If you’re a cord cutter, or you’re thinking of finally taking the plunge, we’ve got good news: There’s never been a better time to drop your cable or satellite provider and start tuning in to free, over-the-air (OTA) HD broadcasts. A massive increase in HD antenna models has helped a lot, as has the expansion of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video, which can supplement broadcast TV at a fraction of the price of a cable or satellite subscription.
It’s easy to connect an antenna right into your TV to watch live digital broadcasts, but for an experience more like cable, your cord-cutting journey isn’t complete without an OTA receiver/DVR. For as little as $90 upfront, the latest generation of these devices gives you an easy way to view what’s on, schedule recordings, watch live and recorded shows on a second (or third or fourth) TV, watch your content on the go, and much more. But each product and service combination is a little bit different, while pricing and features can vary a ton. Digital Trends has gathered some of the top choices in one spot, so you can virtually try before you buy. These are our picks for the best OTA receiver/DVR.
Why should you buy this: You can cut the cord without losing any of the features you love.
Who’s it for: Cord cutters who still want a remote control, voice search, and a cable-like experience.
How much will it cost: $400 for the Roamio OTA Vox 1TB 4-tuner model (includes lifetime TiVo service); $180 per additional TV with the TiVo Mini Vox.
Why we picked the TiVo Roamio OTA Vox:
Moving into the world of OTA TV can feel a little bit like you’re taking a leap into the unknown, but going OTA with the help of a TiVo makes the transition almost unnoticeable. With a traditional remote control and an HDMI cable that plugs into your TV or A/V receiver, the TiVo Roamio OTA Vox looks and feels just like the set-top box from your cable company. You’ll get maximum picture quality, while the availability of up to 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is something the other solutions on our list simply don’t offer.
But wait, there’s much more.
TiVo’s hallmark auto-record feature and 1TB of available storage ensures there’s always something to watch an even bigger benefit when dealing with fewer channels than cable or satellite and the redesigned TiVo Home screen curates everything into an intuitive carousel view. The traditional on-screen guide is superbly laid out, with each channel clearly labeled. We also love options like voice-enabled search, as well as the ability to hunt for something to watch while your current TV channel continues to play in the corner another feature on this list that’s exclusive to TiVo.
Channel changes are instant and, in our experience, the Roamio OTA Vox was able to find more channels and maintain a better signal for these channels than the competition. Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are preloaded, so you likely won’t need a third-party box like an Apple TV or a Chromecast, potentially saving you money and simplifying your setup.
With some TiVo boxes, signing up for the monthly service subscription can start to feel like another cable bill. The Roamio OTA Vox, however, has an “all-in” service included in the $400 price.
One downside to using TiVo is that for now the only way to broadcast to more TVs is by buying Mini Vox boxes for each. You can have up to 10 Minis in your home, but the Roamio can only power three (plus your main TV) simultaneously. You’ll also need to make sure you have an Ethernet (or MoCA) connection for each TiVo box, as Wi-Fi isn’t supported for multiroom.
Why should you buy this: With rock-solid Wi-Fi and support for tons of devices, this OTA DVR does it all.
Who’s it for: People with existing smart TVs or streaming devices like Apple TV, Roku, or Chromecast.
How much will it cost: $220 for the 2-tuner Tablo Dual 64GB or $120 for the Dual Lite (no internal storage), plus a $5 monthly subscription.
Why we picked the Tablo Dual:
For starters, the Tablo Dual is super-easy to set up and use. Its app-based interface is clean and simple, and after a quick scan, it lets you pick which of your available channels you’d like to add to your guide, instead of assuming you want them all. But the Tablo’s key advantage is its ability to be placed anywhere in your home, whether that’s near your TV or router, or not. Unlike other receivers, which need to be connected to your antenna, hardwired to your router, and in some cases connected to your TV, the Tablo only needs an antenna connection and power. In fact, it has no TV output at all.
Instead, Tablo streams your OTA channels to your TV via a compatible media device, like an Apple TV 4th Gen, or a Roku. If you have the right smart TV, you may not need an external device at all. Here’s the full list of compatible devices — it’s extensive and offers something for almost everyone, with the exception of PlayStation 3 and PS4 owners. The main downside to this all-wireless model is that it doesn’t support Dolby Digital audio, which is unfortunate given how many broadcasters now use this format.
With two OTA tuners, the Tablo Dual can receive and record two different channels simultaneously, but you’re not limited to two devices. Depending on the speed of your home network, up to six devices can watch content simultaneously. Given how many of us watch content on our phones and tablets, that’s a lot of potential screens powered by a single receiver. Whether you buy the Dual 64GB or the storage-less Lite, you can add up to 8TB of storage with your own hard drive via the Tablo’s USB port.
On its own, the Tablo will give you 24 hours of guide info, and the ability to record and livestream any OTA content you can receive. For a subscription fee of $5 per month, $50 per year, or a one-time $150 fee, you get 14 days of guide info, advanced recording features (like stopping or starting a recording two minutes earlier or later), and a must-have feature for frequent travelers: Remote-view capability for access to the entire system from anywhere with a decent internet connection.
