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)||67.95||67.95||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.
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)
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.
47 thoughts on “2021 Best Subscription-Free Over-the-Air (OTA) DVRs for Cordcutters”
I bought a Magnavox DVR and found that there was no way to display a program guide and thus couldn’t set the unit to record future programs. I resold it on eBay, making sure the purchaser knew that there was no program guide. Too bad. The price was right and the picture quality very good. Instead I purchased a ChannelMaster DVR+, now discontinued.
Curious Leonard if you ever purchased the Magnavox DVR w/digital tuner and whether the antenna made a difference in your experience. What do you think of the Magnavox and the price?
Thanks for all the interesting comments. I have a mother/sister without a computer/internet access. Simply want the best way to record a show while watching another. In one instance, they have an old analog TV hooked to a digital converter box, a VCR and a DVD player. Once the VCR goes – it’s sounding like the Mediasonic HomeWorx w/flash drive would be the simplest switch (albeit I don’t know if it can work through the digital converter box). The have other LCD TV’s and I would imagine it would be just as easy to buy and hook up the Mediasonic to those (based on the price). The question is reliability. Since VCR’s didn’t offer a channel guide, the recordings were based on inputting a start and end time and channel. No biggy if this is actually how the Mediasonic works. Has this product been reliable? As some folks have expressed, we’re just looking for a truly simple option that does not involve any “networking” or “streaming”. Maybe someday down the road but right now just looking for a replacement for the VCR.
I bought a Mediasonic as a backup. The device I’m currently using is a LaVa – it’s listed as being sold at Sears, but, if I remember correctly, I bought mine through Amazon. The two devices are almost perfectly identical – the LaVa can output “component” data while the MediaSonic cannot (they both have an HDMI output). For recording, there’s a menu – unfortunately, the old-style VCR programming can’t be done. You can record something “live” by just pressing a START button and then STOP it later. The guide I see with mine is good for 24 hours – no fee for that guide.
As someone else pointed out, there isn’t much out there in the way of support. Both these little guys are apparently made in China and the manual written by some kind of translation. Fortunately, there was a lot to it that was intuitive. And, at approximately $40, a pretty good bargain.
I am considering purchasing a Magnavox DVR recorder with a digital tuner. The unit has a 1TB hard drive that can hold up to 1,000 hours of recordings.
My question is, will it work on a Mohu antennae if I plug it as I would any dvr recorder for my TV?
Curious Leonard if you ever purchased the Magnavox DVR w/digital tuner and whether the antenna made a difference in your experience. What do you think of the Magnavox and the price?
Good for 4 years, then it died.
Can any of these devices be used to record streaming services like YouTubeTV or do they only work with local antenna channels? If so which one?
Why would you need to record something that is streamed? I think you can watch anything that is streamed any time you want. I don’t know for sure as I just cut the cord my self,
I have owned a Tablo 2-tuner with a lifetime subscription for over three years. It’s been a mostly positive experience. A few firmware updates really sucked and I felt like a beta tester, but it’s been much better over the last year or so. A week ago, my Tablo started to act up – glitches and color distortions on some channels. I have isolated it to the Tablo and not the antenna or coax. Once again I looked at all the DVR options, and I purchased another Tablo. There is no cost to transferring my lifetime subscription. This time I spent an extra $26 at Walmart for a 4-year warranty. I never buy extended warranties, but once bitten. Best of luck to all those cord cutters out there and I hope sharing my experience helps someone.
The cheap (foreign?) boxes extract program guide data which is encoded in the OTA broadcast digital stream along with closed captions and secondary audio streams.
They can be an effective low-budget system, if you can stand menus as bad as a VCR, random loss of settings (especially when first turned on), inability to show captions during playback, and of course abysmal support. Takes grit.
Those that depend on added storage often work best with a powered USB hard drive; anything else should be carefully tested well withing any return-able time-frame.
Most can record one channel while passing another through for viewing.
They usually simply pass the entire digital stream to the storage device, which means you may be able to play the recordings if you re-connect the storage to another (better for playback) player.
Program guide data may cover up to to two weeks, but not all devices pay attention to much more than 24 hours.
