Matrix lines scanning down an old antenna television.
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Cutting the cord and switching to over the air (OTA) TV can be difficult, especially if cable TV’s DVR functionality has pampered you. Thankfully, a simple OTA box can make your free TV experience more akin to cable.

An OTA Box Turns Free TV into a Cable-Like Experience

To watch free over-the-air TV channels, all you need is an antenna—you don’t need an OTA box. But an OTA box adds quite a few features, including the ability to record channels.

At its core, an OTA box is a DVR for over the air TV. Even the most basic (or cheapest) OTA box can be programmed to automatically record your favorite shows, football games, and late night infomercials. You can play back these shows at any time and skip through commercials, just like you would with a cable DVR.

But the best OTA boxes go above and beyond DVR functionality. They effectively turn the free TV experience into something more akin to cable. Good OTA boxes add cable-like grid guides to free TV, have multi-channel and programmable recording functions, allow you to pause live TV, and bundle-in exclusive streaming features that rival any cable setup.

RELATED: How to Get HD TV Channels for Free (Without Paying for Cable)

Stream Free TV to Your Phone or Tablet

Do you ever sit around at work, daydreaming of a future where your phone can pick up over the air broadcasts? Well, until broadcasters and phone manufacturers get serious about ATSC 3.0, your daydream will never come true—unless you have an OTA box.

Premium OTA boxes, like the TiVo Bolt OTA or the Tablo Dual Lite, have companion apps that you can download on your phone, tablet, or computer. These apps allow you to stream live TV and recordings directly to your device, even if you’re far away from home. You can also use these apps to program your OTA’s DVR function remotely, so you don’t have to rush home to record a show.

A TV remote with a backdrop of streaming services and TV channels.
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This streaming feature can also extend an OTA box’s functionality to TVs and computers around the house. If a device can install your OTA’s companion app, then it can be used to watch OTA recordings and live TV. That being said, “dumb” TVs will need a streaming stick (like a Roku) to download an OTA box’s companion app.

Some OTA Boxes Can Replace Your Roku

There’s a good chance that your TV’s HDMI ports are already taken up by streaming sticks, game consoles, and Blu-Ray players. Thankfully, premium OTA boxes have streaming service apps and can be used as an alternative to a Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, Fire TV, or whatever else you use to watch Netflix and other streaming services.

The TiVo Bolt OTA, for example, is packaged with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Plex, and more. And since it receives regular firmware updates, you don’t have to worry about missing out on new services, like Disney+. Additionally, the TiVo Bolt OTA can stream in 4K, which makes it an ideal alternative to the expensive 4K streaming stick that’s sitting in your Amazon Wish List.

You Can Integrate an OTA Box into Your Smarthome

Most streaming sticks are built for smarthome integration. Whether you’re using a Fire TV stick or a Chromecast, you can use your voice to find new shows or pause what you’re watching. Thankfully, some OTA boxes come with smarthome functionality, which makes them a good streaming stick alternative for smarthome geeks.

When you pair a product like the TiVo Bolt OTA and the Amazon Fire TV Recast to your smart assistant, you can use voice commands to change channels, find shows, skip commercials, or schedule recordings. You can also use voice commands to control an OTA box remotely, whether you’re across the house or in a supermarket.

Which OTA Box Should You Buy?

Before buying an expensive OTA box, make sure that you have a digital antenna. Otherwise, your OTA box won’t work. Also, you should check which channels are available in your area. There’s a chance that your favorite channels are cable exclusives, and not all OTA channels are broadcast nationally. OTA boxes enhance the free TV experience, but that enhancement is useless if you can’t find anything to watch.

There are a ton of OTA boxes on the market, and they vary in quality and functionality. Some of them can dominate your entertainment center and replace your streaming sticks, while others are basically a DVR for antenna TV. And to be perfectly honest, some cheap OTA boxes don’t even make suitable DVRs.

A broadcasting tower against an evening sky.
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So, which OTA box should you buy? In the end, it just depends on your needs. Do you want to watch Netflix through an OTA box, or do you just want to record some football games? Do you need smart assistant functionality, or are you happy using a remote control?

The TiVo Bolt OTA

If you’re looking for a feature-packed 4K OTA box, then you should consider the TiVo Bolt OTA. This product essentially turns your free TV experience into something more akin to (or better than) cable TV. The TiVo Bolt can record multiple shows at a time, stream live TV and recordings to other devices, and works as a 4K replacement for your Roku or Chromecast. Plus, you can control the TiVo bolt remotely through the TiVo app or a smart assistant like Alexa or Google Assistant.

Of course, the TiVo bolt has a few drawbacks—the price being a big one. The TiVo Bolt costs around $250, and it doesn’t work without a TiVo subscription, which will run you $7 a month. But hey, it’s way cheaper than cable TV, and it can replace the feature-less streaming sticks that are hogging up your TV’s HDMI ports.

The Tablo Dual Lite

Like the TiVo Bolt OTA, the Tablo Dual Lite can replace your streaming sticks and enhance your free TV experience. It can record multiple shows at a time, pause live TV, stream TV to other devices, and it has a handful of built-in streaming service apps.

With its features (and its $140 price tag), the Tablo Dual Lite is a great OTA and an affordable alternative to the TiVo Bolt. That being said, the Tablo Dual Lite has a $6 per month subscription fee, it doesn’t support 4K, and you can’t control it with Alexa or Google Assistant.

The Fire TV Recast

Amazon manufactures a ton of products, from the Echo to the Fire tablet. Oddly enough, the company also makes an OTA box called the Fire TV Recast. This isn’t a standalone product, and it doesn’t work without a Fire TV. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you have an Alexa smarthome, then the Fire TV Recast may be the perfect OTA box for you.

Like other premium OTA boxes, the Fire TV Recast can record multiple shows at a time, it can stream video to phones and other devices, and it can pause live TV. But the Recast’s defining feature is its Alexa compatibility. With a Recast, you can bring live and recorded TV to any Fire TV or Echo Show in your home. As you’d expect, this feature is easy to set up, and it can be controlled with voice commands.

At $190, the Recast is a product that works best in a well-established smarthome. It doesn’t work without a Fire TV, and its defining features rely on Alexa compatibility.

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
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