Free TV is better when you can watch on your schedule. Here are our top picks for devices that pause, record and stream free over-the-air television with an antenna.
Updated Sept. 8, 2023 5:00 p.m. PT
Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission.
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Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.
ExpertiseTy has worked for radio, print, and online publications, and has been writing about home entertainment since 2004. He majored in Cinema Studies when studying at RMIT. He is an avid record collector and streaming music enthusiast.Credentials
Ty was nominated for Best New Journalist at the Australian IT Journalism awards, but he has only ever won one thing. As a youth, he was awarded a free session for the photography studio at a local supermarket.
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 an affordable antenna 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 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 $499 (with lifetime subscription). Yet, compared with 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 60% of homes. NextGenTV promises visuals in up to 4K resolution in the future, as well as interactive features not possible with standard broadcast. Some TVs have onboard NextGen tuners, and while there's at least one DVR available for it -- the HDHomeRun Flex 4K -- it's currently uncertain if that device will be able to meet the newest DRM requirements. Meanwhile, the competitive Tablo ATSC 3.0 Quad HDMI OTA DVR has been delayed for the foreseeable future. As NextGen TV isn't expected to come online fully till at least 2024, we'll cover such DVRs in a future update.
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 $399 (down from $499).
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.
The Nuvyyo Tablo Quad offers power users the tools they need to record and watch massive amounts of OTA television. Excellent image quality in and out of the home. The interface is both easy and fun to use. The device offers a degree of flexibility with both wired and wireless operation in addition to ability to add internal storage.
The device requires both a subscription fee and an aftermarket drive, which makes it one of the more expensive antenna DVRs. To use the Tablo out of home you'll likely need to manually set up port forwarding in your router. If you use a PC or Xbox One there's some limitations, especially the inability to listen to recordings in surround.
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.
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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 streams to your devices over the internet. 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 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 (or eventually 4K) 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...
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.