Video recording: DVD, TiVo, and more
If you're replacing an aging VCR, a recorder that uses digital technology now deserves first consideration. Subscribe now to find out more.
October 2007
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Digital video recorders
Recording TV shows on a hard-drive-based machine has advantages

Digital video recorders (DVRs) don't have a slot for removable discs or tapes. They record only on a hard drive much like the one in a computer and can't play prerecorded media. Some combination units pair a DVR with a DVD player/recorder so you can play (and copy to) removable media.

Many DVRs have space for 100 hours or more of standard-definition programming at high quality. Some let you record at lower quality, which raises capacity to 300 hours or more. HD-capable recorders usually hold about 30 hours of HD content.

You can get a stand-alone DVR or one that's integrated into a digital-cable box, satellite-TV receiver, or DVD player/recorder. Depending on the type you choose, you might pay for the service as well as the equipment--either a one-time charge or a monthly fee on top of your cable or satellite-TV bill.

Because they can record and play at the same time, DVRs allow you to pause (then rewind or fast-forward) the current show you're watching, then pick up where you left off. If you pause a one-hour show for 15 minutes at the beginning, you can skip the commercials and catch up to the "live" broadcast by the end of the show. Dual-tuner models can record one show as you watch another or record two programs as you're watching a third previously recorded program.

Many digital video recorders offer recording capability with the convenience of a TV program guide customized for the broadcast channels in your area or the cable or satellite service you have.

A DVR does not replace your usual programming source. You must still get programming through cable, satellite service, or antenna.


WHAT'S AVAILABLE

If you get your DVR functionality in a digital-cable box leased from your cable company, you're typically limited to the cable operator's choice of hardware. For hard-drive recording in a satellite receiver, you might be able to buy or lease the hardware from the Dish Network or DirecTV, or buy it from a retailer. With either cable or satellite, you can opt for a standard-def or high-def recorder.

For stand-alone DVRs, TiVo is the main service provider. Hardware prices depend mostly on whether it's an HD or SD unit and how many hours of programming you can store. Service charges vary.

You can buy TiVo equipment directly from TiVo or from electronics retailers. TiVo functionality was incorporated into DVRs from Sony, Toshiba, Pioneer, and Humax. Basic TiVo service was included with some of those products at no additional charge but TiVo's regular subscription rates applied for full functionality. Price: about $50 to more than $500 for a player that also incorporates a DVD player and VCR. Some TiVo units are free when you sign up for service at $13 per month; longer terms might be available.

Most combination DVD recorder/DVR models lack an onscreen program guide. But a few manufacturers, including Panasonic, Pioneer, and Toshiba, offer some combination DVD recorder/DVR models that use a free program guide service, such as TV Guide On Screen, that works with broadcast TV and many cable services.


HOW TO CHOOSE

Ultimately, a DVR's picture quality, like a VCR's, depends on the quality of the signal coming in, whether that's from your cable or satellite provider or from an off-air antenna.

Decide whether you need a tuner. If your TV does not have a built-in digital tuner (ATSC) and it is connected only to an antenna, buy a recorder that contains a digital tuner. That will enable you to continue receiving broadcast TV when analog broadcasts end in February 2009.

Do you want the most programming features? The services from TiVo might have more features and functionality than some of the offerings of cable and satellite companies. But you might have to buy another box, deal with another remote, and possibly pay another monthly fee.

Would you prefer to have fewer boxes and service providers to contend with? Inquire whether a cable box equipped with DVR functionality is available. If satellite service is an option, consider getting a receiver that includes a DVR.

Keep in mind that you might have to pay a separate fee for the DVR service. And some satellite and cable DVRs work only with the service provider's programming and won't record from other sources, such as an antenna.

Do you want to edit recordings or store camcorder video? Then you need a DVD recorder or DVD recorder/hard-drive combo.

Do you want to record HD content? Your options right now are an HD-capable DVR that's incorporated into your cable box or satellite receiver, or a TiVo HD DVR.