Best OTA DVR for cord cutters: Amazon Fire TV Recast, TiVo and Tablo – CNET

If you want to watch free TV, and live in an area with decent over-the-air reception, putting up a TV antenna is an easy way to cut the cord. Hooking a DVR to that antenna enables you to unlock the full potential of those broadcasts: You can pause live TV,  save shows to watch later, and skip commercials. Most of the models below will also let you stream shows on multiple TVs or when you’re outside the home.

The downside, of course, is that “free” can turn into, well, not free, especially if your DVR charges a monthly fee. While a basic DVR like the AirTV 2 starts around $100, before you add a hard drive, a TiVo device with all the bells and whistles is about $500 after you pay the 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.

There are four standout OTA DVR products to consider when buying a cord-cutting digital video recorder: the Amazon Fire TV Recast, the AirTV 2 and the TiVo Edge for antenna, and the Nuvyyo Tablo Quad. Each has its own unique DVR features, tuner 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.

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The Amazon Fire TV Recast is my pick for most people looking to cut the cord.

It’s not perfect — this OTA DVR really needs a Fire TV Stick streaming device to work, and a Prime membership is also helpful — but its combination of features and flexibility put this over-the-air DVR over the top. Like the AirTV 2 and Tablo DVR, it’s a network streaming DVR, meaning it doesn’t connect to a TV directly. Instead it streams to TVs, your mobile device 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. Plus, there’s no monthly fee to get full DVR functionality from this streaming device.

Read our Amazon Fire TV Recast review.

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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 $350 (down from $449).

Read the TiVo Edge hands-on.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The AirTV 2 has its pluses, especially as it’s the cheapest of our three OTA DVR recommendations and it works without incurring a monthly charge. Yet, this OTA DVR is really designed to complement a $35-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.

While I haven’t reviewed the AirTV Anywhere it adds an onboard 1TB hard drive for $200.

Read our AirTV 2 review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 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 OTA DVR option, and can better complement live TV streaming apps or services like Netflix.

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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.
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A 14-day program guide is essential on a modern DVR.

Sarah Tew/CNET

  • 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.

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