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DVRs

Best OTA DVRs for cord cutters who use an antenna

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

Sarah Tew/CNET

On-demand streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu can plug many of the holes that appear when you cut the cable TV cord, but there are still some gaps -- particularly news and sports -- that only live TV can fill. Plenty of live TV streaming services are available that stream over the internet, but the monthly fees can add up quickly. And if you're not saving money, what's the point?

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For the savvy cord cutter, putting up an antenna to get free over the air (OTA) TV broadcasts is a no-brainer. Sure you can just hook up an antenna to your TV(s) and call it a day, but if you want to get the most out of local broadcasts, an OTA DVR, with its ability to pause, record and even stream those antenna shows outside the home, might be worth the investment.

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Although OTA DVRs have been around for a few years, they're starting to become more mainstream now. A barebones 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 service fee. 

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 their own unique features and capabilities, but there's one I'd recommend to beginners and old hands alike. Let's dive in.

Set top or 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.

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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 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.

Which device should you choose?

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. If you want a set top DVR that also replaces a Roku, it's a decent option but it's not the best value.

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. And you need to add an external hard drive (not included) to make it a true DVR.

The Amazon Fire TV Recast is my pick for 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.

Amazon Fire TV Recast: Best DVR for cord cutters

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

See at Amazon Read CNET's review

TiVo Bolt OTA

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. 

See at TiVo Read CNET's review

AirTV

Dan Ackerman/CNET

When paired with a Sling TV subscription, the AirTV provides the live TV and recording 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. 

See at Amazon Read CNET's review


Also worth considering

There are also network streaming products from Tablo and HD HomeRun, but I've found these are typically better for enthusiasts who know what they're doing. For example, when I set up the Tablo Dual at home recently I had to access our router's settings to open a port. That just didn't happen with the Amazon or TiVo products I tested. 

It's worth mentioning that the Channel Master Stream Plus is in the middle of rolling out a 14-day guide (up from just two) as I write this. With the ability to add USB storage and a greater list of streaming apps, it's a more complete product than the one I saw six months ago. Look out for a full review soon.

TiVo Roamio OTA Vox

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.

See at Amazon Read CNET's review

Channel Master Stream Plus

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 box more attractive.

See at Channel Master Read CNET's hands-on

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Amazon Fire TV Recast review: One of the best cord-cutter companions yet.