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Best DVR for cord cutters

Tivo vs. Tablo vs. Channel Master vs. Plex: None are ideal, but one might work for you.

Rob Schultz / IDG

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Here’s the hard truth for cord-cutters right now: The ideal over-the-air DVR doesn’t exist.

While some products are better than others, all of them—from Tablo to TiVo to HDHomeRun with Plex—have at least one critical weakness. If you want to record broadcast TV channels from an antenna, you must decide which of those weaknesses you’ll tolerate.

The good news is that the lowly antenna is experiencing a rebirth, and we’re likely to see even more over-the-air DVR products. But if you want to start recording broadcast channels now, here’s a rundown of where the current products stand.

Updated February 1, 2021 with our Nuvyyo Tablo Dual HDMI review. If video quality is crucially important to you, this over-the-air DVR will record broadcast video in its native MPEG-2 format at a full 60 frames per second. That means you'll experience no degradation in video quality. On the downside, the Tablo Dual HDMI can't stream video outside your home or to mobile devices. Despite that drawback, it is one of the best products in its class, but it doesn't quite rise to top-pick status.

[ Further reading: The best media streaming devices ]

The best OTA DVR for most cord-cutters

If you don’t need four over-the-air tuners, the Tablo Dual Lite DVR—our previous top pick in this category—remains a compelling value. The Tablo Quad DVR is slightly more expensive, but it makes the fewest trade-offs and of any product in this class. We do have a few nits to pick—interlaced video can’t play back at 60 frames per second, and there’s a limited number of streaming boxes you can use for out-of-home viewing—but in a field that doesn’t include the perfect OTA DVR, the Tablo Quad DVR comes the closest.

Runner-up

For those who are all-in on Amazon hardware, the Recast is simple to set up, has no subscription fees, and lets you launch live channels by voice with Alexa. But because this over-the-air DVR is only compatible with Amazon's Fire TV devices, it's a non-starter for users of Roku, Apple TV, or Android TV players.

Best OTA DVR for power users

Channels DVR can be tricky to set up, as it requires you to bring your own media server hardware, and its $8 per month subscription fee is pricier than other over-the-air DVR solutions. But for those who invest the time and money, Channels provides an unparalleled level of polish, video quality, and power user features. 

What to look for in an over-the-air DVR

Evaluating over-the-air DVR solutions is tough, because there are so many factors that can make or break the experience. If you want to investigate further, here are some factors to consider:

Ad-skipping features: Advertising is still a staple of broadcast TV, but some DVRs provide tools to help you skip them. TiVo is the best in this regard, providing an auto-skip button for some programs, and a 30-second skip button for everything else.

Antenna placement options: Over-the-air DVR is useless if your antenna can’t receive channels, so unless you’ve got coaxial cable wired to the roof, you’ll need to set up your DVR in a place with solid indoor antenna reception. Tablo can operate anywhere in the house, HDHomeRun must be wired to your router, and TiVo and Channel Master are tied to your television. Plan accordingly.

Granular recording options: Perhaps you’d like to keep only a certain number of recent episodes, or replace your recordings with higher-resolution versions when available. Not all DVRs are equal in the recording controls they provide. Our full reviews will provide more details.

Live TV time-shifting and catch-up: Want to pause for snack breaks? How about watching partway through a program so you can skip the commercials? Most DVR solutions support this type of time-shifting, but HDHomeRun and Plex currently don’t.

Number of tuners: More tuners means more simultaneous recordings or live viewings. TiVo has four tuners, Tablo has two- and four-tuner options, and HDHomeRun lets you daisy-chain multiple dual-tuner units together. 

Out-of-home streaming: Tablo and Plex both allow you to watch live and recorded TV from outside the house. TiVo requires a $130 TiVo Stream for mobile device access.

Storage options: With the exception of TiVo Roamio OTA, all the DVRs we reviewed support storage on external hard drives. Tablo has also started beta testing a cloud-based storage service, but we don’t yet know what it’ll cost, and we haven’t tested it yet.

Whole-home support: Unless you only plan to watch on a single television, you’ll want a whole-home system, which means buying a networked tuner (Tablo or HDHomeRun) or setting up extenders (such as TiVo’s $150 Mini units).

Streaming service integration: Many of the DVR products we’ve reviewed are whole-home solutions that you access via apps on your existing streaming devices. In these cases, you can access all your favorite streaming services alongside over-the-air video without having to switch inputs. TiVo is a notable exception. It supports some major streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, but you’ll still need a separate streaming box to access others, such as Sling TV and Philo.

OTA DVR solutions still in development

The over-the-air DVR space should get more competitive over time. If you’re on the fence about today’s solutions, here are some future developments to consider:

ATSC 3.0: Broadcasters are starting to test a new broadcast TV standard called ATSC 3.0 (also known as “Next Gen TV”), which can support 4K HDR video, better surround sound, interactive features, and easier access on phones and tablets. This new standard is incompatible with most of today's over-the-air DVR solutions, which rely on the current ATSC 1.0 standard instead.

Still, it's early days for ATSC 3.0. Major broadcast networks haven't yet committed to supporting features like 4K, and the FCC is requiring all markets to support ATSC 1.0 until at least February 2023. That means you can still buy current over-the-air DVR solutions with confidence, even if they're not guaranteed to last forever.

Our OTA DVR reviews

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