Area, Fubo knows it—and it adjust itself accordingly. When I was visiting my mom in Arizona over Christmas vacation, the 49ers game was on back home—but in Arizona, they were showing a different NFL game. And Fubo would only show me Arizona local channels, since that’s where I was.
Here’s the clever part: My Channels server was back home, in the Bay Area. And it could tune in the 49ers game on my local Fox affiliate, which I could then stream back to my iPad in Arizona. (Or pretty much anywhere else.) Changes in region don’t matter with Channels so long as your server is in the right region.
And then there’s the truth that sometimes these over-the-top streaming services are unreliable. The other day, Fubo got really laggy and slow for a few hours. I have no idea why! I got frustrated with it and switched to watching the football game on Channels (via TV Anywhere, which you’ll remember isn’t served by Fubo but by the original source of the programming). It worked like a charm. (Yes, I could probably also have used the Fox Sports app, the Paramount+ app, or the ESPN app.)
Worth it to me
Quite frankly, just the ability to reliably DVR the few linear TV shows I watch that are unavailable (or delayed) on streaming was enough for me to pay for Channels. The Virtual Channels feature is a delightful bonus.
The Channels apps are really good, too. I’ve been relying on the tvOS app for a few months now, and it’s got a solid interface and is remarkably responsive. The iOS app is similarly good. (I do wish the Channels commercial-skip detection feature was a little more accurate, though.)
This isn’t an app that’s for everyone, but if you’re like me—or, even more, if you’re still using cable or an over-the-air antenna to watch TV—Channels can help bring everything you want to watch into one place.
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