The Best OTA DVRs for 2020: The Definitive Cord Cutter’s Review
The best OTA DVRs for cord cutters are the Fire TV Recast, and a couple different models by HDHomeRun and Tablo.
You can find DVRs that record free over-the-air channels for as cheap as $35 on Amazon and elsewhere. But if you want to watch local stations such as NBC, ABC, CBS and FOX on a Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, or smartphone, these picks are the best.
The popularity of TV antennas isn’t going away anytime soon. People are realizing that the picture quality of over-the-air channels is better than what a cable TV subscription can deliver as long as you are in range of broadcast towers. So it’s a safe bet that more people will be looking for a quality OTA DVR in 2020.
So why am I not picking just one brand or model?
After spending the last few years using a variety of very different DVRs designed for TV antenna users, it became clear to me that there is no runaway winner.
And how you plan on using your OTA DVR should absolutely steer your choice.
So, if you’re using a Fire TV Cube to watch most of your television, then buying a Fire TV Recast makes the most sense. If you’re a Roku or Apple TV owner, then you should to buy either an HDHomeRun or Tablo.
If you’re not into streaming devices and just use apps on a Smart TV then you’ll probably want a Tablo or HDHomeRun model.
In this review, I shied away from pricey OTA DVRs because many people just coming into the world of cord cutting are becoming antenna users in search of lower costs. I haven’t found anything under $70 that’s been as satisfying as what’s among my top picks.
All of these OTA DVRs have some elements in common that you should know about.
Common traits with OTA DVRs and OTA tuners
With all three of these DVRs, you’re connecting the TV antenna to the DVR — not your television.
Once you have one of these DVRs set up, multiple TVs in your household can tap into it for live television or recorded programs. (Fire TV Recast is the exception.) Each TV will just need a way to access the DVRs app. An inexpensive Roku or Fire Stick will do the job.
And if you’re into projectors like I am, you can even access tap into live over-the-air channels or recordings from your OTA DVR. It’s a pretty cool to watch live sports for free on the big screen without having to head out to a pub.
These style of DVRs also let you watch live TV and recordings on devices across your home network.
So you can use a phone, PC or tablet and watch live TV in your backyard, kitchen, basement or garage. Wherever you don’t have a TV handy now becomes a spot where you can watch TV. That’s pretty nice and it’s a feature that I’ve come to use even more often than recording shows.
You do need to have these DVRs connected to the internet for them to work they way they’re supposed to on your television.
Let’s dive into my picks. I’m going in alphabetic order here. I’m not ranking these three DVRs because like I said: it’s all going to depend on what kind of setup you want to have.
Fire TV Recast
- No fee for guide data
- Hard drive included
- Change channels with Voice
- Connects to WiFi
Best OTA DVR for: Amazon Fire TV Cube, Fire Stick, smartphone and Fire tablet
The Fire TV Recast is the first high-end OTA DVR that doesn’t charge a monthly fee for guide data. For the price conscious cord cutter, that alone can be a big selling point.
The Recast works with Fire TV devices, Fire Tablets, Android and iOS smartphone. If you own a Roku or Apple TV, you need to keep shopping.
The Recast currently does the best job among its competitors at integrating over-the-air channels like your local ABC, NBC or CBS stations with free and low-cost streaming services.
If you only wanted free antenna channels and nothing else, you could use the Recast with a Fire Stick or Fire TV Cube, and never pay a dime for TV again. The Recast lets you record whatever you want, and comes in two models
The two tuners model lets you watch or record up to two programs at once. It has a 500 GB hard drive for 75 hours of recording; it’s priced at about $229.99, but Amazon regularly puts the recast on sale throughout the year.
There’s also four tuner model that doubles the number of programs you can watch and record at once. The four-tuner model has a 1TB hard drive, or 150 hours of recording space. It usually retails for about $279.99.
There is an important distinction with the four-tuner model compared to other four-tuner OTA DVRs that’s disappointing: You can only watch two simultaneous streams at once.
You don’t need to have the Recast set up near your TV or a WiFi router. Just download the Fire TV app to a smart phone or tablet to begin the setup process.
The app will tell you the best direction to set up your antenna and Recast.
The Recast records the channels native format. So if your local NBC channels broadcasts a signal in 1080i, then that’s the format that is recorded in. Same goes for a local FOX station that broadcasts in 720p.
