Comparison of TiVo OTA DVRs

Pictured above is the TiVo Bolt OTA

As of September 2019, TiVo only has one OTA DVR product in production – The TiVo Bolt OTA, however you can still find refurbished versions of their older model the Roamio OTA for sale on Amazon.  These refurbished units are actually quite popular because they include a lifetime subscription to the TiVo programming guide service, so there are no monthly fees.

Tivo Roamio Vox OTA DVR
Tivo Roamio Vox OTA DVR

So what’s the difference between the Bolt and the Roamio OTA?

  1. Input Signals– The Bolt can take input signals from digital cable, antenna, and streaming services (like Netflix, Hulu, etc…), whereas the Roamio OTA can only take signals from antenna and streaming services.  If you’re a cordcutter without a cable or satellite subscription, there’s not much reason to consider the Bolt.
  2. Lifetime Subscription Price – In order to keep your TiVo working properly, you’ll need to either pay for a lifetime subscription or pay annually.  As mentioned earlier, the refurbished Roamio OTA 1TB model includes a lifetime subscription that was purchased by the original owner.  In contrast, for the Bolt, the lifetime subscription (they call it the “all-in plan”) is an additional $549.99.  You can also subscribe annually for $149.99/annually, or $14.99/mo. The fine print on the plans is here.

So, if you actually cut the cord, of the TiVo’s, the TiVo Roamio OTA is most likely you’re best choice.  For other OTA DVR choices from other companies, check out my comparison page.

Rumored Upcoming OTA DVRs from TiVo

Update from Sept. 1, 2019 – There are reports that TiVo will be coming out soon with a new series of DVRs called TiVo Edge, which will include both CableCard and OTA versions.  Pricing will probably remain similar to the Bolt series, but it is always a good sign to see that TiVo is continuing to develop new OTA DVR hardware products.

The Next Tivo DVR Might Look a Lot Like a Tablo

According to tech blogger Dave Zatz, the next Tivo OTA DVR might have an architecture that is a lot more similar to the Tablo series of OTA DVRs. What this means is that the Tivo DVR named “Mantis” would no longer connect directly to the TV, instead it would “transcode” video to a streaming device such as a Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire, or a table or phone.  The benefit of this approach is that one box can stream to multiple TVs or devices and it can be significantly cheaper in a household with multiple TVs. Previously, multiple TV households wanting to have DVR features would need a Tivo mini for each TV.

This type of device definitely seems like it might appeal to the growing number of households that already have a full array of streaming devices everywhere. As others have noted, streaming services are not perfect – they can be laggy, and are particularly prone to crashing during major live sporting events.  Purchasing something like the Mantis would give them benefit of having lag-free OTA broadcasts and commercial skipping capability throughout their house.  Hopefully the acquisition of Tivo by Rovi doesn’t delay or interfere with this product launch!

Comparison of TiVo DVRs for cordcutters

As of July 2016, TiVo has 3 main DVR products in production – The Bolt, the Roamio OTA, and the Roamio Pro.  This may change soon though, since Rovi (the company that announced its intended acquisition of TiVo) has said that “Being in the hardware business isn’t something that… excites us.” Likely the TiVo technology will end up in some hardware elsewhere, but it’s hard to predict how badly a patent-troll like Rovi can mess things up. The acquisition of TiVo doesn’t close for a few more months, but if you’re interested in getting  a TiVo in the form that they exist today, now may be a good time.

Of the three products, only the Bolt and the Roamio OTA work for over-the-air antenna signals.  The Roamio Pro is designed to work with digital cable or Verizon FiOS, and won’t work with an antenna, so it’s not very useful for a cordcutter.

So what’s the difference between the Bolt and the Roamio OTA?

  1. Input Signals– The Bolt can take input signals from digital cable, antenna, and streaming services (like Netflix, Hulu, etc…), whereas the Roamio OTA can only take signals from antenna and streaming services.  So if you’re a cordcutter without a cable or satellite subscription, there’s not much reason to consider the Bolt.
  2. Lifetime Subscription Price – In order to keep your TiVo working properly, you’ll need to either pay for a lifetime subscription or pay annually.  The Roamio OTA 1TB model is available for $399 which includes a lifetime subscription.  In contrast, the Bolt costs $299 by itself, and a lifetime subscription (they call it the all-in plan) is an additional $549.99.  You can also subscribe annually for $149.99/annually, or $14.99/mo. The fine print on the plans is here.