I’ve been using the Channel Master DVR+ for the past 1 1/2yrs, and it’s been great! Also, it’s not $299 if you go directly to their website and are able to run a hard wired network connection to the unit. The unit without the Wireless dongle is $249…..no subscription! You do have to buy a External HD.
I’ve never ever subscribed to cable TV. Always used OTA with my combo VHF/UHF TV antenna by Radio Shack. Receive around 69 channels from our location in Vallejo, CA.(30 miles NE of San Fransisco) I’m just looking for a DVR that would have at least 2 tuners that can be scanned for OTA TV channels and at least a 2 TB recording ability.
Go with the channel master 16gb and get a 2tb external drive to go with it
I have 4 tv’s. I started cable-cutting by reducing the number of channels and want to go all the way with no cable. The issue is the user interface. My spouse needs simplicity and I wouldn’t mind that too. Rather than having 3 remotes, the tv, the cable, and the Amazon, I’d like to work off of one and no more than two. I tried TiVO but its limitation was they had just a few stream apps, not allowing me the choice of many, including possible DirecTVNow and/or Sling. I have different TVs (Sony, Samsung, Vizio, and not-smart). So currently I am using a separate antenna for each tv to receive OTA HDTV. I thought perhaps that streaming OTA HDTV over wifi might allow me to use the TV remotes for just turning on and off the tv, and then use the Amazon or another streaming device per tv. What do you recommend?
One of the Tablos with an Amazon Fire Stick for each TV may be a good choice for you. It would allow you to use a single antenna, and then stream the OTA stations to each TV. Each TV would then just use the Fire Stick as the interface. If you’re happy with the Amazon interface, this would be a good option.
Why in the world are there “subscriptions” and “memberships” for OTA DVR’s? Aren’t they basically just hard drives? Subs and memberships imply the need for login and password etc. Isn’t there a simple alternative that doesn’t need all that?
Getting so frustrated with all this. Only need is for sports, I’d have cut the cord years ago if it wasn’t for the BS networks and cable companies forcing you to stay in cause of their stranglehold on sports.
Functionally all that should be completely obsolete, tv should be on our own schedule without need for adds, and for me it is except for GODAMN sports!
Sorry just getting really frustrated getting over this last hurdle.
The “catch” with the OTA DVRs is the guide. I have another gadget that will record from just about any source, but there’s not even a screen output for the device, so, when you record, it’s only an “on-demand” recording, i.e., you push a button to start and push a button to stop. My new TV is a smart-TV (like most of ’em now) and the guide shows up for OTA TV because it collects it from the internet. But many of these recording devices, if you want to “schedule” recordings, you need a guide.
Now if someone could invent something like a hard-drive based VCR – just set the channel and set the time on/off and you’re in business.
Nice comparison, thank you. I’ve been leaning towards a Tablo 4 tuner but concerned about the viability of a smaller outfit like Tablo versus Tivo who has managed to survive nearly 20 years. I like the idea of a network appliance like Tablo and the flexibility to use apps on my Apple TV and iOS. I thought I heard that Tivo was also going to make a network appliance like Tablo eliminating the traditional STB to TV connection. Have you heard anything? Trying to decide if I hold out or get the Tablo. Thanks!
WatchAir (www.watchairtv.com) is a good alternate. Single tuner and limited memory built-in but easy to expand. Works Android, IOS, and all the major streaming devices. The guide is free. I have one and am using it with Roku. I recommend it.
Thank you for this! WatchAir seems to be a well-kept secret! I hope they come out with a dual-tuner model but the price is right, for sure!
Thank you for suggesting WatchAir! It’s available on Amazon too – https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01LY2YX7I/ – out of stock on the white but for the price I’m good with the black. To have the HD antenna & dvr recording in one device is fantastic! It looks like it works with Apple TV & Amazon Fire Stick so I am hooked up with their app ok. I am thrilled to have cut the cord from cable, my Spectrum bill was getting outrageous! This definitely is a hidden gem in the cord cutting world. So glad to have found your post!
A quick caveat to people interested in cutting the cord. After battling TIVO for 3 months now, I’ve had to return the TIVO Bolt and get a refund on our channel lineup fee. TIVO is apparently unable to get the correct channel guide for our area, western slope of Colorado, and, the result is that you cannot set up a recording in advance. Fat lot of good a digital video recorder is that won’t record. TIVO’s service is atrocious. I’d send in channel requests, complete with digital channel number, frequency, signal strength, etc, and never hear a response. Only when calling or messaging would they even acknowledge the work I’d done. For the record, I’m a retired IT professional, and have a very good grasp of what needed to be done; TIVO just couldn’t do it.
