2017 Guide to Subscription-Free Over-the-Air (OTA) DVRs for Cordcutters

If you just cut the cord, but still want to use a DVR, then you are in in good company.  Luckily, there are quite a few options available that will enable you to record Over-The-Air (OTA) channels from an antenna onto a DVR.  In my case, I am able to record all the major broadcast channels – ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and also some local PBS channels with a simple indoor antenna. Find out which channels you can get for free with an antenna.

Top Picks

Tivo Roamio: Easiest to Setup

For ease of setup and use, the Tivo Roamio OTA is the best option. This is all you’ll need:

Terk HDTVa Indoor Amplified High-Definition Antenna for Off-Air HDTV Reception
TiVo Roamio OTA HD DVR and Streaming Media Player

This DVR works for both OTA (over-the-air) broadcast signals and streaming (Netflix, Hulu, etc…).

If you do this, you should probably get the lifetime subscription deal that Tivo offers. Plug the antenna into the Tivo, and you’re done! More info on TiVo DVRs for cordcutters.

Tablo 4: Best for watching on multiple TVs or other devices (tablets, phones, etc…)

If you want to access your Over-the-air DVR recording from multiple TVs, or from you tablet or phone, then the Tablo 2 or Tablo 4 systems are a great choice. This type of system scales cheaply – to add another TV you just buy a FireTV stick.  You can also do some of this with a Tivo by buying Tivo Mini’s, but it will end up costing more.

Tablo 2

Two-tuner DVR system

Tablo 4

Four-tuner DVR system.

Home-Theater PC: Best for maximum flexibility

If you want system a that can work as DVR, and also run as a full-fledged media server, then you want to build your own Home-theater PC.  Basically this is a computer with software and hardware that enables it to run as a DVR, and also do anything else that a PC can do.  This article describes a simple way to build one.

Cost Comparison

This table compares the cost and features between various OTA (over-the-air) DVR options for cordcutters.   I’ve priced the options that I think that make the most sense (for example paying for the lifetime subscription for the Tablo, and buying extra external HD space). Prices in this table are updated daily from Amazon.

OTA DVR Comparison Table

Hardware Tablo 2-tuner Tablo 4-tuner Tivo Roamio Channel Master Win7 HTPC
DVR 190 276 200 330 363
Antenna 35 35 35 35 35
Ext. HD (2TB) 70 70 70 70 70
Streaming Device / Tuner 40 40 0 0 85
Wifi Included Included Included Extra Extra
Lifetime Subscription 150 150 200 0 0
Upfront total 485 571 505 435 553
Cost per extra TV 40 40 149 * *
Monthly Fees 0 0 0 0 0
Prices for Amazon links were last updated on Aug 20, 2017 20:00 PT.

Notes:

  • Hover over or click the cost numbers in the table to see what hardware it is for.
  • Here are directions on how build the Win7 HTPC option.

32 thoughts on “2017 Guide to Subscription-Free Over-the-Air (OTA) DVRs for Cordcutters”

  1. I was looking at your article as I am in the market for a subscrition free OTA DVR and noticed that, although the title of the article is titled : 2016 Guide to Subscription-Free Over-the-Air (OTA) DVRs for Cordcutters, the DVR that you recommend as being the best, the TiVo Roamio OTA HD DVR and Streaming Media Player, requires, according to the link that takes us to Amazon, a subscription.

    I would appreciate a pick that did not require a subscription as your choice as “Best of…”.

    1. Rick – the Tivo Roamio can be purchased with a monthly subscription, but it is also available with a “lifetime subscription.” Purchasing it with the lifetime subscription effectively makes it subscription free. The Amazon page the links to shows the monthly subscription version by default, but the lifetime subscription version is a configuration that can be selected. It is shown as a “Tivo Service Included” option.

      The Tablo similarly also has a lifetime subscription. The cost comparison table shows the lifetime subscription price separately.

    2. OMG. Reading all these comments are giving me an overload of info. First: yes, I am also finding guide inaccuracies with TIVO. They say can request the guide info from the cable company and within 14 days the changes should show up on the guide. Are the cable companies charging TIVO for a copy of the guide? Are the cable companies purposely making frequent guide changes so they can charge TIVO for a copy of the new guide? More importantly; isn’t the FCC requirement that the cable company should not stand in the way of the TIVO user using their TIVO be in violation of the intent of that law and cooperative spirit?