The Tablo’s interface comprises a mix of traditional on-screen channel guide and curated “suggested” content, sorted by genre, making it easy to see what’s on tap. If you’re the impatient sort, though, channel changes may prove frustrating as, unless you’ve got a very solid Ethernet connection, there’s a pretty notable lag as the Tablo tunes into the new channel and starts up the stream. There’s also no way to keep watching one channel while you surf the guide for something else.
Still, the Tablo is one of the easiest and most affordable ways to get your OTA channels on demand.
Why should you buy this: It’s dirt cheap, yet packs some really powerful features.
Who’s it for: DIY aficionados with a dedicated Plex server and a fast local network.
How much will it cost: $75 for the SiliconDust 2-tuner HDHomeRun Connect receiver, $5 per month for Plex Pass.
Why we picked the HDHomeRun + PLEX Live TV:
If you’ve already invested in Plex as a media-serving platform for your movie, music, and photo libraries, adding a Plex-friendly OTA receiver like the HDHomeRun Connect is a dirt-cheap way to enjoy broadcast channels on just about any screen you can think of.
The tiny HDHomeRun receiver shows up as the source of Live TV inside your Plex Media Server, and just like the rest of your Plex library, it can be viewed on any supported Plex client. You’ll need your antenna connection and an Ethernet cable to connect the HDHomeRun, which may be tricky for homes that are mostly networked via Wi-Fi. You’ll also need an active Plex Pass subscription, as Live TV/DVR is considered a premium feature.
Plex displays all of your available TV shows just like the rest of your media library, and organizes them into three main sections: On Right Now, Starting Soon, and New Episodes Tonight. It’s a friendly, familiar interface for Plex users, and naturally, it works on every device that Plex supports, including smart TVs, Apple TV, Roku, iOS, Android, etc. The beauty of the Plex integration is that your Plex Media Server is the DVR, so no additional storage is needed. Running Plex on a honking 16TB NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive? Congrats, you’ve theoretically got a 16TB DVR. If your Plex Media Server has power to spare, you can even enable a “remove commercials” feature, which will automatically attempts to strip all ads from your recordings.
Unfortunately, much more than with TiVo or Tablo, your Plex Live TV and DVR performance will vary based on your hardware and network. Because Plex clients don’t natively understand MPEG-2 video, which the HDHomeRun Connect distributes from OTA signals, they must be transcoded to the H.264 format. Mac and PCs can handle this task effortlessly, but if you run Plex on a NAS drive, like our test WD My Cloud Mirror, you may find limited support for your Plex clients.
The recently added channel guide view can display up to two weeks of program info, if available for your region. Channel changes are similar to the Tablo: There’s a distinct lag as the new stream gets going, and there’s no way to watch one stream while hunting for another.
There’s no doubt that for the rock-bottom investment of $75 for the OTA receiver, and let’s say a one-time cost of $120 for a lifetime Plex Pass, you get plenty of bang for the buck, especially if you’ve already got lots of Plex-enabled devices around the house and a dedicated Plex Media Server. But if this doesn’t sound like you, or the thought of setting up a Plex server and using it to watch TV leaves you in a cold sweat, you should probably look at our other picks.
We tested these three OTA receiver setups much the same way you would: We had them shipped to us, we set them up according to the instructions they came with, and when we ran into trouble, we called their tech support departments. We used the same outdoor, roof-mounted OTA antenna and amplifier with each product — an Antennas Direct Clearstream 2V and a ChannelMaster Titan 2 — to make sure the base reception of channels was the same for all of them.
The rest was simple: We watched a lot of TV. We watched it on a top-of-the-line 4K TV, a budget 720p HDTV, an iPhone, an iPad, and an Android phone. When it was supported, we used an Apple TV 4th Gen, and a Roku Streaming Stick.
We tried switching channels as fast as possible; we observed things like audio and video clarity, buffering issues, and took careful note of how many channels we could access. We set up recordings and watched them later, and we paid attention to how each device’s interface affected the overall user experience.
If you’re familiar with the OTA space, you know that there are more than just three products on the market. ChannelMaster, for instance, makes the popular DVR+ receiver and recorder. We didn’t include it in this roundup because the company asked that we wait until its next-generation product, the Stream+, is available, as it replaces the DVR+ in the ChannelMaster lineup. We’ll continue to update this list as more options come online.
Getting the most out of your OTA setup really begins with your antenna. The kind you buy and where you place it will determine how many channels you receive. Digital Trends has a comprehensive guide to selecting the right antenna for your home, which we encourage you to check out before you commit to an OTA receiver.
If you tend to have misgivings about changes to your entertainment options, you may want to consider the TiVo Bolt Vox. It offers all of the same great features as the Roamio, including a four tuner OTA receiver, but it’s also 4K and CableCARD ready, so if you decide you can’t live without your cable subscription after all, at least you won’t have to trade in your receiver.
Update, June 13, 2018: Added new channel guide view for Plex.