Updated

Best DVR for cord cutters

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

Rob Schultz

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.

Latest DVR news 

  • Plex has launched a catalog of streaming content for its DVR software platform. Plex Web Shows feature content from sources such as GQ, Vanity Fair, Engadget, and others. The launch piggybacks off the free news-streaming service Plex debuted a year ago. 
  • TiVo is discontinuing one of our top picks in this category, the TiVo Roamio OTA, in favor of a tuner-equipped version of its TiVo Bolt. The TiVo Bolt OTA is outfitted with four over-the-air TV tuners and 1TB of onboard storage (expandable via e-SATA). TiVo's latest DVR costs $250, plus a subscription fee of $7 per month ($70 if paid annually, or you can purchase a lifetime license for $250).
  • Amazon is out with a new DVR called Fire TV Recast, which is a likely competitor to Sling’s AirTV DVR. It lets you record up to four shows at once and replay them on the Fire TV, Echo Show, Fire tablets, and Android and iOS. The 75-hour Fire TV Recast costs $229.99 while the 150-hour Fire TV Recast costs $279.99. Both are available for pre-order now, with a November 14 ship date.

The best OTA DVR for most cord-cutters

The Tablo Dual Lite DVR launched in late March, and it replaces the old two-tuner model as the best choice for most people. This whole-home solution streams recordings to nearly any connected device. Plug in an external hard drive and an antenna, connect the Tablo box to your network over Wi-Fi or ethernet, and you can stream live or recorded TV through the Tablo app on phones, tablets, computers, media streamers, and smart TVs. (While Tablo offers a pricier DVR with 64GB of built-in storage, the Lite version is cheaper even after you factor in an external 1TB of 2TB hard drive, plus it has a faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi connection.)

Tablo is simple to set up, has broad device support, and offers common DVR functions such as live TV time-shifting and catching up with recordings in progress. In recent months, all Tablo models have also gained more recording options and reduced loading times for live TV. Best of all, you never need to switch inputs from the streaming box you’re already using. Those pluses help compensate for Tablo’s audio and video quality, which doesn't compare to native broadcast quality, and its lack of ad-skipping features.

The best OTA DVR for just one TV

The TiVo Roamio OTA feels a bit like a relic of the cable era, with its clunky remote control and occasionally confusing interface. Still, it’s a powerful four-tuner DVR with useful ad-skipping features, and it includes lifetime DVR service in its $400 price. It also ties into several major streaming services, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, putting all recorded and streaming episodes of a given show into a single menu. Still, many newer streaming services are absent—including channel bundles like Sling TV—and adding whole-home or out-of-home DVR requires pricey hardware add-ons. It’s a tough sell if you have more than one television at home.

Best OTA DVR for power users

If setting up a DVR using Plex was more straightforward, it would be our no-reservations top pick. As it stands, installing a Plex-based DVR is a daunting process involving products from at least three other manufacturers (you'll need a TV tuner; a TV antenna; and a set-top box, NAS box, or personal computer). That mix can lead to difficult-to-troubleshoot problems.

Once you have everything assembled, you'll have a powerfully extensible system that delivers granular control over the recording and recording-management processes. But one of things you won't get with a Plex DVR is a grid-based channel guide on most devices. (Plex recently added a guide to its web app and says it's coming to other platforms, but hasn't given a timeline.) This in-depth review should help you decide if the trade-offs are worth it. 

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 (as of April 2018) to consider:

Tablo LIVE and cloud DVR: Tablo was supposed to launch a $99 networked tuner with cloud DVR capabilities last year, but so far it hasn't materialized. You're probably better off with the $140 Tablo Dual Lite anyway, since it can record up to two channels at a time and has a hard drive for local storage.

HDHomeRun Connect Duo+ and DVR improvements: SiliconDust's own DVR service didn't fare well in our review earlier this year, but the company says an interface overhaul is on the way. SiliconDust is also working on a new dual-tuner model with a built-in recording engine and 250GB of storage, making it more of a direct competitor to Tablo. The company is targeting mid-2018 for the latter, though it has a history of delaying products that aren't ship-shape.

Channels DVR for Android and Fire TV: Channels is already a slick DVR solution for Apple TV owners that uses HDHomeRun as its tuner. The developers released Fire TV and Android TV apps in February, but only for live television. Full DVR support is coming later this year.

AirTV Local Channels DVR: AirTV's main hook is how it combines over-the-air channels and Sling TV's streaming cable channels into a single TV guide. Earlier this year, AirTV began testing DVR for over-the-air channels, and all you need to enable it is an external hard drive. As a beta feature, it still has some major limitations--you can't watch recordings until they're complete, for instance--but it could become a killer solution for cord-cutters who are tired of switching between apps.