      Secondly, I am moving; at this time to parts unknown with the US. Should I just return my TIVO Bolt and decide what to use when I decide where? I do not want to be left with a device that is useless for OnePass. I still have time to return it.

  2. In the interest of K.I.S.S.; I want a dvr that requires no subscription (whatsoever)… Will store more than 4 hours of TV (not too much to ask)… Will service a single HD TV – no hopper type options. I’m half tempted to snatch-up one of those few remaining vcr’s and stickpile some new tape….

    1. Hi Vic,

      The Tivo Roamio, Tablo, and Channel Master all offer options where you can pay for a “Lifetime subscription.” so there is no ongoing monthly fees. For the simplest and easiest setup, I’d recommend the Tivo Roamio or the Channel Master. The Tivo is easier and nicer to use, but it does cost a little more. Both of these options are easier and much more pleasant to use than a VCR though!

      Perry

    2. Vic,
      One thing to think about is that the old VCRs don’t have digital tuners, which means you would need an analog to digital converter box to start. I have a couple of DVD recorders that I thought about using again now that I’ve cut the cord, but I realized that they predated the mandatory digital conversion, and would need a box too. Not sure how that would work in terms of setting the timer to record different channels.

      Something to think about.

    3. The Homeworx box (around $30) will work, but is very limited, can only record 1 show at a time etc. With a splitter, you could record one show and watch another at the same time.

  3. There are many models coming out of China that do exactly what you seek. Connect your Free Over-The-Air (OTA) antenna to the RF input and with a built-in USB 2.0/3.0 connect a flash drive or hard drive (up to 3 TB) and you can record without subscription. Many models priced at $30 to $40. I haven’t bought one yet, but have been reading reviews. You can check both Amazon and Youtube with keywords OTA DVR or OTA PVR and you’ll see them.

    1. I’ve used those exact keywords on Amazon and the closest I seem to get is a single tuner converter box that requires external memory to be added. My question is if you have seen something else? Such as a mult-tuner OTA DVR that doesn’t require a subscription or internet connection? I have an external hard drive to add, but am really frustrated with the search in general.
      I returned my TiVo Roamio the day after opening it and would never have purchased it if I had realized it required an internet connection. Thanks. 🙂

      1. I think that all DVRs require the internet connection so that they can download the TV program guide information. If they did not have program information, then they would be much more difficult to use since you would have to manually set the timing of the programming.

  4. Buying an older series 3 or TiVo HD with prepaid lifetime can be done for less than $150 on eBay or TiVo Premiers with lifetime for less than $250 , any of these options will offer great OTA reception with multiple tuners and lifetime prepaid guide service… Any cordcutter on a budget would be wise to take advantage of these older cheap HDTV modelsC

  5. I will be cord cutting for a period of time but I know I will eventually return to Verizon Fios. Can you recommend a good OTA DVR that I will also be able to use when I get Fios again?

    1. I think that the Tivo’s are capable of using a Cablecard, which I believe makes them compatible with Fios. You should check with Tivo though!

  6. A quick caveat to people interested in cutting the cord. After battling TIVO for 3 months now, I’ve had to return the TIVO Bolt and get a refund on our channel lineup fee. TIVO is apparently unable to get the correct channel guide for our area, western slope of Colorado, and, the result is that you cannot set up a recording in advance. Fat lot of good a digital video recorder is that won’t record. TIVO’s service is atrocious. I’d send in channel requests, complete with digital channel number, frequency, signal strength, etc, and never hear a response. Only when calling or messaging would they even acknowledge the work I’d done. For the record, I’m a retired IT professional, and have a very good grasp of what needed to be done; TIVO just couldn’t do it.

    1. That does sound really frustrating. I haven’t heard of widespread issues with this on the Tivo before, but I understand how useless it makes the DVR when this stuff doesn’t work. I have had issues with certain channels when using Windows 7 Media Center as DVR before, but was able to fix them manually. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    2. I live on the western slope and own a TiVo Premier. I have always been able to record two shows at once, but now I can no longer do so. Initially it was just a problem for NBC and ABC, but it now does the same for CBS and ABC. TiVo support is useless; they don’t appear to have any “experts” for troubleshooting purposes, so I am now searching for an alternative solution. I’ve been extremely happy with TiVo and the ease of use, but if the subscription service won’t communicate properly with the channel lineup, the DVR is rendered useless unless you never need to record more than one channel.

