Free over-the-air TV is one of the best ways to watch TV without cable or satellite. But that great free content that we get over the air has its limitations. Live TV is great, but some of us have grown used to enjoying time-shifted content with our cable or satellite DVRs. Can we do this same thing with free over-the-air TV?

In fact, we can! All we need in order to do so is an OTA DVR — an OTA DVR like the TiVo Bolt OTA DVR. Below, we'll lay out everything that you need to know about the TiVo Bolt OTA DVR.

TiVo Bold OTA DVR Review

Please note that this review is based on research and aggregation, rather than on direct testing. If you're looking for an OTA DVR that we can personally vouch for, then check out the Tablo Dual OTA DVR or the Tablo Quad OTA DVR. In writing this review, we carefully examined the specs of the device and the opinions of other trusted review sites around the web.

The Device

TiVo's Bolt OTA DVR features TiVo's familiar form factor style — this is a set-top box sort of thing, but with a bend running across the top, so there's a little off-center peak in the device. It's a playful sort of design that works pretty well for what it is. The device is a little big, though: it's nearly a foot wide and 7 inches deep, though its only a couple of inches tall. By way of comparison, that's a few inches more than the Tablo Quad OTA DVR in every category but height.

In terms of specs, the TiVo Bolt OTA boasts four antenna tuners and a terabyte of storage space. The 1 TB hard drive is a beautiful thing, and improves on the competition: the Tablo Quad OTA DVR asks users to provide their own storage (though it does have a convenient internal compartment for that storage and supports different capacities of SATA laptop-sized hard drives). So that's at least one major beef that we had with Tablo that won't be repeated with TiVo.

The TiVo Bolt OTA DVR is quite a streaming device, hardware-wise. It supports 4K Ultra HD, for instance — even though free over-the-air TV is not yet available in 4K. The 4K streaming abilities are there for the apps that the TiVO Bolt OTA DVR supports, such as Netflix (more on those apps and the streaming experience in our User Experience section).

Around back, the TiVO Bolt OTA DVR has plenty of essential ports. There's the coaxial jack for the antenna, of course, plus an HDMI port for connecting to your TV, an optical audio port, an Ethernet jack for wired internet connections, two USB ports, and an eSATA port for even more storage. There's also a jack for the power adapter and a little button that you can push in order to make the remote beep so that you can find it.

Speaking of the remote, it's pretty button-heavy for a modern cord cutting remote. You'll get a full number pad, navigation buttons that are separate from the play/pause/fast-forward buttons, a mic button for voice commands, volume and channel buttons, and a few more buttons for good measure.

User Experience

The TiVo Bolt OTA DVR is excellent at being a DVR — but it wants to be some other things, too, and it isn't nearly as good at those.

Let's start with the OTA DVR functions. Reviewers have widely praised TiVo's interface for recording and watching TV. The TV guide menu looks great, program descriptions are on-point, and recording individual broadcasts or series is a breeze. Viewing the recorded content is easy to do, and streaming is strong (more on that in a moment), because the experience all happens on the OTA DVR itself — unlike with network-connected DVRs like Tablo, there's no streaming of the content over Wi-Fi. It's just playing right there on the device. Any quality issues are the fault of your antenna, not of your internet connection or the TiVo Bolt OTA DVR.

Yes, you read that right: the stuff your record on your TiVo Bolt OTA DVR pretty much must be watched on that same device. The exceptions are mobile devices (iOS and Android) and other TiVo devices (the TiVo Mini Vox). TiVo plans to roll out apps for other streaming boxes eventually, but, for now, this is more or less an all-on-the-device sort of deal.

Does this mean that you have to switch your TV's input every time you want to switch between live or recorded OTA content and your streaming content? Not necessarily, because you can use the TiVo Bolt OTA DVR as a streaming device. In fact, that's what TiVo wants you to do.

As an OTA DVR, the TiVo Bolt OTA DVR might have been a direct rival of the Tablo Quad OTA DVR. In fact, it probably should have been. But it's not. Instead, the Bolt OTA DVR is a streaming box that keeps its DVR content to itself rather than sharing it over your home network as the Tablo does. TiVo is positioning its OTA DVR not as an add-on to your streaming device setup, but as your main streaming device. As of this writing, a comparison chart on TiVo's website pits the TiVo Bolt OTA DVR against the Amazon Fire TV Cube, Roku Ultra, and Apple TV — but not the Tablo Quad OTA DVR.

To be fair to TiVo, Amazon is certainly moving in on the OTA DVR market. The Amazon Fire TV Cube combines Amazon's proven streaming platform with OTA DVR hardware. But TiVo's insistence on treating this as a streaming device means that it should be held to a higher standard. Like the Tablo, this device is here to help you record OTA content and stream it — but the TiVo Bolt OTA DVR also wants to be the device that you stream this content on, as well as the device that you use for Netflix, Hulu, and the rest of your online streaming content.