DVR enthusiasts have noted that the Recast transcodes its recordings “on the fly” in 720p at 60 frames per second. But for the average user, you’re not going to notice the difference.
Customizing channel lineup
What’s really impressive about the Recast is how much you can customize and build upon your channel lineup.
Pluto TV is an ad-supported platform that now carries more than 200+ “live channels” that can appear alongside your antenna channels. There’s a surprising amount of watchable movies and TV shows, news, and some unique live concerts.
There are some inexpensive live TV streaming services such as Philo that can be added to the channel guide. So you could have 58 channels that you used to get on cable such as A&E and HGTV, alongside the local NBC and PBS stations coming in from your antenna.
You don’t need an Amazon Prime subscription to use the Fire TV Recast. But if you do have Amazon Prime, you can add live streams of HBO, Cinemax and a number of others through Amazon Channels.
So if you were getting decent antenna reception like me — say 50+ channels — you could add live HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, Starz to your over-the-air channel lineup.
I signed up for HBO, which added a number of live HBO channels to my channel guide. HBO appears right alongside my live over-the-air channels, and free channels from Pluto TV.
I can also use my HBO subscription to activate the HBO Now app.
After testing out a couple of different Fire TV models, there’s no doubt that the Fire TV Cube is better to use with the Recast instead of the Amazon Fire Stick.
With the Fire TV Cube, you can use hands-free voice commands to get to tune to a local over-the-air channel.
There is one feature that I wish was better. You can start recordings a show using the Fire TV app. But there’s no good way to use the app to record programs days in advance. That’s too bad, but it’s not a huge deal.
So the Fire TV Recast gives you a lot of value — it incorporates over-the-air channels and certain streaming services into a single menu. And there is no monthly fee for channel guide data.
HDHomeRun Scribe Quatro
- Records up to 4 programs at once
- Up to 150 hours of recording space (1TB hard drive)
- Cost effective DVR service
- Expandable storage options
Best for OTA DVR: Roku, Apple TV, PCs, NVIDIA Shield, and smart phones
SiliconDust has been making HDHomeRun tuners for more than a decade. Their latest piece of hardware, HDHomeRun Scribe is an OTA DVR with an internal 1TB hard drive.
The Scribe comes in two models. The Scribe Duo has two TV tuners, so you can record up to two programs at once. The Scribe Quatro lets you record and watch up to four programs.
The Quatro has a 1 terabyte hard drive. It’s a pretty small device, and records in MPEG-2 format. HDHomeRun record shows in the full format of the broadcast — so that means up to 1080i or 720p.
The picture is really crisp — it’s as good as plugging your antenna directly into a TV. The HDHomeRun app has a sidebar style channel guide that the company calls “SliceView”. If you’re all about the old school cable TV grid, you might not like this.
I actually favor the SliceView guide over a traditional cable-style one, especially when I’m watching live TV on my phone and want to quickly jump to another channel. I can quickly scroll and change channels with my thumb while I’m holding the phone in one hand.
HDHomeRun supports 5.1 Dolby Surround sound and closed captioning. You can use the Scribe without a guide subscription and get 24 hours of data to schedule recordings.
Cheapest DVR subscription
An annual subscription to SiliconDust’s DVR service is only $35 per year. So that works out to less than $3 per month. Compared to some other options out there, SiliconDust is the cheapest way to get a 14 day channel guide.
The DVR works well. Under the Discover tab, you find thumbnail images of what’s playing now, and upcoming shows, movies and sports. There’s a search function. And you can set up recordings using the HDHomeRun mobile app.
HDHomeRun tuners need to be hardwired to your WiFi router. It doesn’t connect over WiFi.
HDHomeRun Servio for extra storage
SiliconDust also released its first piece of added storage called the HDHomeRun SERVIO.
The Servio can be connected to either the Scribe, or an older HDHomeRun tuner. A Servio has its own power cord and Ethernet port, which connects to the router.
You’re adding an extra 2 terabytes of recording space. With a Servio connected to a HDHomeRun, you can record up to six programs from any HDHomeRun device. The Servio also enables HDHomeRun setups to playback four recordings at the same time.
So this is really an ideal device for people who already own a HDHomeRun tuner and want to add some storage space and recording capabilities.