  7. WatchAir (www.watchairtv.com) is a good alternate. Single tuner and limited memory built-in but easy to expand. Works Android, IOS, and all the major streaming devices. The guide is free. I have one and am using it with Roku. I recommend it.

  8. Nice comparison, thank you. I’ve been leaning towards a Tablo 4 tuner but concerned about the viability of a smaller outfit like Tablo versus Tivo who has managed to survive nearly 20 years. I like the idea of a network appliance like Tablo and the flexibility to use apps on my Apple TV and iOS. I thought I heard that Tivo was also going to make a network appliance like Tablo eliminating the traditional STB to TV connection. Have you heard anything? Trying to decide if I hold out or get the Tablo. Thanks!

  9. Why in the world are there “subscriptions” and “memberships” for OTA DVR’s? Aren’t they basically just hard drives? Subs and memberships imply the need for login and password etc. Isn’t there a simple alternative that doesn’t need all that?

    1. Getting so frustrated with all this. Only need is for sports, I’d have cut the cord years ago if it wasn’t for the BS networks and cable companies forcing you to stay in cause of their stranglehold on sports.

      Functionally all that should be completely obsolete, tv should be on our own schedule without need for adds, and for me it is except for GODAMN sports!

      Sorry just getting really frustrated getting over this last hurdle.

  10. I have 4 tv’s. I started cable-cutting by reducing the number of channels and want to go all the way with no cable. The issue is the user interface. My spouse needs simplicity and I wouldn’t mind that too. Rather than having 3 remotes, the tv, the cable, and the Amazon, I’d like to work off of one and no more than two. I tried TiVO but its limitation was they had just a few stream apps, not allowing me the choice of many, including possible DirecTVNow and/or Sling. I have different TVs (Sony, Samsung, Vizio, and not-smart). So currently I am using a separate antenna for each tv to receive OTA HDTV. I thought perhaps that streaming OTA HDTV over wifi might allow me to use the TV remotes for just turning on and off the tv, and then use the Amazon or another streaming device per tv. What do you recommend?

    1. Hi Bobby,

      One of the Tablos with an Amazon Fire Stick for each TV may be a good choice for you. It would allow you to use a single antenna, and then stream the OTA stations to each TV. Each TV would then just use the Fire Stick as the interface. If you’re happy with the Amazon interface, this would be a good option.

      Good luck!

  11. I’ve never ever subscribed to cable TV. Always used OTA with my combo VHF/UHF TV antenna by Radio Shack. Receive around 69 channels from our location in Vallejo, CA.(30 miles NE of San Fransisco) I’m just looking for a DVR that would have at least 2 tuners that can be scanned for OTA TV channels and at least a 2 TB recording ability.
    Dave B.

  12. I’ve been using the Channel Master DVR+ for the past 1 1/2yrs, and it’s been great! Also, it’s not $299 if you go directly to their website and are able to run a hard wired network connection to the unit. The unit without the Wireless dongle is $249…..no subscription! You do have to buy a External HD.

  13. The cheap (foreign?) boxes extract program guide data which is encoded in the OTA broadcast digital stream along with closed captions and secondary audio streams.
    They can be an effective low-budget system, if you can stand menus as bad as a VCR, random loss of settings (especially when first turned on), inability to show captions during playback, and of course abysmal support. Takes grit.
    Those that depend on added storage often work best with a powered USB hard drive; anything else should be carefully tested well withing any return-able time-frame.
    Most can record one channel while passing another through for viewing.
    They usually simply pass the entire digital stream to the storage device, which means you may be able to play the recordings if you re-connect the storage to another (better for playback) player.
    Program guide data may cover up to to two weeks, but not all devices pay attention to much more than 24 hours.

  14. I have owned a Tablo 2-tuner with a lifetime subscription for over three years. It’s been a mostly positive experience. A few firmware updates really sucked and I felt like a beta tester, but it’s been much better over the last year or so. A week ago, my Tablo started to act up – glitches and color distortions on some channels. I have isolated it to the Tablo and not the antenna or coax. Once again I looked at all the DVR options, and I purchased another Tablo. There is no cost to transferring my lifetime subscription. This time I spent an extra $26 at Walmart for a 4-year warranty. I never buy extended warranties, but once bitten. Best of luck to all those cord cutters out there and I hope sharing my experience helps someone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *