Choosing Your First DVR

When TiVo revolutionized television viewing in 1999, I didn’t jump on the bandwagon. Being a cautious spender, I decided I'd wait a few electronics generations. I held out until I could record my favorite shows on a cheaper machine with fewer technical issues not addressed before production.

Happily, many cable and satellite companies now lease DVRs to customers at affordable prices. Unfortunately, my cable company has not stepped up to the plate and I'm hesitant about switching from cable to satellite. So with a limited budget, and the endless search capacity of broadband internet, I’ve decided that this is the year I step into the world of manipulating “live” TV.

Since I started looking into buying (or renting) a DVR, I’ve learned that today's models have a basic set of really cool features that have moved well beyond the somewhat instant ability to pause, fast forward and rewind live TV. Most now come with dual tuners that allow a range of couch vegetation.

With a DVR, I can record two shows at once, record one show while watching another show and even watch a previously recorded show while recording two other shows. Your television-DVR combo becomes a magnificent juggling act. And finally, some DVRs can even be set to record an entire season of shows. YES! I’ll never miss House again!

What You Get for The Money

These little boxes of television revolution range in price between US$100 and nearly US$1000. The basic hundred dollar model will do little more than provide the most basic services such as pause, fast forward and rewind along with 40 hours of storage or less if you have a HDTV.

The higher end models have more storage capacity, can record to disc, will play your favorite podcasts, pose as expensive slide projectors, and leave a mint on your pillow after turning down the blankets. However, most stand alone DVRs, those not leased from a cable or satellite company, require a subscription service such as TiVo or ReplayTV. TiVo services range between US$13.95 and US$16.95 a month and usually requires a one-year service agreement, minimum.

The subscription service is essentially an on-screen TV Guide, although if you have a TiVo Series2 or higher you have access to quite a few online services. A few of the extras are free, but many aren't; it's a great way to spend more money. While I could begin manipulating live TV for as little as US$100 in equipment and set up fees through TiVo, I could spend a little more for a non-subscription service DVR that allows me to record to disc for around five hundred dollars.

Is a Service Really Necessary?

Some stand alone DVRs also come with their programming guide though they may be inferior to TiVo’s guide. Personally, I can live with an inferior programming guide for the promise of not having to pay monthly or yearly fees for the service. What I would really like to do is instantly skip commercials, record to a disc if I want to keep the show, view one show while recording another (what parent hasn’t sacrificed their favorite show for American Idol?) and watch House on the weekends.

I could accomplish most of this by switching from cable to satellite and leasing a DVR from the satellite company. However, I would only have the ability to record to a hard drive and not the opportunity to move the shows to disc if I want to create my own Season Two disc set of House (I’m in love with Hugh Laurie, please forgive me.) In addition to that, some integrated DVRs won't allow you to skip commercials and recordings may expire after a certain time period.

A No-Frills Choice

If I can’t watch a show on my own time (even if it's months later), and I can’t skip commercials, then the idea of switching from VCR to DVR seems pointless to me, even if I can record two shows and watch another one all at the same time. I want more than what a standard VCR offers but a little less than what the blingy DVRs offer. While TiVo appears to be the overall best option if you crave the extras, my needs are modest and a non-subscription service DVR with an integrated dvd-recorder should meet them.

My research, however, is far from complete. I’ve heard I could build my own DVR with an old PC drive and tin foil. Or maybe the tin foil was to increase the reception on the TV antennae?