Over-the-air DVR: An illustrated guide for cord-cutters
What's the difference between TiVo, Tablo, HDHomeRun, and other cord-cutting DVRs? We'll show you.
By Jared Newman, TechHiveSep 17, 2020 3:00 am PDT
Image: Jared Newman/TechHive
Although I’ve tried on many occasions to articulate the difference between TiVo, Tablo, HDHomeRun, and other over-the-air DVR solutions, one can only do so much with written descriptions.
Over-the-air DVR can quickly become complicated. If you want to record free broadcast channels from an antenna, you might need to string together separate tuner boxes, hard drives, antennas, and streaming players. While I’m a wordsmith at heart—a fact that should soon become apparent from my drawing skills—the concept is admittedly easier to explain with pictures.
TiVo DVRs such as the Edge and Bolt OTA are the easiest to understand: Just plug in an antenna, then connect them to your TV with an HDMI cable, just like you would with a cable box.
The problem with TiVo’s approach is twofold:
As a streaming device, TiVo only offers a small selection of apps, including Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. That means you’ll need a separate device (such as a Roku player or Amazon Fire TV Stick) for most other streaming sources, including Disney+, Tubi, Pluto TV, or Peacock. Also, you’ll be constantly switching back and forth between inputs.
Accessing your TiVo DVR on additional televisions requires a TiVo Mini extender connected to each TV. The current TiVo Mini Lux costs $200 per box and must be hard-wired to your Wi-Fi router unless you spend an extra $60 per extender on Wi-Fi adapters. This sort of investment is ill-advised given TiVo’s fading interest in DVR.
Illustrated below are some modern whole-home DVR options that solve both problems.
Here’s the simplest way to describe Nuvyyo’s Tablo DVRs: They’re whole-home DVRs that you access through your smart TV or streaming player. Instead of connecting directly to your TV, the Tablo streams video over Wi-Fi to the Tablo app, which you can download on a wide range of devices.
With this approach, there’s practically no limit on where you can access your DVR. And because the Tablo app is available on streaming players and smart TVs, you don’t need to switch inputs to use other streaming services, such as Netflix or Disney+.
Depending on which Tablo model you buy, however, you might need to supply your own hard drive. Some models have internal storage built-in; others do not.
Fire TV Recast
The idea behind Amazon’s Fire TV Recast DVR is the same as that of Tablo: It captures broadcast channels from an antenna, then streams the video to other devices over your Wi-Fi network. Again, it does not plug directly into your television.
The crucial difference is that the Recast requires a Fire TV device to watch on your television. That could be a Fire TV Stick, a Fire TV Cube, or a Fire TV Edition smart television. It’s incompatible with other streaming devices such as Roku players or Apple TV.
Mentioned in this article
Amazon Fire TV Recast (150-hour model)
Price When Reviewed:
On the upside, the Recast is deeply integrated with Fire TV in ways that other over-the-air DVRs are not. You can tune to live channels using Alexa voice commands, for instance, and there’s a channel guide built right into the Fire TV menu system. It’s worth considering if you’re all-in on the Fire TV platform already.
Like Tablo and Amazon’s Fire TV Recast, AirTV streams broadcast TV to other devices around the house. But this networked tuner puts a unique spin on the whole-home over-the-air DVR concept.
Instead of supplying its own app, AirTV integrates with the Sling TV app on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, and Apple TV. If you’re a Sling TV subscriber, that means you can get over-the-air and cable channels through a single app and TV guide.
One thing to note: While the basic AirTV 2 tuner requires you to connect an external hard drive, the recently announced AirTV Anywhere has a 1TB drive built in.
Plex and Channels
Plex and Channels are essentially do-it-yourself DVRs, using an HDHomeRun tuner to capture broadcast channels and a media server device to record them. The server can be a desktop computer, NAS box, Nvidia Shield TV Pro, or (if you’re up for an additional challenge) Raspberry Pi micro-computer. Like the other whole-home DVRs above, you’ll use a separate streaming device to watch live or recorded TV. (Plex also supports several other tuners besides HDHomeRun.)
Mentioned in this article
Channels DVR (2020)
Price When Reviewed:
$8 per month or $80 per year (as of Feb. 2022)
The setup is clearly more onerous than the other options I’ve described, partly because there’s more hardware involved, and partly because the HDHomeRun tuner requires a wired connection to your router. But both Plex and Channels are superior at preserving the full quality of broadcast TV, and they give you more flexibility over how and where your recordings are stored. Channels DVR also has the ability to record certain live streaming sources, so you’re not just limited to what’s broadcasting over the air, and Plex provides a full-blown media server that can stream your personal music, movie, TV show collections to other devices around the house. These extra features make them great options for power users.
Keep in mind that HDHomeRun does offer its own DVR service, which can run directly on its Scribe and Servio tuners without a separate media server device. It’s not nearly as polished or powerful as Plex or Channels, though.
A common misconception in cord-cutting is that you need one of these solutions in the first place. While an over-the-air DVR can provide you with lots to watch at a low cost, it’s hardly the only way to cut the cord.
Live TV streaming services such as YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV, and Sling TV all offer bundles of channels beyond what you can get over the air, and they all include their own cloud-based DVR services. Meanwhile, standalone streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ offer huge catalogs of on-demand video, rendering DVR redundant.
So don’t despair if over-the-air DVR seems too complicated or if you’re unable to receive broadcast channels from an antenna. It’s just one approach among many.