If you live in an area with good access to TV broadcast channels, putting up an antenna is an easy and inexpensive (read: free) way to get the shows you want without paying for cable. And hooking a DVR to that over-the-air antenna enables you to unlock the full potential of those broadcasts: You can save them to watch later, skip commercials and even, in some cases, stream them to watch on multiple TVs or outside the home.
The downside, of course, is that "free" turns into, well, not free, especially with DVRs that charge monthly fees. A barebones DVR like the AirTV 2 starts at $100 while a TiVo with all the bells and whistles is about $500 after you pay the lifetime subscription. But compared to the cost of live TV-streaming services such as Hulu with Live TV or YouTube TV, even the most expensive antenna DVR will pay for itself eventually.
Now playing: Watch this: TiVo Bolt OTA vs Amazon Fire TV Recast: which DVR should… 2:14
There are three standout products to consider when buying a cord cutting DVR: the Amazon Fire TV Recast, the AirTV 2 and the TiVo Bolt OTA. Each has its own unique features and capabilities, but there's one I'd recommend to beginners and old hands alike. Let's dive in and take a look at the best OTA DVR options.
Best DVR for cord cutters overall
Amazon Fire TV Recast
The Amazon Fire TV Recast is my pick for most people looking to cut the cord.
It's not perfect — it really needs a Fire TV stick to work and a Prime membership is also helpful — but its combination of features and flexibility put it over the top. Like the AirTV 2 and Tablo it's a network streaming DVR, meaning it doesn't connect to a TV directly. Instead it streams to devices like TVs, phones and more (see below for more details).
The Fire TV Recast is relatively expensive but at least it comes with an onboard hard drive, unlike the AirTV 2. And unlike the Tablo there's no monthly fee to get full functionality. Read our Amazon Fire TV Recast review.
Best set-top DVR
TiVo Bolt OTA
TiVo has the best name recognition of the three devices here, and if you want a traditional set-top DVR the TiVo Bolt OTA is still your best option. While it's pricier than the other products here (especially after the $250 lifetime service is added), the Bolt also offers a ton of features including streaming apps, all packaged with TiVo's interface. There is a newer model called the TiVo Edge, but the still-available Bolt is a better value. Read our TiVo Bolt OTA review.
Best budget DVR
The AirTV 2 has its pluses, especially as it's the cheapest of our three recommendations and it works without incurring a monthly charge. Yet, it's really designed to complement a $30-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're looking for a device that works without paying more per month, the similar Amazon Fire TV Recast offers a better overall experience. Read our AirTV 2 review.
Best DVR for tweakers
Nuvyyo Tablo Quad
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. It's not the easiest device to setup though, and its device compatibility doesn't live up to the same power-user expectations. And the worst part is you'll need to pay a subscription to access many of its features. Read our Nuvyyo Tablo Quad review.
10 old cables you should keep around (and 6 to toss) 17 Photos
Types of OTA DVR: Set top vs. networked TV streamer?
The 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 Bolt OTA is a traditional set-top (which also has in-home streaming) while the AirTV 2 and Amazon Fire TV Recast 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 option, and can better complement live TV streaming apps or services like Netflix.
Other features to look for
Regardless of which style of DVR you choose, there are some features common to both that you should look for.
- Two or more HD tuners — 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.
DirecTV Now, Sling TV, YouTube TV, Hulu and more: Live TV channels compared: Here's how the top 100 channels stack up.
Amazon Fire TV Recast review: One of the best cord-cutter companions yet.