If you’re cutting cable TV and are blessed with solid antenna reception, you’ll have lots of options for recording those free ad-supported broadcast channels.
But with each of these options—from TiVo to Tablo to Fire TV Recast and beyond—the prices can vary widely once you factor in subscription fees, DVR storage, and additional hardware requirements. When calculating the cost benefits of cord-cutting, it’d be helpful to know what an over-the-air DVR really costs over time.
To that end, I’ve put together a price comparison for some of the best, most popular, and cheapest over-the-air DVR solutions. Check out the chart below for an overview, then read on for a deeper breakdown of each option. (Note that the chart doesn’t include the cost of an antenna, which you’ll need to supply regardless of which option you choose.) Click to enlarge the image:
AirTV is a $120 device that connects to your wireless router over Wi-Fi, and then records local channels when you plug in an antenna and external hard drive. The AirTV box itself does not connect directly to your television, but instead streams the video to other devices around the house, including Roku, Fire TV, Android TV, and mobile devices. If you subscribe to Sling TV’s bundle of streaming cable channels, you can watch those along with your local channels from AirTV through the same app.
Because AirTV has no subscription fees, it’s one of the cheapest over-the-air DVR options available today. And if you have multiple TVs with their own Roku or Fire TV streamers, AirTV can send video to those devices at no extra charge.
On the downside, AirTV’s video quality is subpar for interlaced (1080i and 480i) channels, it doesn’t support surround sound, and it lacks some of the granular recording settings you get with other options. Read more of my AirTV impressions here.
Channel Master’s Stream+ is a $150 streaming box that runs Google’s Android TV software. It has a coaxial input in the back for an antenna, plus USB and MicroSD ports for DVR storage. Android TV’s Live Channels app then handles all the viewing and recording for local channels.
Stream+ has no subscription fees, making it a cheap and simple over-the-air DVR for a single TV, but multiple TVs would require their own Stream+ boxes, each with separate storage and recordings. Recording options are also limited, and there’s no easy way to browse for shows you might want to record without scrolling through the grid guide. Worst of all, the Stream+ doesn’t support Netflix, limiting its usefulness as a streaming box.
Like AirTV, Fire TV Recast is a networked tuner box that connects to your other devices over Wi-Fi. Instead of plugging directly into your television, it streams local channels to Fire TV devices (such as the $40 Fire TV Stick) and mobile devices around the house.
While the up-front price is on the steep side, the Recast has ample built-in storage (500GB for the $230 dual-tuner model, and 1TB for the $280 quad-tuner model) and no subscription fees. Plus, you can connect additional televisions on the cheap by purchasing more Fire TV streamers. The biggest downside is that Recast doesn’t support other streaming platforms, such as Roku or Apple TV.
The HDHomeRun Connect ($100 for dual-tuner, $150 for quad-tuner) functions somewhat similarly to AirTV and Fire TV Recast, plugging into your Wi-Fi network to stream local channels around the house. But instead of connecting wirelessly, HDHomeRun requires a hardwired ethernet connection to your router. And instead of recording live TV on its own, HDHomeRun needs the extra compute power of an Nvidia Shield TV, PC, or NAS box. Those devices all require their own storage as well, creating significant upfront costs and potential setup headaches.
The upside is that HDHomeRun provides lots of options on the software side. I’m not a big fan of HDHomeRun’s own DVR service, but it is inexpensive at $35 per year. Plex DVR is a slicker and more powerful option, and it’s not much pricier if you spring for the $120 lifetime service plan. Channels DVR is even more polished, though it’s a lot costlier at $8 per month or $80 per year. All these options rely on the same basic hardware setup, so you can experiment with what works best before committing to a long-term subscription.
The bargain-basement option of over-the-air DVR, Mediasonic’s Homeworx HW180STB has sluggish, ugly software and an inelegant remote control, and it lacks table-stakes DVR features such as series recordings and conflict resolution. It is, however, just $35 plus the cost of external storage, and you can always pull the files off the hard drive and move them to other devices as needed.
Tablo is a networked tuner, akin to Fire TV Recast and AirTV, which connects to your home network over Wi-Fi. It then records local channels and streams the video to a wide range of other devices, including phones, computers, connected TVs, streaming boxes, and game consoles. While the two-tuner Tablo Dual Lite ($140) and Tablo Quad ($200) require separate storage, the Tablo Dual ($180) has a meager 64GB drive built-in.
Notably, Tablo does not require a subscription, but paying for one gives you series-based recordings, TV-guide image thumbnails, 14 days of guide data, out-of-home access, and a new ad-skipping feature that began rolling out last week. I’ve included the subscription in my price calculations because some of those features are table-stakes in other popular DVRs. Despite some video-quality nitpicks, these are still the best over-the-air DVRs for most cord-cutters.
TiVo Bolt OTA
Last but not least is TiVo’s DVR for cord-cutters. At $250 up front and $250 for lifetime DVR service, the TiVo Bolt OTA is among the most expensive over-the-air DVR options today. That’s especially true if you have multiple televisions, because each additional one requires its own TiVo Mini Vox box, and those cost $180 each.
That said, TiVo’s recording capabilities remain the industry standard, and the company just started rolling out automatic ad-skipping, so you don’t even have to hit a button to avoid commercials. The multi-room situation should also improve this year with Fire TV, Roku, Apple TV, and Android TV apps in the pipeline. Those apps won’t offer the same video quality as a Mini Vox, but they might be good enough for spare TVs.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.