ATSC 3.0: This year, broadcasters are starting to test a new broadcast TV standard called ATSC 3.0 (also known as "Next Gen TV"). The new standard can support 4K HDR video, better surround sound, interactive features, and easier access on phones and tablets. On the downside, ATSC 3.0 won't work with existing tuners on today's over-the-air DVR solutions. This isn't an immediate concern, since any channel that adopts ATSC 3.0 will have to simulcast in the current standard for five years, and so far testing has only begun in Phoenix, Ariz. Over-the-air DVR devices are still worth buying, but be aware that they probably won't work forever.

Our OTA DVR reviews

At a Glance

Some sticking points haven't changed, but Tablo's latest whole-home DVR for cord-cutters is inexpensive and easy to use.

Pros

  • Easy to set up
  • Streams TV to lots of devices
  • Plenty of options for browsing and recording TV shows

Cons

  • Video and audio streams are inferior to broadcast quality
  • No ad-skipping features
  • No way to channel surf while watching live TV

TiVo's over-the-air DVR box feels a lot like cable, for better and for worse.

Pros

  • One-button ad skipping for primetime shows, and a 30-second skip button for everything else
  • Plenty of options to fine-tune recordings
  • Lifetime DVR/channel-guide service is included

Cons

  • User interface needs an overhaul
  • Sub-par app selection
  • The cost of whole-home DVR is much too high

Emby's do-it-yourself DVR packs plenty of features if you have the right hardware and don't mind jumping through some hoops.

Pros

  • Support for a wide range of streaming devices
  • Built-in guide makes channel flipping easy
  • Lots of fine-grained control over recording

Cons

  • Setup can be costly and complex
  • Apps could use more polish
  • Guide data requires ongoing expense or even more complicated setup

Built-in storage makes the Tablo Dual simpler to setup, but you might still be better off with the old model.

Pros

  • Easy to set up
  • Tablo apps are available on most modern streaming devices
  • No subscription necessary for basic features

Cons

  • Skimpy built-in storage
  • Long load times for live channels
  • Limited options for storage management

Tablo brings live and recorded broadcast TV to all your streaming devices--if you can look past some performance and feature limitations.

Pros

  • Straightforward setup
  • Apps are available on a wide range of devices
  • No subscription necessary for basic channel guide and manual recording

Cons

  • Live channels take a while to load
  • Smooth motion not supported on 1080i channels
  • Occasional glitches

Channels could be the best DVR for Apple TV owners, but it needs a few more features to get there.

Pros

  • Easy ad-skipping
  • Loads of recording options and handy features such as tuner stacking
  • Pristine video quality on Apple TV and Android TV

Cons

  • Apps and service are much more expensive than other over-the-air DVRs
  • No easy way to resolve recording conflicts
  • Complex setup involves many disparate components

Plex provides a powerful whole-home DVR for over-the-air channels, but the setup's a doozy and you can't time-shift.

Pros

  • Recording options offer plenty of granularity
  • Nearly ubiquitous app support for DVR streaming in- and out-of-home
  • Low up-front cost if you have a PC or Shield already

Cons

  • Complex setup with little flexibility for antenna placement
  • Confusing disparity between live and DVR apps.
  • Limited support for pausing and rewinding live TV.

Tablo’s DVR software is a simple solution for a single television, but it’s too light on features.

Pros

  • Brings broadcast TV and streaming video onto a single device
  • Smooth, crisp video with 5.1-channel surround sound
  • Fairly easy to set up

Cons

  • No whole-home DVR features, unlike Tablo’s network DVR
  • Sorting and search options are nonexistent
  • Limited control over recordings

Tivo's latest DVR brings a software overhaul and voice search, but it still feels tethered to the past.

Pros

  • The new software is simpler and slicker
  • Voice search is a powerful way to browse
  • DVR has loads of recording options

Cons

  • Woeful app selection
  • Software still has some rough edges
  • Pricey DVR service and whole-home add-ons

The Stream+ is a fairly inexpensive way to record free over-the-air channels, but the software has some major shortcomings.

Pros

  • Decent DVR features with no subscription fees
  • Channels load quickly, and at broadcast-TV quality
  • The remote's live TV and DVR shortcut keys are a nice touch

Cons

  • No Netflix or Amazon Prime Video apps
  • Limited ways to browse and manage recordings
  • Android TV software is already outdated

Primarily billed as a analog-to-digital converter, MediaSonic’s dumb-as-rocks recording may remind you of an old VCR.

Pros

  • It’s cheap
  • No subscription fees
  • Video can be pulled from the hard drive as .MTS files

Cons

  • The interface is a clunky, confusing mess
  • No conflict-resolution features for recordings
  • Time-shifting isn’t automatic and prevents switching channels

This streaming box makes cutting cable less intimidating by bringing Sling TV and over-the-air channels together, but it's hurt by Sling TV's limitations.

Pros

  • Convenient setup and access to over-the-air channels
  • Remote control has lots of useful functions
  • Sling TV subscription not required to use the device

Cons

  • Channel guide is cumbersome to navigate
  • DVR support is worse than Sling TV on other platforms
  • Outdated Android with no Amazon Video