Alternative pick: HDHomeRun Connect Duo or Quatro
If you’re even a little tech savvy, and don’t want to spend as much as the HDHomeRun Scribe, SiliconDust has some options.
You can get a HDHomeRun Connect Duo for about $75. Or you can get a Connect Quad for about $149.
If you’re an Apple TV user, the combo you’ll want to try out is a HDHomeRun Connect Duo or Quatro. One of the things that set HDHomeRun tuners apart from competitors is their widespread support.
Understand that this is just a TV tuner, so you’ll need to use an external hard drive for recordings. But you are getting that same exact picture quality as the Scribe.
Unlike the Scribe, HDHomeRun tuners are unique because they are compatible with a number of different software platforms. So if you didn’t like the HDHomeRun app or DVR service, you have a number of options including Plex, the Channels app, Kodi and others.
But I’m going to focus on just one of them
Plex for Live TV and DVR
Plex has an excellent Live TV & DVR option, which costs $5 per month. It’s a couple bucks more than SiliconDust’s cheap DVR service. But subscribing to what’s known as a Plex Pass does get you some added features. The service has been experimenting with removing commercials from recordings.
So for example, I’ve been burning my personal movie collection onto an external hard drive and I have an extra laptop set up as a server.
By using Plex, I can have the copies to my movies at my fingertips and live TV from my over-the-air channels in a single interface.
Plex adds free movies
A free, ad-supported movie vault has just been added to Plex. Following the steps of Pluto TV and tubi, Plex has some extras that their movie-streaming competitors lack.
Plex also aggregates are podcasts, web shows and local news streams. If you subscribe to Tidal, you can incorporate that into your Plex account as well.
Just to be clear, some of the features that I’m mentioning here don’t require a Plex Pass subscription.
But if you want the 14-day live TV and DVR guide service with Plex, you need to subscribe to Plex Pass.
I have a review of Plex DVR on my site that I’ll link to below if you’re interested in going down this road. Oh, and the other thing with Plex, you can even use some extra hard drive space on your computer for recording programs.
Tablo Quad OTA DVR
- Record four programs at once
- Free 1-day guide, or 14-day guide for $4.99 per month
- 802.11 ac WiFi
- Commercial skip
Best OTA DVR for: Roku, Apple TV, Smart TV and Android TV
The Tablo Quad has an easy-to-use channel interface that will look familiar to anyone who once had a cable or satellite TV subscription.
The Quad lets you watch and record up to four programs at once. And it retails for about $200.
What I like most about the Tablo Quad is how easily you can find TV shows, or a football to record. I get a little over 50 channels with my antenna.
Tablo’s granular approach to aggregating shows, movies and sports really makes you get the most out of your antenna.
When you open the Tablo app, a blue sidebar on the left side of the screen helps you track down programs, movies and sporting events.
Live TV brings you to a grid style menu, showing you what’s on and what’s coming up.
There are four categories below that. There is Prime Time, TV Shows, Movies and Sports.
Prime Time is everything that airs between 8 and 11 p.m. — from American Masters on PBS to Blacklist on NBC.
The All tab lists shows from all channels in alphabetical order. The Search tab gives you the option to type in a title. Channels is a pretty neat way to see all your shows and sporting events channel by channel.
Jump down to the TV shows tab and you have even more to dig into. You can narrow down your menu to what’s premiering, or see what’s up for grabs channel by channel.
The Sports section operates the same way.
Look under “All”, “Search” or “Channels”. No matter what category you’re under, you can also use the alphabetized index on the side to quickly jump through the menu to find something to record.
When you’re watching live TV and you want to see what else is on, just hit the arrow button on your remote control. The “quick guide” overlay pops up to your left, so you can channel surf and keep watching what you have on.
Using the Tablo mobile app for watching and recording
The mobile app for Tablo is really excellent. The picture quality is crisp. I haven’t run into any lag or hang-ups while watching. And the app is a really convenient way to schedule recordings.
Keep in mind, I’m getting a little over 50 channels with my antenna, so I have a pretty robust selection of programming
Setting up a Tablo is really simple. Plug in the power, connect a hard drive. Download the Tablo app to a smartphone or tablet. The app will guide you through scanning for channels and selecting which ones you want to actually show up on your menu.