So, if you actually cut the cord, of the TiVo’s, the TiVo Roamio OTA is most likely you’re best choice.  For other OTA DVR choices from other companies, check out my comparison page.

OTA-only households growing

A recent survey has found that the number of OTA-only households in the US has grown from 15% in 2015 to 17% in 2016.  I think that this is a reflection of several factors:

  1. Many households find cable/satellite too expensive for what it offers
  2. Streaming services still cost money, and as this NYTimes article pointed out, there are some drawbacks.
  3. Broadcast TV signals can provide high quality HD images and in many ways still provide a better user experience that is easier to use and has less lag.

Interestingly, the number of households that were Internet streaming also grew from 4% to 6%.  In terms of percentage, it is definitely much faster growth, but it’s interesting to consider that the number of OTA only households is almost three times as large.

For what it’s worth, my household has been OTA-only since 2012, and I’m a big fan of having an OTA DVR and of not paying any subscription fees.  

Microsoft Putting Xbox DVR features on Hold

Back in August 2015, Microsoft announced they would be adding DVR features to the XboxOne.  This was an exciting announcement for many of us, because it meant that DVR, serious gaming, and streaming could be combined into a single piece of hardware. Well, those hopes have ended by the recent announcement that they will be putting the DVR features “on hold.”

It’s hard not to wonder if Microsoft’s DVR strategy has been influenced by the growth of Sony’s PS Vue service and it’s “Cloud DVR.”  From a revenue perspective, the attractiveness of the monthly subscription model for streaming must have turned some heads at Microsoft.  I’m guessing that Microsoft will be attempting to come out with a streaming service and Cloud DVR to compete head on with the PS Vue rather than a DVR than runs locally.

This announcement doesn’t change the fact that you can still use your Xbox to watch OTA TV if you just buy an antenna and tuner, but you won’t be able to record it.

See these links below for more info and discussion:

 

Find Out Which Channels You Can Get For Free With an Antenna

There’s a great tool on TVFool.com to help you determine which channels you can receive over the air (OTA) at your house. Yes, your house. You type in your address and it will give a list of channels that you will be able to receive for free with an antenna! It will even show you where the signals are coming from so that you can optimize your signal strength by pointing your antenna in that direction.

Check out TV Fool’s TV Signal Locator

We use a Winegard FlatWave Amplified Antenna mounted at the top of the wall above our media cabinet about 8 feet off the ground. We live in a flat suburban area and we are able to get all of the main network channels in HD for free! I love that we can watch the Super Bowl and the Oscars in HD. We get lots of kids channels and even re-runs of The Brady Bunch. My kids have watched almost every episode of this good, wholesome show.

Once you have your HD antenna, take your set up to the next level by adding a DVR. With a DVR, you can record your OTA shows and watch them at your leisure. Our DVR comparison guide is here to help you choose the DVR that is right for you!

What is an OTA DVR and why would I want one?

OTA DVR stands for Over-the-air Digital Video Recorder. Basically, this is a digital video recorder (think Tivo) system that allows you to record programs from over-the-air broadcast signals.

Long ago, before there was such a thing as cable or satellite TV, everyone watched TV by attaching antenna to the television set and pulling in a signal that transmitted by a rabbit ear antenna.

These signals are still being broadcast in most of the country, although the format and the quality are much improved.  Instead of fuzzy analog images like before, stations are now broadcasting in 720p or 1080i high definition digital signals.  In many case, the bandwidth and image quality is equal or even better than what your cable or satellite provides.  Plus the antennas don’t look as dorky anymore (hopefully you have a better TV too!)

Why Do I need a DVR if I have Streaming?

When I first cancelled my cable subscription (“cut the cord”) and setup an antenna way back in 2011, the main thing I missed was the DVR that was previously provided by the cable provider.  I could still get all the local broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS). When ESPN became available through streaming on Sling TV (it’s also now available on Sony’s Vue), then I had access to pretty much everything I needed. However, I still missed my DVR because:

  1. I couldn’t skip commercials anymore!  Basically, if you’re streaming, they can force you to sit through as many commercials as they want.
  2. The skip-forward/skip backward functions are pretty crappy in every streaming app I’ve ever seen, especially compared to the responsiveness of a DVR.  I’d rather watch a recorded TV show from a broadcast channel versus from a streaming service just because of this.
  3. Not all streaming channels work that well, especially when watching live sports events.  There are glitches, dropouts, and sometimes the resolution gets lower (and I have 100Mbps internet service). At least in my case, the reliability of the streaming signal is not as good as the reliability of the antenna signal.  The Antenna signal is slightly less reliable than a cable signal, but the antenna is free, so I find it to be a good compromise.

