Getting to Know DVRs (Digital Video Recorders) - dummies

Getting to Know DVRs (Digital Video Recorders)

By Danny Briere, Pat Hurley

The advent of the DVR, or digital video recorder (often called PVR or personal video recorder), has revolutionized TV watching. DVRs are purpose-built computers that record video onto a standard computer hard drive. Think of it as a computer-based VCR. There are no tapes to wear out, break, or jam — just a fast, reliable computer hard drive.

Here are some things you can do with a DVR, but not with a VCR:

  • Play back one recorded show while simultaneously recording another.

  • Pause live TV (if you’re recording it on your DVR).

  • Skip the commercials with the click of a button if you are recording the show and have started watching a few minutes past the start time.

  • Let the DVR automatically record your favorite show every time it’s on. (All DVRs connect to a program service, usually via a telephone line, that has a complete program guide for weeks at a time, customized for your area.)

  • Use the program service to help you find shows.

  • Connect some DVRs to a computer network (some models even have built-in wireless network connections) and the Internet so you can share recordings with your friends or send copies of shows you’ve recorded to your DVR at your vacation home (if you have one).

Take a Look at TiVo

The major manufacturer of DVRs is TiVo. The company pioneered the technology and remains the only large manufacturer of standalone DVRs (meaning an independent device that functions solely as a DVR — DVRs are also integrated into set-top boxes and satellite receivers).

TiVo has two models of DVRs: a standard definition model, and a HD DVR, which records high-definition content. Both models can record up to two shows at a time and include a number of features, such as the ability to bring Internet content (for example, YouTube) to your TV and the ability to connect over your home network to your PCs and portable devices. A TiVo DVR requires a monthly service plan, but you can pay less if you buy a long-term or even a lifetime plan.

Other DVR Options

Beyond TiVo, the real action in the DVR world these days comes in the form of DVRs that are integrated into other devices. The most common place you’ll see this is within a cable or satellite set-top box.

Integrating the DVR into the set-top box has several huge advantages:

  • It makes setup and operation easier. With the DVR hardware and software as part of the set-top box itself, you have nothing to hook up and nothing to configure; it’s just there.

  • The whole experience is more integrated. Most TV providers include onscreen programming guides, video-on-demand, and more. DVR becomes just another one of these functions and is tightly integrated into the experience — so setting up a recording is typically the work of one or two button pushes while you’re looking at your onscreen guide.

  • They can support HDTV. Both satellite and cable providers are offering HDTV DVRs that can record and play back high-definition TV broadcasts.

  • They can support two-tuner operation. Standalone DVRs can typically record only one show at a time, so you can watch a show while recording it, or watch a recording while recording another show, but that’s it. Most cable or satellite DVRs are two-tuner models that allow you to view and record two shows at a time. This gives you the ability to watch one show while recording a different show or even record two shows at a time while watching a recording of a third show.

  • They might not cost anything up-front. While standalone DVRs require cash out of your pocket to buy the unit, most cable and many satellite DVRs don’t cost you anything up-front. You simply pay a monthly service fee (which you also would pay for standalone DVRs), and you don’t need to buy any equipment.

Most people tend to choose the DVRs provided by their TV service provider — it’s easier and cheaper to do so. TiVo shouldn’t be ruled out, though — TiVo’s user interface is unmatched, and the additional feature set is top notch. Remember, though, that TiVo will cost a bit more over time, and it is not compatible with satellite (or telephone company-provided) TV services.