A Tablo doesn’t need to be near a television or a WiFi router in order to work. But you will need to add your own hard drive.
You have the option of either plugging one into the USB cord in the back, or installing a 2 ½ inch hard drive inside. Either way, you can use up to an 8TB hard drive. If you decide to use a 2 ½ drive, it’s the size of a typical laptop hard drive.
Tablo has its own DVR service, which costs $5 per month. You can buy an annual subscription at $50 per year or a lifetime subscription at $150. If you do buy a lifetime subscription, it can be transferred to a newer Tablo device if you upgrade your hardware in the future.
You can record shows without the DVR subscription, but you will only get 24 hours of the channel guide, and you won’t have some of the aggregated categories that I just showed you.
The picture resolution is really nice.
Tablo highest quality for live TV or recordings are either in 1080i at 30 frames per second, or 720p at 60 frames per second. You can adjust whether you want to record in native picture resolution under settings.
If you are a hardcore video-phile, or watch fast-spaced sports on a screen 65 inches or over, there may be a noticeable difference to you.
Playback will be at 720p at 60 frames per second is generally good enough for most things. It’s still high definition resolution, it’s just not as crisp as some channels are when an antenna is directly plugged into a TV.
Tablo DVRs work with pretty much any streaming device — Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, NVIDIA Shield, Xiaomi Mi Box, XBox One and Chromecast. Tablo says its DVRs are compatible with most LG Smart TVs (webOS 3.0+), Samsung Smart TVs (TIZEN OS), Smart TVs using Android TV software and Amazon Fire TV Edition Smart TVs.
The company recommends using Western Digital Elements drives and Seagate Expansion drives, but says most other brands are compatible.
Tablo Dual Lite: budget pick OTA DVR
If the $200 price tag for the Quad is more than you want to spend, the Tablo Dual Lite can be had for $100 less, and it has all the same features as the Quad such as commercial skip.
The only difference is that you can watch and record up to two programs at once instead of four.
The Dual Lite was the first Tablo DVR that I used. And I ended up using just a spare hard drive around the house to keep my costs down. It worked great, and demonstrates that you don’t have spend a lot of money to start recording free live TV from your antenna.
A Tablo Dual Lite or a HDHomeRun Connect Duo costs between $80 and $90. A hard drive can be had for about $60. And if you are really strapped for cash, you can still record shows without a subscription to guide data.
If you needed coverage for multiple TVs then you’re going to want a four-tuner unit, which will cost your a bit more money. Still, it’s going to be much, much cheaper than a cable TV or satellite subscription. Most of what we are talking about here is a one-time cost of equipment.
Tips on using an OTA DVR with streaming
There’s a lot of noise in the realm of cord cutting and streaming now. Pundits and other talking-heads say, “Ohhhh no, all of these streaming subscriptions are going to end up costing way more than cable.”
That’s a bunch of garbage. I know because I cut the cord years ago, and I’m pretty much paying the same. You just need to be use a little judgement and learn to re-prioritize what you really need year by year.
If you can use a TV antenna to get your local stations such as NBC, ABC, CBS and FOX, there are a couple of low-cost ways you can still get channels such as A&E or ESPN on the cheap.
For sports fans, Sling TV costs as little as $25 per month. The Orange plan has ESPN and 34 other channels. And you’ll have to pay an extra $5 per month for 50 hour of Cloud DVR.
Sling Blue has a slightly larger bundle of channels that doesn’t include ESPN. Sling offers a free 7-day trial, and even has offers that can get you a free streaming device if you prepay for two or three months.
If you’re not into sports, Philo offers one of the best deals in streaming. For $20 per month, you can get 58 channels such as A&E, History, HGTV, Paramount Network and a couple of Hallmark Channels. Unlimited Cloud DVR is included along with a massive on-demand library.
It’s a service that I’ve been subscribing to since December 2017. And Philo, by the way, is one of those streaming services that are incorporated into your channel guide with a Fire TV Recast. Philo likewise has a free 7-day trial.
So what do you think is the best DVR for cord cutters right now? Tell me what you think in the comments below.
Founder and Editor of The Cord Cutting Report. Before launching the site in 2016, he worked for more than two decades as a staff writer or correspondent for a number of daily newspapers, including The Boston Globe. His enthusiasm for tech began with the Atari 2600. Follow @james_kimble