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Best DVR for cord cutters who use an OTA antenna

If you're looking to ditch cable, these are the best DVRs for watching, recording and streaming live television using an antenna.

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 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.

Read: Best TV antennas for cord-cutters, starting at just $10  

The downside, of course, is that "free" turns into, well, not free, especially with DVRs that charge a monthly fees. A bare-bones DVR like the Channel Master Stream Plus starts at about $150 while a TiVo with all the bells and whistles is about $500 after you pay the lifetime subscription fee. But compared to the cost of live TV streaming services such as DirecTV Now or YouTube TV, even the most expensive antenna DVR will pay for itself eventually.

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There are currently three standout products to consider when buying a cord cutting DVR: the Amazon Fire TV Recast, the AirTV 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.

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My top three picks

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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. At $220-plus it's not cheap, but at least it comes with an onboard hard drive. And there's no monthly fee.

While you'll need a Fire TV Stick to watch on a TV, the lack of any ongoing fees makes the Recast very attractive. Amazon says it is also working to improve the visibility of live TV within its interface, which will make it even more easy to use. Read CNET's review.

Read more: Best TV Antennas for Cord-Cutters, starting at just $10

Josh Goldman/CNET

If you want a traditional set-top DVR, the TiVo Bolt OTA is your best option. While it's pricier than the other products here (with service included), it also offers a ton of features including streaming apps, packaged with TiVo's superb interface. 

While TiVo has the best name recognition of the three devices, the Bolt is not the "gotcha" you would expect from a company that basically invented the modern DVR. The Bolt relies a little too heavily on streaming apps and it's twice as expensive -- or more -- than the other two.  Read CNET's review.

Read more: Best live TV streaming services for cord cutters

Dan Ackerman/CNET

The AirTV has its pluses, and it is the cheapest of the three, but it's really designed to complement a Sling TV subscription by adding local channels. So that's an extra $25 a month on top.

When paired with a Sling TV subscription, the AirTV provides the local channels that the service lacks. While you can use it on its own without paying extra money per month, the Amazon Fire TV Recast offers a better overall experience. And you need to add an external hard drive (not included) to make the AirTV function as a true DVR. Read CNET's review.

Three more options

None of those top three appeal to you? I've also reviewed a trio of other OTA DVRs that I didn't like as much. They still have appeal for certain users, however.

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. It's not the easiest device to setup though, and its device compatibility doesn't live up to the same power-user expectations. Read CNET's review.

Read more: TiVo takes on Roku with new streaming Edge DVR and free live channels

Sarah Tew/CNET

Is it a streamer or is it a DVR? While the Stream plus is not quite there yet, some upcoming improvements -- the ability to watch a still-recording program from the start and a full 14-day guide -- should make this little streaming device more attractive. Read CNET's hands-on.

Read more: Best TVs for 2019

Though the Roamio OTA Vox is discontinued, you can still find it on sale. It's not as fast as the Bolt but works in the same way. Try to get the lifetime option and you won't have to pay ongoing fees. Read CNET's review.

Types of OTA DVR: Set top vs. network streamer?

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The are two main types of DVR: a traditional set top, which connects directly to a single TV via an HDMI output, or a network streamer, which connects to your home network and streams to your TVs (via streamer like a Roku or, in the case of Recast, Amazon Fire TV) and other devices (phones and tablets) 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 and Amazon Fire TV Recast are straight network 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 -- say a tablet, phone and a living room TV. In general a network streamer is the more flexible option, and can better complement live TV streaming apps or services like Netflix.

Read more: Best internet providers in 2019: How to choose cable vs. DSL vs. satellite and more

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 programs. 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.

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.