Here’s the hard truth for cord-cutters right now: The ideal over-the-air DVR doesn’t exist.
While some products are better than others, all of them—from Tablo to TiVo to 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.
DVR buyers cheat sheet
Our quick-hit recommendations:
The good news is that the lowly antenna is experiencing a rebirth, and we’re likely to see even more over-the-air DVR products. But if you want to start recording broadcast channels now, here’s a rundown of where the current products stand.
Updated January 31, 2020 to add our Sling Media AirTV 2 review. While this device holds some appeal for Sling TV subscribers, its designers haven’t corrected all of the shortcomings we identified in the original device. As such, it doesn’t displace any of our top picks in this category.
The best OTA DVR for most cord-cutters
Tablo’s quad-tuner DVR maintains an edge over competitors with simple setup, reasonable prices, and some neat new features.
If you don’t need four over-the-air tuners, the Tablo Dual Lite DVR—our previous top pick in this category—remains a compelling value. The Tablo Quad DVR is slightly more expensive, but it makes the fewest trade-offs and of any product in this class.
We do have a few nits to pick—interlaced video can’t play back at 60 frames per second, and there’s a limited number of streaming boxes you can use for out-of-home viewing—but in a field that doesn’t include the perfect OTA DVR, the Tablo Quad DVR comes the closest.
There’s a lot to like here, especially for cord-cutters who have made Fire TV devices their media streamers of choice, but there are also enough shortcomings to limit the Fire TV Recast (which is available in both 75- and 150-hour SKUs) to our runner-up pick in this category.
Best OTA DVR for power users
Plex is the most powerful over-the-air DVR solution you can get, but not the easiest to use.
If setting up a DVR using Plex was more straightforward, it would be our no-reservations top pick. As it stands, installing a Plex-based DVR is a daunting process involving products from at least three other manufacturers (you’ll need a TV tuner; a TV antenna; coaxial cable and a set-top box, NAS box, or personal computer). That mix can lead to difficult-to-troubleshoot problems.
Once you have everything assembled, you’ll have a powerfully extensible system that delivers granular control over the recording and recording-management processes. But one of things you won’t get with a Plex DVR is a grid-based channel guide on most devices. (Plex recently added a guide to its web app and says it’s coming to other platforms, but hasn’t given a timeline.) This in-depth review should help you decide if the trade-offs are worth it.
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.