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Best DVR for cord cutters

Tivo vs. Tablo vs. Channel Master vs. HDHomeRun with Plex: None are ideal, but one might work for you.

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.

DVR for Streaming Services

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.

Best OTA DVR for power users

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.

Compared to the other DVR solutions on this list, the Channel Master DVR+ is decidedly bare-bones in terms of recording options and features. But in some ways, it’s easier to decipher than the TiVo Roamio OTA, and starting at $250, it’s a lot cheaper if you supply your own external hard drive.

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.

Antenna placement options: Over-the-air DVR is useless if you’re antenna can’t receive channels, so unless you’ve got coaxial cable wired to the roof, you’ll need to set up your DVR in a place with solid indoor antenna reception. Tablo can operate anywhere in the house, HDHomeRun must be wired to your router, and TiVo and Channel Master are tied to your television. Plan accordingly.

Granular recording options: Perhaps you’d like to keep only a certain number of recent episodes, or replace your recordings with higher-resolution versions when available. Not all DVRs are equal in the recording controls they provide. Our full reviews will provide more details.

Live TV time-shifting and catch-up: Want to pause for snack breaks? How about watching partway through a program so you can skip the commercials? Most DVR solutions support this type of time-shifting, but HDHomeRun and Plex currently don’t.

Number of tuners: More tuners means more simultaneous recordings or live viewings. TiVo has four tuners, Tablo has two- and four-tuner options, and HDHomeRun lets you daisy-chain multiple dual-tuner units together. With Channel Master, two tuners is the limit.

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