That does sound really frustrating. I haven’t heard of widespread issues with this on the Tivo before, but I understand how useless it makes the DVR when this stuff doesn’t work. I have had issues with certain channels when using Windows 7 Media Center as DVR before, but was able to fix them manually. Thanks for sharing your experience.
So what do you use now instead of the TiVo Bolt?
I live on the western slope and own a TiVo Premier. I have always been able to record two shows at once, but now I can no longer do so. Initially it was just a problem for NBC and ABC, but it now does the same for CBS and ABC. TiVo support is useless; they don’t appear to have any “experts” for troubleshooting purposes, so I am now searching for an alternative solution. I’ve been extremely happy with TiVo and the ease of use, but if the subscription service won’t communicate properly with the channel lineup, the DVR is rendered useless unless you never need to record more than one channel.
I will be cord cutting for a period of time but I know I will eventually return to Verizon Fios. Can you recommend a good OTA DVR that I will also be able to use when I get Fios again?
I think that the Tivo’s are capable of using a Cablecard, which I believe makes them compatible with Fios. You should check with Tivo though!
I’ve read elsewhere that TiVo Roamio OTV has dropped their guide fee.
Buying an older series 3 or TiVo HD with prepaid lifetime can be done for less than $150 on eBay or TiVo Premiers with lifetime for less than $250 , any of these options will offer great OTA reception with multiple tuners and lifetime prepaid guide service… Any cordcutter on a budget would be wise to take advantage of these older cheap HDTV modelsC
There are many models coming out of China that do exactly what you seek. Connect your Free Over-The-Air (OTA) antenna to the RF input and with a built-in USB 2.0/3.0 connect a flash drive or hard drive (up to 3 TB) and you can record without subscription. Many models priced at $30 to $40. I haven’t bought one yet, but have been reading reviews. You can check both Amazon and Youtube with keywords OTA DVR or OTA PVR and you’ll see them.
I’ve used those exact keywords on Amazon and the closest I seem to get is a single tuner converter box that requires external memory to be added. My question is if you have seen something else? Such as a mult-tuner OTA DVR that doesn’t require a subscription or internet connection? I have an external hard drive to add, but am really frustrated with the search in general.
I returned my TiVo Roamio the day after opening it and would never have purchased it if I had realized it required an internet connection. Thanks. 🙂
I think that all DVRs require the internet connection so that they can download the TV program guide information. If they did not have program information, then they would be much more difficult to use since you would have to manually set the timing of the programming.
Channel Master has no lifetime fees.
yes, I did indicate that in the comparison table.
In the interest of K.I.S.S.; I want a dvr that requires no subscription (whatsoever)… Will store more than 4 hours of TV (not too much to ask)… Will service a single HD TV – no hopper type options. I’m half tempted to snatch-up one of those few remaining vcr’s and stickpile some new tape….
The Tivo Roamio, Tablo, and Channel Master all offer options where you can pay for a “Lifetime subscription.” so there is no ongoing monthly fees. For the simplest and easiest setup, I’d recommend the Tivo Roamio or the Channel Master. The Tivo is easier and nicer to use, but it does cost a little more. Both of these options are easier and much more pleasant to use than a VCR though!
One thing to think about is that the old VCRs don’t have digital tuners, which means you would need an analog to digital converter box to start. I have a couple of DVD recorders that I thought about using again now that I’ve cut the cord, but I realized that they predated the mandatory digital conversion, and would need a box too. Not sure how that would work in terms of setting the timer to record different channels.
Something to think about.
The Homeworx box (around $30) will work, but is very limited, can only record 1 show at a time etc. With a splitter, you could record one show and watch another at the same time.
I have a Homeworx box too, but if I program different stations and check later all the channel 5 (CBS) programs are deleted and the rest remain. This is a timer problem and my TV reception is excellent. I have tried disconnecting the power and resetting the factory default and nothing works. Any suggestions?
