Digital Video Recorder


Digital Video Recorders (DVR), sometimes also called Personal Video Recorders (PVR), are like VCRs on steroids, letting you pause a live TV show, jump back a few seconds for an instant replay, then skip through the commercials when you resume. Because a DVR records directly to a hard drive, there's no tape, and you can jump around between recorded shows without trying to find the right spot on a VHS tape. Reviewers love these things, and many of them, like The New York Times' David Pogue, can't figure out why DVRs haven't quite caught on.

Many of the best reviews we found of DVRs were at The New York Times, and we found other good reviews from The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, and dedicated computing and electronics Web sites, such as TechTV, CNet and ZDNet. One of the best sources we found is an enthusiast site spawned by Donald Mehrtens, We found that other review sources, like consumer-review Web sites Epinions and, can't keep pace with the latest models. By the time a DVR amasses enough reviews to be top-ranked, it's usually been replaced by a newer version.

The bottom line when picking a DVR is that you must choose between two different competing platforms, TiVo and ReplayTV. Reviewers say that people with big projection and HDTVs, may want to go with ReplayTV because that platform has a slight edge in picture quality. But everyone else, experts say, should look to the friendlier interface and more helpful programming features of TiVo. TiVo's ownership history also appears to be more stable than that of ReplayTV, suggesting stronger market positioning. ReplayTV's legacy looked uncertain after its owners declared bankruptcy, but the company is now under new ownership.

In addition to component-type standalone DVR units, your cable or satellite provider may offer an integrated DVR with digital cable or satellite service. Reviewers are underwhelmed by the Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000, which is the basis for many cable-box-based DVRs offered by Time-Warner, Cox and Comcast cable networks, among others. Experts find it to be less capable and less reliable than standalone competitors despite having the advantage of two tuners (meaning you can watch one channel while recording another).

One of the best write-ups we found belongs to Dave Hitt, an enthusiast who describes his experience swapping a TiVo for a Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000 DVR from Time-Warner cable. Hitt says the Explorer would delete shows without warning, fail to record shows, and couldnít match TiVo's searching or scheduling features. He returned the Explorer after three weeks. Writes Hitt, "Tivo is one of the simplest and most reliable high tech devices Iíve ever used.  The TW [Time Warner] DVR, produced by Scientific Atlanta, is needlessly complicated and missing dozens of Tivo's useful features. We could have lived without those features, if it wasn't so unreliable."

But there's no question that cable-box DVRs can be cheaper if you already subscribe to digital cable service. Prices range from $6 to $15 a month, depending on where you live, plus the cost of digital cable. If you'd like to try out a DVR before buying anything as sophisticated as a TiVo or ReplayTV box, a cable-based DVR is a good way to test the waters.

The personal video recorder (PVR), also called digital video recorder (DVR) or digital personal video recorder, is a consumer electronics device that records television shows to a hard disk in digital format. Since first introduced by TiVo at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1999, PVRs have steadily developed complementary abilities, such as recording onto DVDs.

This makes the "time shifting" feature (traditionally done by a VCR) much more convenient, and also allows for "trick modes" such as pausing live TV, instant replay of interesting scenes, and skipping advertising. Most PVR recorders use the MPEG format for encoding analog video signals.

The most popular PVRs on the market are the TiVo and DNNA's ReplayTV, although most home electronics manufacturers now offer models. Many satellite and cable companies are incorporating PVR functions into their set-top box, such as with DirecTiVo, Motorola 6xxx from Comcast, or Sky+. In this case there is no encoding necessary in the PVR, as the satellite signal is already a digitally encoded MPEG stream. The PVR simply stores the digital stream directly to disk. Having the broadcaster involved with (subsidizing) the design of the PVR, and directly recording encrypted digital streams can lead to fancy features - like the ability to use interactive TV on recorded shows, pre-loading of programmes; but can also lead to too much control by the broadcaster - like denying the ability to skip adverts and automatically expiring recordings after a time determined by the broadcaster.

Upcoming entrants into the market include products such as Digeo's Moxi, and Microsoft's Media Center.

In 2003, the Yakima, Washington Police Department began using PVRs in their patrol cars to record the activities of officers and suspects. Since then, many other police departments have followed suit, due to the increased reliability and decreased cost compared to analog video systems.

There are ways to make one's own PVR using software and hardware available for Microsoft Windows, Linux and Macintosh operating systems. There are even people working on turning the Xbox into a PVR with a modchip.

Standalone DVR. Experts say that on large high-definition TVs, ReplayTV has better picture quality than TiVo, but reviewers say owners of smaller TVs won't notice much difference. If you have a souped-up home theater setup with big-screen TV, then ReplayTV will appeal for that reason. Otherwise, experts say TiVo's friendlier interface is a better bet. 80-hour (*est. $600), 160-hour (*est. $850) and 320-hour (*est. $1200) varieties of the Replay TV box (made by Digital Networks North America) are also available.

DirecTV DVR. If you have a DirecTV satellite system, experts say DVRs specifically designed to be integrated with DirecTV offer a few features not found on the standalone units above. Plus, since integrated unitsólike this 35-hour Hughes modelórecord directly from the source, picture quality doesn't degrade as it can with standalone boxes. On the flip side they donít support broadband or the Home Media Option available on standalone TiVos. Otherwise, the Hughes' TiVo service ensures the same easy-to-use interface. Hughes also makes a 100-hour version (*est. $400).

DVR/DVD player. The SD-H400 combines an 80-hour TiVo DVR and DVD player in one box. The included TiVo Basic service lacks most of the features of full TiVo service but does let you schedule single recordings from the three-day guide or set up manual or VCR-style recordings. You can still choose to upgrade to full TiVo service (TiVo Plus) and Home Media Option at additional cost. But if you also need a DVD player, this combo model will save space by combining both functions.

DVR/DVD Recorder. The Pioneer DVR-810H combines an 80-hour TiVo DVR and DVD recorder. You get free TiVo Basic service, which can be upgraded to full TiVo service (TiVo Plus) and Home Media Option at additional cost. The Pioneer lets you burn shows recorded by TiVo to DVD-R or DVD-RW media and create DVDs from other sources. That means you can make hard copies of your favorite shows, freeing up more space in the Pioneer's hard drive.


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