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 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.
|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.|
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|
|Ext. HD (2TB)||NA||NA||includes
|Streaming Device / Tuner||NA||NA||0||0||NA||NA||NA|
|Cost per extra TV||NA||NA||189.99||189.99||NA||NA||*|
- 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…
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.
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)
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.