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 Cord Cutter Confidential.
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.
This story was updated on November 24, 2017 to add our review of the TiVo Bolt Vox. ($249.99 at Amazon$249.99 at Amazon) The “Vox” in the name is derived from this DVR’s new voice-recognition remote control, but we found it to be something of a mixed bag without enough new features to make it a true game-changer.
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 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.
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.
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 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.