TiVo Bolt OTA DVR review - streaming apps
From TiVo's website: a look at the TiVo Bolt's streaming app menu

So how does the TiVo Bolt measure up against streaming box competitors like the Roku Ultra? Not well, from the looks of it. Lacking a mainstream streaming platform, the TiVo Bolt is unable to support any live TV streaming services (skinny bundles), CNET says. That's a handful of absolutely massive gaps in app support for a device that purports to be a Roku rival. We'll talk more about this in the App Support section of this review.

The TiVo Bolt OTA DVR is great as a DVR, but its streaming platform simply can't measure up to those of its more established peers. If you're looking for an all-in-one solution, the Amazon Fire TV Recast is the top dog and offers a better value. Beyond the recast, your best bet is to look for two separate devices: one to record the OTA content, and another to use as your streaming hub.

And, not for nothing, that might be the best way to do it. If your big screen TV is in your basement, for instance, you might welcome the ability to stick an OTA DVR and an antenna on your top floor and use your Wi-Fi and apps to stream it to other devices.

Streaming Quality

By all accounts, the streaming quality of recorded content on the TiVo Bolt OTA DVR is excellent — because, actually, it's not streaming at all! This device digitizes and records content to its hard drive, then reads it from that hard drive rather than over the internet. Since there are no network capabilities, there's no streaming of recorded content.

The TiVo Bolt OTA DVR does allow streaming through other apps, like Netflix. That streaming seems to be pretty competent, which is not a huge surprised given the TiVo's beefy under-the-hood specs.

Platform Support/App Support

As a streaming device, the TiVo Bolt OTA DVR's app support is extremely limited. It has some of the big dogs, of course: you can stream Netflix on your TiVo, as well as Amazon Video, Hulu, and YouTube. But some high-profile apps are missing, including all of the live TV streaming service “skinny bundles.” That's a pretty remarkable failure by today's standards. Even the worst of the small-time smart TV platforms supports at least a couple of those skinny bundles. Even video game consoles like Xbox One (Sling TV, Hulu, YouTube TV) and PlayStation 4 (PlayStation Vue) have live TV streaming services. Somehow, the TiVo Bolt OTA DVR does not.

It's not just the skinny bundles. As of this writing, other high-profile omissions from TiVo's app selection include HBO NOW (only HBO GO is available), Starz, Showtime, and NBA League Pass.

But all of this is okay, because you can just use your TiVo Bolt OTA DVR as a network DVR and use some other device to access both your DVR content and your streaming services — right? Well, no, not yet. TiVo is working on apps that for platforms like Fire TV, but none exist yet at the time of this writing. There are apps for mobile devices (iOS and Android), though, and you can stream to other TiVo devices — like the nearly $200 TiVo Mini Vox, if that makes financial sense to you (it probably doesn't).

As a platform, the TiVo Bolt OTA DVR has weak app support; as an networked device/app, it has abysmal platform support. The best way to use this device is as a standalone OTA DVR that you access by switching the input on your TV back and forth between it and a real streaming platform like Roku.

Price

The TiVo Bolt OTA DVR costs $249.99 for the device. To keep your access to TiVo's TV guide information (which is excellent, and a huge part of why the DVR interface is such a bright spot for this device), you'll need to pay $7 a month (or $70 a year, or $250 for a lifetime plan).

That puts the TiVo Bolt OTA DVR at a price point that's a bit below the Fire TV Recast's, but the Fire TV Recast does not demand a subscription fee. And both DVR-outfitted devices are much pricier than the typical streaming box — a top-of-the-line Roku Ultra, for instance, costs just $99.99.

Verdict

In the end, the TiVo Bolt OTA DVR feels like it's a step behind the prevailing cord cutting trends and dragging along an identity crisis to boot. If you want to watch recorded and live OTA content on just one screen, this device will give you a very pleasant experience. But the TiVo Bolt OTA DVR is not a substitute for a Roku device or Fire TV, because its app support is far too meager. That means you'll probably want another streaming device to go with your TiVo Bolt OTA DVR. And, at that point, why wouldn't you opt for a network DVR like the Tablo Quad OTA DVR instead? If you did that, you could stream not only on your Roku or Fire TV device, but on your iPhone or Android phone as well, and on other streaming devices in other rooms or connected to other TVs.

Throw in the high price point of this device, and it's hard to recommend it. The TiVo Bolt OTA DVR set out to be a DVR and a streaming device at once, but the consensus among reviewers is that it has accomplished only one of those things (the DVR functionality) wonderfully and has pretty much failed at the other. You could argue that TiVo's DVR interface and experience is better than the one you'd get from Tablo and its app or from the Fire TV Recast, but does that accomplishment really matter if it's tied to a pricey device with no network connection and no real merit as anything other than a DVR? In short: no.