Here are the best DVR’s that can be used without a cable TV subscription. If you’re contemplating cutting the cord or have already canceled your cable, you may want to use a DVR to record your favorite shows and pause live TV. Most people get their DVR directly from the cable company, but there are some options that will work just fine without cable. There are also some advanced features available that allow you to watch your recorded shows on your tablet, smartphone, or laptop anywhere with an internet connection.
First, you’ll need an antenna
An antenna will allow you to get free local broadcast TV in HD. See this post for more info on selecting an antenna and where to buy. In most parts of the country you’ll get ABC, CBS, CW, FOX, NBC, PBS, and some local channels all for free in HD and surround sound with a compatible tuner.
The best DVR’s that work without cable
There are only a few companies making high-quality DVR’s that can be used with an antenna. There are several more options available, but these are the best. You could also build your own home theatre PC with a TV tuner that operates as a DVR.
TiVo – the best DVR overall, but service fees add up
TiVo is practically synonymous with DVR, and they are still credited with making the best DVR available. TiVo’s are known for their ease of use, great programming guide, and overall solid operation. However, they charge service fees of $15 per month or a one-time payment of $500 for lifetime service. They currently have two boxes that work with antennas, and additional functionality can be added on to them:
- Watch your recorded shows over the internet on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop by adding the $130 TiVo Stream box (and no service fee.)
- With the Roamio model, you can add DVR functionality to additional TV’s in your home with the $100 TiVo Mini plus service fees of $6/month or $150/lifetime. Note that the Mini requires a wired ethernet or cable connection to the main TiVo Roamio box.
Channel Master – an expandable no fee alternative
Another standalone option is the Channel Master DVR+, which doesn’t have any service fees. It is designed to be used with an antenna and does not support cable or satellite. The DVR+ only supports HDMI output and wired ethernet (an adapter is required for wifi). It only comes with two hours of storage, but additional storage can be added with a USB drive. Whole-home DVR functionality and streaming to mobile devices is supported with the addition of a Slingbox 500 (which currently retails for $300).
Networked DVR’s that work with your gadgets
Simple.TV and Tablo both make networked DVR’s that operate a little differently than the options above. The basic idea is that the box sits on your home network and you add an antenna and USB drive. The DVR does not have a remote, you control it and watch shows on your TV through an Apple TV or Roku or on smartphones, tablets, or computers. They can be used without a subscription, but you’ll have to manually enter in recordings and some other features may not be available.
Simple.TV service plans are priced at $60 per year or $150 for lifetime service. A service plan is required to watch shows while off your home network. There is only one model with two tuners, and it does not support wifi. It is a very interesting device but unfortunately it hasn’t been getting very good reviews on Amazon. Hopefully they’ll be ironed out soon. Get more info at the Simple.TV site. Support for Android devices has been ‘coming soon’ for a while. Offline viewing is also listed as coming soon, read over the full FAQ here.
The Tablo DVR service plans are priced at $5 per month, $50 per year, or $150 for lifetime service. They support wifi or wired ethernet. The base model has 2 tuners and is priced at $220 and a 4 tuner model is coming soon. There are some other interesting features that are coming soon, such as Chromecast support and saving shows for offline viewing on mobile devices. Read the full FAQ here. The Tablo has just recently been released in the US and the reviews are starting to roll in. GigaOm and CNET both found things to like, but noted it isn’t a fully polished device yet.
Build your own – home theatre PC’s with a DVR
Another option is to build your own home theatre PC with DVR functionality. This will cost about $50-$100 for a TV tuner card, plus the cost of the PC. It will take a bit of tinkering to get everything working properly, but you can customize the hardware to your needs, and experiment with different free and paid software to find what works best for you. I recommend starting with these Lifehacker articles: How to watch and record live TV on your PC and Dream media center PC for under $500.
Other standalone DVR options
If none of the above is quite what you’re looking for, here are some additional options on Amazon. They generally don’t have great reviews, but may work for you. Make sure to read the details carefully, as some may not work with antennas, only have standard definition tuners, or other quirks.
These are the best DVR options for cord cutters currently available. Paying a DVR service fee isn’t ideal, but it’s roughly equivalent to renting a DVR-capable set top box from the cable company. Canceling cable and buying a DVR will pay for itself in a few months with plenty left over for a Netflix or Amazon Prime subscription.