Best DVR for cord cutters

Tivo vs. Tablo vs. Channel Master vs. HDHomeRun with Plex: None are ideal, but one might work for you.

ota dvr product hub art Rob Schultz (IDG Worldwide)

Here’s the hard truth for cord-cutters right now: The ideal over-the-air DVR doesn’t exist. And if you're on the fence about even needing one, you should read the June 22 installment of this column. Editor's note, July 11, 2017: We've updated this story with a hands-on review of Emby paired with SiliconDust's HDHomeRun. 

While some products are better than others, all of them—from Tablo and TiVo to Channel Master DVR+ and HDHomeRun with Plex—have at least one critical weakness. If you want to record broadcast TV channels from an antenna, you must decide which of those weaknesses you’ll tolerate.

The good news is that the lowly antenna is experiencing a rebirth, and we’re likely to see more over-the-air DVR products later in 2017 and beyond. But if you want to start recording broadcast channels now, here’s a rundown of where the current products stand:

The best OTA DVR for most cord-cutters: Tablo

The recent introduction of the Tablo Dual DVR, with its 64GB of internal storage, hasn’t changed our opinion that the older Tablo DVR is the best choice for most people. This whole-home solution streams recordings to nearly any connected device. Plug in an external hard drive and an antenna, then connect the Tablo box to your network over Wi-Fi or ethernet, and you can stream live or recorded TV through the Tablo app on phones, tablets, computers, media streamers, and smart TV.

Tablo is simple to set up, has broad device support, and offers common DVR functions such as live TV time-shifting and catching up with recordings in progress. Best of all, you never have to switch inputs from the streaming box you’re already using. Those pluses help compensate for Tablo’s sometimes-inferior recording quality, lack of granular recording options, and occasional glitches.

The best OTA DVR for just one TV: TiVo Roamio OTA

The TiVo Roamio OTA feels a bit like a relic of the cable era, with its clunky remote control and occasionally confusing interface. Still, it’s a powerful four-tuner DVR with useful ad-skipping features, and it includes lifetime DVR service in its $400 price. It also ties into several major streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, putting all recorded and streaming episodes of a given show into a single menu. Still, many newer streaming services are absent—including channel bundles like Sling TV—and adding whole-home or out-of-home DVR requires pricey hardware add-ons. It’s a tough sell if you have more than one television at home.

Best OTA DVR for power users: HDHomeRun and Plex

HDHomeRun (we recommend the Extend model for its hardware h.264 transcoder) is a networked TV tuner that connects to your router and becomes a whole-home DVR when used in conjunction with Plex Media Server. (The setup is a bit convoluted, as you need an always-on PC, NAS box, or Nvidia Shield TV for recordings, but video quality is superb, and Plex’s recording options are multitudinous.

There are, however, couple of potential dealbreakers: Watching live TV requires separate apps from HDHomeRun instead of Plex, and those are available on far fewer devices. And right now, neither app supports time-shifting for live TV or watching recordings that are in progress. If you have a desktop PC or Shield already, HDHomeRun and Plex are useful add-ons, but building an entirely new setup around these products is tough to justify.

A cheaper alternative: Channel Master DVR+

Compared to the other DVR solutions on this list, the Channel Master DVR+ is decidedly bare-bones in terms of recording options and features. But in some ways, it’s easier to decipher than the TiVo Roamio OTA, and starting at $250, it’s a lot cheaper if you supply your own external hard drive.

What to look for in an over-the-air DVR

Evaluating over-the-air DVR solutions is tough, because there are so many factors that can make or break the experience. If you want to investigate further, here are some factors to consider:

Ad-skipping features: Advertising is still a staple of broadcast TV, but some DVRs provide tools to help you skip them. TiVo is the best in this regard, providing an auto-skip button for some programs, and a 30-second skip button for everything else.

Mohu ReLeaf Jason Cipriani

MoHu ReLeaf

Antenna placement options: Over-the-air DVR is useless if you’re antenna can’t receive channels, so unless you’ve got coaxial cable wired to the roof, you’ll need to set up your DVR in a place with solid indoor antenna reception. Tablo can operate anywhere in the house, HDHomeRun must be wired to your router, and TiVo and Channel Master are tied to your television. Plan accordingly.

Granular recording options: Perhaps you’d like to keep only a certain number of recent episodes, or replace your recordings with higher-resolution versions when available. Not all DVRs are equal in the recording controls they provide. Our full reviews will provide more details.

Live TV time-shifting and catch-up: Want to pause for snack breaks? How about watching partway through a program so you can skip the commercials? Most DVR solutions support this type of time-shifting, but HDHomeRun and Plex currently don’t.

Number of tuners: More tuners means more simultaneous recordings or live viewings. TiVo has four tuners, Tablo has two- and four-tuner options, and HDHomeRun lets you daisy-chain multiple dual-tuner units together. With Channel Master, two tuners is the limit.

tivo mini TiVo

TiVo Mini

Out-of-home streaming: Only Tablo natively supports live and recorded TV on the go, while Plex at least provides access to recordings. TiVo requires the aforementioned $150 TiVo Mini box for each additional TV, and a $130 TiVo Stream for mobile device access.

Storage options: With the exception of TiVo Roamio OTA, all the DVRs we reviewed support storage on external hard drives.

Whole-home support: Unless you only plan to watch on a single television, you’ll want a whole-home system, which means buying a networked tuner (Tablo or HDHomeRun) or setting up extenders (such as TiVo’s $150 Mini units).

OTA DVR solutions still in development

The over-the-air DVR space should get more competitive over the next year or so. Here are some other solutions we’re anticipating:

Tablo Droid software DVR: For Android TV devices such as the Nvidia Shield TV, Tablo is creating a DVR service that works with USB tuners. It won’t be a whole-home solution like the existing Tablo, but it will allow users to consolidate antenna and streaming sources onto a single TV device. The Droid app is scheduled to launch in Q2 2017.

Tablo LIVE and cloud DVR: Tablo is also working on a $99 networked tuner that ties into existing Tablo apps, due out in Q2 2017. While it won’t have local DVR capabilities built-in, an upcoming cloud DVR service will let users store their recordings online in exchange for a monthly service charge. One downside: The single tuner will only allow for recording or watching one program at a time.

HDHomeRun DVR: SilliconDust, the makers of the HDHomeRun tuners, have been working on their own DVR solution for a couple years now, and unlike Plex DVR, it will support time shifting. Keep an eye on this solution if you have an Android TV device, PC, or Xbox One console—those are the only platforms HDHomeRun supports—or join the beta now for $60. The official release should happen later this year.

HDHomeRun and Channels DVR: Channels is a slick third-party HDHomeRun app for Apple TV and iOS devices. Full DVR support is in development, but it’s separate from HDHomeRun’s own service, and requires a Mac, Windows PC, or NAS box to store recordings. You can join the beta for $8 per month.

AirTV: This Android TV box, already on the market, will combine over-the-air channels and Sling TV into a single interface. And while it doesn’t currently support recordings, the company says that’s in the works. That said, AirTV hasn’t quite delivered on its OTA-streaming integration promises yet, so we’ll believe in DVR support when we see it.

Our OTA DVR reviews

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