Anyway, that’s my rant about why DVR’s are still nice to have. If you got this far, then you’re probably want to know how to get your own OTA DVR.  Checkout my guide here. 

 

2019 Best Subscription-Free Over-the-Air (OTA) DVRs for Cordcutters

There are few things more satisfying in life than watching TV, fast-forwarding through commercials, and knowing that you are getting it all for free.  No cable fee, no streaming subscription — all you need is an antenna and an Over-the-air DVR. In my case, I am able to record all the major broadcast channels – ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and also some local PBS channels with a simple indoor antenna, and watch many NFL, NBA, and MLB games for free.  Find out which channels you can get for free with an antenna.

Tivo Roamio: Easiest to Setup

For ease of setup and use, the Tivo Roamio OTA is the best option. This is all you’ll need:

Winegard Flatwave Amplified Antenna
Winegard FL5500A FlatWave Amped Digital HD Indoor Amplified TV Antenna (4K Ready / ATSC 3.0 Ready / High-VHF / UHF), 50 Mile Long Range

 

This simple to install indoor antenna provides good reception of both UHF and VHF signals.  The amplifier can make a big difference for receiving weaker signals.

Details on antenna selection

TiVo Roamio OTA 1 TB DVR – With No Monthly Service Fees – Digital Video Recorder and Streaming Media Player (Renewed) This model is discontinued, but refurbished units are still available from Amazon. It is still the best deal since it includes the lifetime subscription. This DVR works for both OTA (over-the-air) broadcast signals and streaming (Netflix, Hulu, etc…). There is a newer model called the TiVo Bolt OTA, but it will require a $70 per year subscription or $250 lifetime subscription fee. Plug the antenna into the Tivo, and you’re done! More info on TiVo DVRs for cordcutters.

Tablo 4: Best for  multiple TVs

If you want to access your Over-the-air DVR recording from multiple TVs, or from you tablet or phone, then the Tablo 2 or Tablo 4 systems are a great choice. This type of system scales cheaply – to add another TV you just buy a FireTV stick.  You can also do something similar to this with a Tivo by buying Tivo Mini’s, but it will end up costing more.

Tablo 2 Two-tuner DVR system
Tablo 4 Four-tuner DVR system.

Cost Comparison

This table compares the cost and features between various OTA (over-the-air) DVR options for cordcutters.   In addition to the options discussed above, I’ve also included the Amazon Recast which can be a good choice if you already have a FireTV Stick or Echo Show. I’ve priced the options that I think that make the most sense (for example paying for the lifetime subscription for the Tablo, and buying 2TB external HD space). Prices in this table are updated daily from Amazon.

OTA DVR Comparison Table

Hardware Tablo 2-tuner Tablo 4-tuner TiVo Roamio OTA TiVo Bolt OTA 2-Tuner Amazon Recast 4-Tuner Amazon Recast Win7 HTPC
DVR 149.99 NA 349.99 NA 229.99 279.99 NA
Antenna 51.90 51.90 51.90 51.90 51.90 51.90 51.90
Ext. HD (2TB) 67.49 67.49 includes
1TB
includes
1TB
includes
500GB
includes
1TB
67.49
Streaming Device / Tuner 34.99 34.99 0 0 34.99 34.99 49.00
Wifi Included Included Included Included Included Included Extra
Lifetime Subscription 150 150 0 250 0 0 0
Upfront total 454.00 NA 402.00 NA 282.00 332.00 NA
Cost per extra TV 34.99 34.99 NA NA 34.99 34.99 *
Monthly Fees 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Prices for Amazon links were last updated on Nov 20, 2019 11:04 PST.

Notes:

  • Hover over or click the cost numbers in the table to see what hardware it is for.
  • Here are directions on how build the Win7 HTPC option.

Some additional options to consider…

Amazon Recast

The Amazon Recast DVR works very much like the Tablo and because it does not require a ‘lifetime subscription,’ it is less expensive.  The downside is that it locks you into the Amazon ecosystem.  It can only stream to a mobile device (iOS or Android phone/tablet) an Amazon FireTV, Fire TV Stick, or an Echo Show.  It will not stream to a Roku or Chromecast, or your laptop.

