Cable and satellite can get expensive, but you don’t have to pay a huge monthly bill to watch TV. If you live in a city or town with good over-the-air reception, putting up a TV antenna is an easy way to cut the cord and get access to free TV. Pair this with an OTA recorder and you’ll be able to pause live TV, save your shows for later and fast-forward through commercials. Many of the DVRs we’ve tested will even let you stream your recorded content to multiple TVs or when you’re away from home.
The downside, of course, is that “free” can turn into, well, not free, especially if your DVR charges a monthly fee. For example, a basic DVR like the AirTV 2 starts around $100, before you add a hard drive, while a TiVo Edge with all the bells and whistles is currently $350 (with lifetime subscription). Yet, compared to the cost of cable TV and live TV-streaming services such as Hulu Plus Live TV or YouTube TV, even the most expensive antenna DVR will pay for itself in due time.
It’s worth mentioning that the next version of the ATSC broadcast standard, called NextGen TV, is now available in over 50% of homes. NextGenTV promises visuals up to 4K in the future as well as interactive features not possible with standard broadcast. Some TVs have onboard NextGen tuners, while there is currently one DVR available for it — the HDHomeRun Flex 4K. Meanwhile, the Tablo ATSC 3.0 Quad HDMI OTA DVR has been delayed for the foreseeable future.
There are three standout OTA DVR products to consider when buying a cord-cutting digital video recorder: the AirTV 2 and the TiVo Edge for antenna, and the Nuvyyo Tablo Quad. Each has its own unique features, tuner and capabilities, but there’s one I’d recommend to beginners and old hands alike. Sadly, our previous recommendation, the Amazon FireTV Recast, has been discontinued. Let’s dive in and take a look at the best OTA DVR options.
TiVo has the best name recognition of the devices here, and if you want a traditional set-top DVR the Edge for antenna is your best option. While the Tivo Edge is pricier than the other products here (especially after the lifetime OTA DVR service is added), the Edge for antenna also offers a ton of features including streaming apps, all packaged with TiVo’s interface.
At the moment Channel Master is offering the Edge DVR plus lifetime service for $349 (down from $449).
Read our TiVo Edge hands-on.
The AirTV 2 has its pluses, especially as it’s the cheapest of our OTA DVR recommendations and it works without incurring a monthly charge. Yet this OTA DVR is really designed to complement a $40-a-month Sling TV subscription by adding local channels. And you need to add an external hard drive (not included) to make the AirTV 2 function as a true DVR, though it lacks live TV pause. If you want pause functionality it’s worth upgrading to the AirTV Anywhere which includes an onboard 1TB hard drive for $200.
Read our AirTV 2 review.
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The Tablo Quad is the latest version of the popular cord-cutting DVR and goes all-in on features. There’s room for an internal hard drive and the inclusion of four tuners should cater for even the most demanding users. Everything is controlled through the Tablo app. This OTA DVR is not the easiest device to set up, though, and you’ll need to pay a subscription to access many of its features.
Read our Nuvyyo Tablo Quad review.
Types of OTA DVR: Set top vs. networked TV streamer?
There are two main types of DVR options: a traditional set top, which connects directly to a single TV via an HDMI output; or a networked TV streamer, which connects to your home network and streams to your devices in the home or on the go. The TiVo Edge for antenna is a traditional set-top (which also has in-home streaming) while the AirTV 2 and Tablo Quad are straight networked TV streamers.
A set-top is best for people who usually watch on one TV, while a network device is for people who want to watch on multiple devices — a streamer like a Roku or an Amazon Fire TV and other devices like phones and tablets. In general a networked TV streamer is the more flexible OTA DVR option, and can better complement live TV streaming apps or services like Netflix.
Other features to look for
Regardless of which style of OTA DVR you choose, there are some features common to both that you should look for.
- Two or more HD tuners: One tuner is just not enough. When it comes to HD tuners, the more your device has the merrier. The bare minimum is two so you can record two channels at the same time, or watch one while you record another, but heavy antenna heads might appreciate even more.
- 1TB or more of storage: Depending on the device you have, a terabyte of built-in storage space should offer about 150 hours of program content. But if you choose a device such as the TiVo which automatically records shows it “thinks you like,” you could run out very quickly. Which is why you also need…
- The ability to add extra storage via USB or SD card: An external hard drive is an excellent option, providing your DVR doesn’t need a proprietary model. Generally, a 1TB external hard drive is cheap at about 50 bucks.
- 14 days of guide data: While seven days is really the minimum useful amount, two weeks gives you more flexibility.
- No ongoing fees: Most people cut the cord to save money, so paying yet another monthly fee doesn’t make a ton of sense. TiVo does offer a lifetime service option so you pay for the device and guide data upfront.