Digital Video Recorders may very well be the future of television. They offer you unprecedented freedom: You can watch precisely what you’d like, whenever you desire. But options vary, and it’s worthwhile to investigate what’s available in DVR hardware so you can be satisfied with your ultimate selection.
The accompanying chart lists six DVR options–TiVo, Comcast, Verizon FiOS, Dish Network, DirecTV and SnapStream Beyond TV4–and provides information about each company for each category to give you a starting point for comparing options.
DVR Hardware: Rent or Own?
You can rent or own your DVR hardware and each method has its pros and cons. Here are a few things you’ll need to consider:
Owning: If you opt to own, you have to pay an up-front fee for the box. Some companies like TiVo give you a big rebate to mitigate the cost, but there is still some cost to get started. Secondly, you have to be comfortable setting up the DVR yourself. Finally, if the technology changes, you have to buy a new box. You may or may not pay a monthly fee, depending on the brand you buy–TiVo, for instance, does charge a monthly fee over and above the cost of the box. If you go with a software choice such as SnapStream you have to pay for the cost of the software plus any additional DVR hardware, such as TV Tuner card that you would add inside your Windows PC.
Renting: If you rent your DVR hardware, you pay a fee each month, but the cable, satellite or telephone company typically sets up the DVR box for you and it’s usually (although not in every case) built into your set-top box. If the technology changes, and the company you are renting from decides to upgrade, you get the upgrade, sometimes at no extra charge, depending on the technology. On the downside, there is usually little or no choice in terms of the DVR or software (although there are exceptions such as Comcast offering a choice of TiVo software later this year). You have to take what the company offers, and if the company does not choose to upgrade software or technology, or does not offer you something you want, you are stuck with what the provider gives you.
If you buy your own DVR, you choose the brand and software. Conversely, cable, telephone and satellite services typically provide the service via the set-top box. You may want to do some research into the brand your provider offers by checking sites such as this one to make sure your company’s offering has a solid performance record. It pays to do a little research up front before you make the decision.
Unless you go with the SnapStream solution, all of the remaining options in this round-up have a monthly cost associated with them for the cost of the service. This varies substantially, so it pays to shop. When looking at cost, be certain you understand what you are getting for the money in terms of the options outlined in this round-up.
Hard Drive Size in GB or Hours
Each DVR records programming to a hard drive and the larger the hard drive, the more shows you can record. Some companies measure this in gigabytes (GB) as with your computer’s hard drive, while others measure in hours. Typically, a GB of storage equals one hour of recording time, but higher-quality recordings take up more hard disk space and hence give you less recording time. As with a computer, more space is always better because you will always record more than you think. Check with the manufacturer or provider to see what each is offering. Hard drive space should be a big determining factor in your decision, although not the only factor.
High Definition Version Available
If you have a high-definition TV, you probably want to record on a High-Definition DVR. All of the offerings in our round-up offer high-definition options, but they can be pricey, so check carefully. If you spent the money for the high-definition television and the extra monthly fee from your provider to show HD programming, it may be worth it to you to get high definition recording.
Single Tuner/Dual Tuner
All of the DVRs in this round-up provide dual tuners, meaning you can record one show while watching another. Keep in mind that there may be some older TiVo single-tuner DVRs still available from resellers, but you will find only dual-tuner options on the TiVo Web site. Note with SnapStream, you will need to buy a dual tuner card.
When you buy a DVR, chances are you are getting a single DVR for a single room. If you have a home network or a media hub, there are ways around this, but in general it is only available in the room it is installed. Some of the providers, however, like Verizon’s FiOS service offer a multi-room DVR that enables you to watch different recorded shows on different televisions, even while recording another. If you have multiple TVs and you only want to pay a single fee, that feature could be important.
Connecting to your Home PC Network
There are various ways to connect to your Home PC network, which enable you to save shows to a hard drive on a PC, backup drive or media hub; or conversely to access content you have on your PC. There are several ways to do this:
- Wirelessly: The ability to connect to the network without having to run wires.
- Ethernet Cable: The ability to connect to your PC or network by running a Cat-5 cable from your DVR to your router or network hub.
- USB: The ability to connect to your network using a USB cable or dongle that communicates to your network (or in some cases, to connect external devices such as a digital camera or portable media device).
