If you have a TV antenna, you may also want a DVR without cable subscription to record your favorite shows and pause live TV. There are options for a DVR without subscription fees that can really lower your monthly bills, and more fully-featured options that require a monthly subscription. In some cases, a DVR without cable can do things the cable company DVR can’t, such as watch recorded shows on a tablet, smartphone, or laptop – whether in the next room or halfway across the world.
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.
DVR without cable subscription overview
Only a few companies make a DVR without cable subscription that operate with a TV 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 without subscription fees.
TiVo – best DVR without cable subscription, but service fees add up
TiVo is practically synonymous with DVR, and they make a few nice DVR without cable models. 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 models 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 - DVR with subscription fees
Another standalone option is the Channel Master DVR+, which is a great DVR without subscription 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 enabled with the addition of a Slingbox 500 ($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 DVR 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 work as a DVR without subscription fees, 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 DVR without subscription fees
Another option is to build a DVR without cable subscription of your own. A home theatre PC with DVR functionality 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 DVR without cable 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 without cable subscription options for cord cutters currently available. Paying a monthly 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.