Aereo promised a breakthrough service for cord-cutters: the ability to watch and record over-the-air TV without the hassle of an antenna or additional hardware for $8 to $12 a month.
Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision against Aereo means the company’s current service is effectively illegal. (CBS, the parent company of CNET, is one of the companies that brought the suit against Aereo.) But that doesn’t mean that cable cutters are out of options. Over the last year, several compelling over-the-air recording solutions have hit the market, making it easier for cord cutters to supplement streaming video services like Netflix with traditional network television, as long as you get reception.
I’ve reviewed most of the major over-the-air DVRs and the good news is the options are far better than they’ve been in the past. Each solution has its strengths and weaknesses, so which one is best for you will largely depend on your budget, viewing habits, and level of tech savvy.
Let’s take a look at what’s available.
TiVo Roamio: The best, if you’re willing to pay
If I could only recommend one over-the-air DVR, it would be the TiVo Roamio ($200 list price).
TiVo Roamio review: Best over-the-air DVR if you’re willing…
It has a whopping four tuners, which is more than enough for the limited over-the-air (OTA) programming options, and a 500GB hard drive built-in, so you don’t have to tack on your own as you do with other OTA recording solutions. TiVo’s software and interface remains best-in-class and incredibly easy to use, plus it’s been overhauled to be much faster than previous models. There’s even built-in Wi-Fi and a handful of streaming media apps, so you can watch more than just network TV.
The big drawback is the price. Add up the lifetime subscription ($500), the hardware ($200), and some incidental costs, and you’re looking at about $750 for the three-year cost of ownership.
The TiVo Roamio certainly costs too much, but its mastery of the over-the-air TV experience gives you the best chance to avoid going back to cable — and that will save you so much money in the long run, it almost makes TiVo seem like a bargain. Almost.
Channel Master DVR+: No-frills recording at a budget price
The Channel Master DVR+ ($250) hits most of the major points cord-cutters have long been looking for. There are absolutely no subscription fees and the DVR+ comes with free premium program guide data from Rovi, which is a big step-up from the guide data that’s embedded in over-the-air signals. It has dual-tuner functionality and support for Vudu, plus its image quality is excellent.
Channel Master TV: Subscription-free, over-the-air recording…
Still, it’s not perfect. The DVR+’s upfront cost is low, but you need to add a lot of your own accessories (antenna, hard drive, Wi-Fi adapter), which can drive up the price. Its software and user interface is decent, but rough around the edges, lacking basic options like the ability to only record new episodes of your favorite shows. And while the DVR+’s image quality is typically great, I experienced a few glitches during playback.
None of that is enough to sully what the DVR+ has accomplished; it’s the “good enough” DVR without subscription fees that many have been looking for. If your primary goal is to save money, and you don’t mind its imperfections, it’s hard to beat the Channel Master DVR+.
Nuyvvo Tablo: Innovative option that’s best for techies
Nuvyyo’s Tablo ($220) is the most exciting OTA recording solution to come out in years.
Nuvyyo Tablo review: A geek-friendly DVR for over-the-air…
It uses the same concept Simple.TV debuted at CES 2012, but Tablo implements it better. Most impressively, its image quality looks excellent, even with sports, which has been a sore spot for similar devices. The box feels responsive and can stream to a growing list of supported products, including iOS and Android devices, Roku boxes, Apple TV (using AirPlay), and Chromecast. Sure, Tablo comes with a $5 monthly fee for program guide data, but it still ends up being relatively affordable compared to other OTA DVRs.
But Tablo isn’t quite ready for mainstream adoption. It’s too hard to add recording time to sporting events, so games can get cut off when you care the most: the final minutes. Also the best way to watch Tablo in the living room is by using a Roku box, but the Roku interface is clunky and lacks essentials such as an easy way to fast-forward through commercials.
Those flaws are enough to keep me from wholeheartedly recommending Tablo, but there’s no denying that Tablo is a thrilling device, especially for a newly-launched product. If you’re an early adopter willing to live with some growing pains, Tablo is well worth your $220.
Simple.TV 2: Improved, but with competition
Simple.TV 2 ($200) is the only product here that CNET hasn’t reviewed yet. It’s the successor of the original Simple.TV, adding some key features like dual-tuner support and more compact hardware.
But launch of the second-generation product has had some issues and early customer feedback was harsh on retailers like Amazon. The exterior hardware has been modified to address early complaints and Simple.TV says the early problems have been addressed.
After some initial delays, I have my hands on a Simple.TV 2 review sample now and will be checking it out soon. But it has an uphill battle against Tablo, which uses the same concept, but adds built-in Wi-Fi and has truly impressive image quality.
Over-the-air DVR math: Total cost of ownership
I mentioned the high cost of ownership for the TiVo Roamio above, but each of these solutions have costs beyond the initial purchase price that add to the total cost of ownership. The chart below tallies up the three-year total cost of ownership of all four devices, with the assumptions that you’re starting from scratch and need to buy accessories like a hard drive, antenna, cables and Wi-Fi adapter. (Adjust accordingly if you already own some equipment.)
|Channel Master DVR+
This is where the Channel Master DVR+ really shines, coming in significantly cheaper than the alternatives, even after you include the cost of accessories. If you’re purely looking to save money, the DVR+ is the best choice if you can live with the limitations.
Other options: Skip the DVR or roll your own
If none of these options seem particularly appealing, you can always opt to skip the DVR functionality completely. Every modern HDTV has a built-in over-the-air tuner, so you can simply connect an antenna to the back to watch live TV, assuming you get a reception. You won’t be able to pause live TV or make recordings, but if all you want to do is watch an occasional live football game or award show, it might be enough.
The other option, for the more technically-savvy, is to build your own over-the-air DVR using a PC. This requires a good deal more tweaking and technical savvy than any of the devices above, but there are many that swear that it’s ultimately the best solution. Just make sure you do your research before jumping into what could be a relatively involved project.