Mediasonic HomeWorx ATSC Digital Converter Box w/ TV Recording, Media Player, and TV Tuner Function (HW-150PVR)

Although it receives over-the-air antenna signals and can record shows, the Mediasonic HW-150PVR does not have a program guide.  It is more like the VCRs of yesteryear where you had to manually program the recording start/stop timers.  However, if you want something cheap to record TV shows, this can’t be beat.

Home-Theater PC: Best for maximum flexibility

If you want system a that can work as DVR, and also run as a full-fledged media server, then you want to build your own Home-theater PC.  Basically this is a computer with software and hardware that enables it to run as a DVR, and also do anything else that a PC can do.  This article describes a simple way to build one.

Different Types of DVRs

There are a few different types of DVRs these days that are used for recording television. 

Directly connected to TV with local storage

This is probably the type of DVR that most people are familiar with since it is how the TiVo and most cable-company DVRs work.  These DVRs take input signals from an antenna or cable, record the show to a local hard drive, and then output the signal via HDMI to the TV.  There is usually one box needed per TV. 

Centralized DVR with local storage (and no direct HDMI connection to TV)
This diagram shows how the Tablo records from the Antenna to a local USB hard drive, and then streams to various devices over WiFi.

The Amazon Recast and the Tablo DVRs are the best examples of this type of DVR.  In this case, the DVR takes the input signal from the antenna, records the shows to a local hard drive, and then streams the signal via WiFi to a HDMI-connected device such as the FireTV or Google Chromecast to get the image to the TV.  The advantage of this type of DVR is that it scales easily. It can stream shows to multiple TVs, tablets, or smartphones at the same time. 

A Cloud DVR

This type of DVR isn’t for OTA signals, but I’m including it here for completeness so it is clear how it is different than the other DVRs.  This type of DVR is usually associated with a streaming service like Youtube TV or PlayStation Vue, and it can record many of the same broadcast TV channels, but it does so by storing the stream “in the cloud” rather than on a local hard drive.  One big caveat with this type of DVR is that the streaming service has the ability to disable commercial skipping in some cases, and in some cases the shows are stored for a limited time. 

What type of DVR should I get?

The boundaries between these types of DVRs are a becoming  blurred.  For example, the TiVo can also stream over WiFi to Android or iOS devices that have its TiVo app installed. Another example is that Tablo Dual can save its recordings to a locally connected hard drive or to Tablo’s Cloud DVR service.  My main piece of advice is to check carefully that whatever features are important to you are supported.  For example, the Amazon Recast can stream to Android or iOS devices, but won’t stream to a Google Chromecast (you’ll need a FireTV stick instead).  These DVRs get more and more features all the time, but usually only a small subset of these features are the ones you need.  

Windows 10 is not for me

Windows 10 is going to be released on July 29th, but one feature that many cordcutters will be missing is Windows Media Center.

Windows 10 discontinued Windows Media Center
I guess none of those devices is an HTPC.

I am still happily running Windows 7 on all my PCs at home (I can’t stand the Windows 8 interface), so I was not planning on updating anytime soon.  Microsoft supported Windows XP from 2001 release up until 2014, so I don’t see Windows 7 (released 2009) going away anytime soon. At this point, my only action will be to keep my OS from auto-updating to Windows 10.

However, if and when the time comes, it should be easy enough to move to a new DVR software. There are several pretty good alternatives out there.  My favorite is MediaPortal which is free, and can run on the same exact same hardware that I already built.

Broken television guide in Windows Media Center after July 20, 2015

Perhaps it was just coincidence, but the day before I wrote up my post documenting my build-your-own OTA DVR setup, Microsoft broke the free television guide service for many users.  Apparently they switched providers from Zap2it to Rovi.  I only noticed because my kids started complaining that none of their cartoons were being recorded anymore!

I found a workaround for this issue documented in a blog.  However, my fix was a bit easier than what was described in that post – all I had to do was re-run the initial TV setup.  This can be found by going to Tasks -> Settings -> TV -> Setup TV Signal

Menu for TV Setup settings in Windows Media Center
Go here to find the TV Setup process in Windows media center

Re-running the setup takes a while (it performs a new channel scan), but after about 10 minutes everything was back to normal.

Hope this fixes things for everybody!