One poster above found some ChannelMaster stuff for $25. If it seems too good to be true…
I’ve experimented with half a dozen of these “cord cutter” devices. One of my gadgets won’t record unless you’re running WIN 10. Another came without the total necessary parts. Yet another was designed to work off a cable box. Etc., etc., etc.
The cheapest success I found was with a gadget named LaVa (the Mediasonic appearas to be very much the same device, albeit with a different label. The LaVa provides (at only $40) a 24-hour guide (no fee) and a USB port for recording. The port accepts either a maximum 32G flash drive or a 2TB external USB drive. Never found a 64G stick that would work.
Unless you live reasonably close to a fairly good-sized metro area, an indoor antenna will not do very much good. I live more than 50 miles from the Orlando antenna complex. Rabbit ears and other indoor antennas are a joke. Even my outside antenna (up 30 feet) needs a booster. With that, I get almost 70 channels.
A TV guide that would support several days worth of programming would be nice, but, for $40, this little box is quite a steal overall. Doesn’t connect to or use WiFi. Antenna input, power plug, HDMI output and USB port – compact, simple and effective.
I was looking at your article as I am in the market for a subscrition free OTA DVR and noticed that, although the title of the article is titled : 2016 Guide to Subscription-Free Over-the-Air (OTA) DVRs for Cordcutters, the DVR that you recommend as being the best, the TiVo Roamio OTA HD DVR and Streaming Media Player, requires, according to the link that takes us to Amazon, a subscription.
I would appreciate a pick that did not require a subscription as your choice as “Best of…”.
Rick – the Tivo Roamio can be purchased with a monthly subscription, but it is also available with a “lifetime subscription.” Purchasing it with the lifetime subscription effectively makes it subscription free. The Amazon page the links to shows the monthly subscription version by default, but the lifetime subscription version is a configuration that can be selected. It is shown as a “Tivo Service Included” option.
The Tablo similarly also has a lifetime subscription. The cost comparison table shows the lifetime subscription price separately.
http://www.epvision.com , has , OTA DVR’s , DVRs’ , Tuners and etc..
Wow, I have to say that the ePVision looks promising. I have had one of the inexpensive generic boxes and one ViewTV and they do seem to required a powered USB hub or similar for the memory sticks. The generic one came set to power an antenna through the coax. It took a bit to figure out why it was getting hot. Its manual was almost useless. The ViewTV manual was small but OK. The ViewTV also had a normal size remote. These both used the OTA EPG and would not hold the scheduled program reliably. I guess little ventured little gained. I will say that the picture quality was surprisingly good with these inexpensive units but I am in a strong signal area. I bought a couple Channel Master CM7400 with built in hard drives from eBay for about $25 each. They are still available. They were packed well but the decent manuals showed some use so they must have been returns or refurbished units. They were sold untested for parts only; but both seemed to work fine. The source for the web based programming guide is no longer available but they show a number of hours of OTA EPG and one can initiate recording from that. Alas they will not hold programmed recording either. They tend to warm up a bit. I have them on laptop fans. I am wondering if some discontinuity in the OTA EPG is causing this problem in all these units. Unplugging the Channel Masters and plugging them back in will restore the recording schedule. I have not tried manual timer recording to see if it would hold. I thought I would give one of the newer Channel Master +DVR models a try but they have all been discontinued. I could probably still find one but now Channel Master is pushing a little streaming device that will take a memory card. I am getting puzzled why Channel Master does not try a bit harder to stick with something and support it for a few years. I have said many times if I could just find a high quality version of one of these cheap converter boxes I would be happy with it. Well they have what I was asking for on the site listed above. Thanks Gene.
OMG. Reading all these comments are giving me an overload of info. First: yes, I am also finding guide inaccuracies with TIVO. They say can request the guide info from the cable company and within 14 days the changes should show up on the guide. Are the cable companies charging TIVO for a copy of the guide? Are the cable companies purposely making frequent guide changes so they can charge TIVO for a copy of the new guide? More importantly; isn’t the FCC requirement that the cable company should not stand in the way of the TIVO user using their TIVO be in violation of the intent of that law and cooperative spirit?
Secondly, I am moving; at this time to parts unknown with the US. Should I just return my TIVO Bolt and decide what to use when I decide where? I do not want to be left with a device that is useless for OnePass. I still have time to return it.
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