In the table at the bottom, we show which devices support which connection methods.
Requires Phone Line
Some services require a phone line to use the service or the features of the service. TiVo requires that you connect to its network via a phone line or high-speed Internet connection. That enables TiVo to send you software updates, and also to monitor your viewing habits to send recommendations and to collect aggregated viewer data, something you may want to consider when making your purchase decision. DishNetwork also uses a phone line to implement multi-room functionality. DirecTV uses the phone to order pay-per-view movies automatically – if you don’t connect your phone line, you have to call your order in.
Each DVR has a different interface with different features. Each also typically has its own remote with features built-in. Some are easier to use than others, so it’s important to ask about features. Talk to people who already have DVRs and shop for the interface/remote that suits you best in terms of functionality and ease of use. This section outlines several user interface features, but this is by no means a comprehensive list.
- Pause/Rewind Live TV: The ability to pause and rewind live TV is one of the joys of owning a DVR and it is available on all of the offerings in this round-up.
- Undelete: The ability to go back and get shows that have been previously deleted.
- Season Ticket Function: The ability to record the entire season of your favorite show with a single command, and in some instances even skip repeats automatically.
- Kid Blocking: The ability to limit the shows your kids record and which recordings they can watch. All of the services in this round-up offer this ability (except SnapStream), but the cable, satellite and phone company provide this feature as part of the overall service, rather than a feature unique to the DVR. Only TiVo offers a DVR-based kid blocking service.
Each method offers some different services. These are nice to have, but not essential. Some of these include:
- Single-click Commercial Skipping: The ability to skip a commercial with a single click on the remote. SnapStream and Dish Network offer this ability.
- Choose Programs from the Web: The ability to select programs from a Web interface wherever you are. Could be useful, for instance, if you are at work, want to schedule a recording and you won’t be home in time. Can be very handy. (See chart for providers.)
- Transfer to a Portable Device: The ability to easily transfer recordings to a DVD or external device such as a video iPod.
|TiVo||Comcast||Verizon FiOS||DishNetwork||DirectTV||Snap Stream Beyond TV 4|
|Rent or Own||Own 80 – $99 after rebate/180 -$199 after rebate/300 HD – $799||Rent||Rent||Rent/Own||Rent||Own|
|DVR Brand||TiVo||Motorola, Scientifc Atlanta||Motorola QIP 64XX||Dish Player DVR 625||DirectTV Plus DVR||Software|
|Monthly Cost||$12.95 – $16.95||$9.95||$12.99 HD/ $19.99 Multi-Room Non-HD||$5.99/Free with some packages||5.99/ Free with some packages||None|
|Hard Drive Size in GB or Hours||80/180/300GB (HD)||80 hours standard Def||160 GB||200 hours standard /30 hours high Def||100 Hour||Free storage space on your computer or network|
|High Definition Version Available (yes/no)||Yes||Yes, 15 hours of High Def||Yes (a combination HD/DVR box)||Yes||Yes||Possible with right equipment|
|Single Tuner/Dual Tuner||Dual Tuner||Dual Tuner||Dual Tuner||Dual Tuner||Dual Tuner||Depends on TV Tuner Card|
|Multi-Room DVR||yes||No||Yes||Yes (two rooms)||No||No|
|Connect to Home Computer Network||Yes (but extra)||No||Yes (uses coaxial cable and router to connect PC and TV)||No||No||Yes|
|WiFi (yes/no)||Yes (but extra||No||No||No||No||If on your computer|
|Ethernet Connection (yes/no)||Yes||No||Yes||Available but not functioning||No||If on your computer|
|USB (yes/no)||Yes||No||No||Yes, but for connecting external devices like a digital camera.||No||If on your computer|
|Requires Phone Line (yes/no)||Yes (on some models)||No||No||No (but you can use phone line to connect multi-room feature)||Yes (for pay per view movies)||No|
|Pause Rewind Live TV||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Season Ticket Function||Yes||Yes||No||No||Yes||Yes|
As you can see, there are a lot of different things to consider when purchasing a DVR. And the market is evolving rapidly, as TiVo and the other DVR manufacturers are constantly adding features. But whether you rent or own your box, you’ll find a new-found freedom in being able to watch your favorite TV shows on your own schedule.