Exploring Today's DVR Options

So you want a DVR. If you’re one of the many consumers asking, “Now what?” don’t feel like you’re alone. Navigating the options can be a daunting business, but knowing what you need makes the decision a much simpler task.

In this four-part series, we’ll first look at what your basic choices are and the pros and cons of each; later on in the series, we’ll take a focused look at what’s available within each option.

Like all electronics, DVRs come in many different shapes, sizes, options, and price tags, all to fit the various consumer needs and wants; but if you follow the trail to the top, you’ll find that when it comes to DVRs, there are three main types: integrated, standalone, and the homebrew (or "Do It Yourself," commonly "DIY").

Option #1: An Integrated DVR

Let’s look at integrated DVRs first. In many ways, this is the simplest option for consumers; it’s also the least expensive in terms of up-front costs. The term integrated comes from the fact that the DVR and TV tuner are combined into one box; it’s convenient, and takes up less space. These are the units you’ll get from your local cable or satellite provider.

Typically, there’s a monthly rental fee, but check with your provider to see what specials they may be running; at times you can get the DVR unit for free by subscribing to a specific entertainment package. Integrated DVRs usually have the ability to record two programs simultaneously while allowing you to watch a third, previously recorded program.

Be aware that if you’re using a satellite provider, an installation of a second video line might be required. The storage space is limited but it’s adequate if all you’re interested in is recording a program to watch at a later time, and then deleting it. However, long-term storage for viewing will eat-up valuable space on what is, essentially, just a hard drive. If you have a lot of programs saved on the disk, you’ll quickly find that new recordings will only be kept for a day or so. The DVR will automatically delete unsaved programs to make room for others in your to-do list.

Pros and Cons

Is an integrated DVR the right choice for you? Before making that decision, take a brief look at the benefits and drawbacks to this option.

Cons: While this is a great option for many people, there are some disadvantages to using an integrated unit.

  • You’re responsible - most integrated DVRs are owned by your provider, not by you; if the unit is damaged while in your care, you can be held liable
  • Limited capability - integrated DVRs tend to have fewer options for users
  • Monthly fees - monthly fees, if any, can really add up over time
  • Installation - some providers charge installation fees; you can opt to install the unit yourself, but it can be a hassle

Pros: There are also some very attractive benefits to choosing an integrated DVR.

  • Installation - you’ll have the option of professional installation, minimizing both hassle and errors
  • Equipment - there’s often an equipment protection plan available; if the unit breaks, you won’t need to buy another one
  • Cost - since there’s no equipment to purchase, the initial start-up costs are considerably less than the other two options

For the casual or new-to-DVR person, this is an excellent option to start with. If you’re not sure this is the right fit for your needs, keep reading; option #2 or #3 might be what you’re looking for.


Does an integrated DVR sound like what you're looking for? Take a Deeper Dive for more info on choosing an Integrated DVR.


Option #2: A Standalone DVR

If the integrated units aren’t what you’re looking for, what then? The answer might be what’s called a standalone unit. These are DVR units that you can find at most stores. Depending on the price, you can go with an elaborate model rich in features, or keep it basic. This option costs more initially, and some of the units will still require a monthly subscription fee; so why is this a better option than integrated? Because the stand-alone units offer more versatility and options and you can buy them just about anywhere electronics are sold.

As mentioned above, the integrated units have limited capabilities, and the more comfortable you get with DVR technology, the more options you’ll want to have available at your fingertips. You might want more storage space, or the capability of exporting files to your computer, or creating a DVD from your recorded and saved programs. Or, maybe you want to own your unit, rather than rent. You can even use multiple standalone units together. Whatever the reason, if you answered yes to any of the above, this is the option for you.

Pros and Cons

So, is a standalone DVR for you? Again, take a look at the list of pros and cons and consider what specs you are looking for in your DVR search.

Cons: While a standalone unit has a lot to offer, there are still drawbacks to consider before purchasing one of these DVR units.

  • Higher initial costs - a low-end unit will cost around $100 while a high-end unit can run into the thousands
  • Monthly subscription fees - if you opt for a TiVo unit, you will still have to pay a monthly fee, although they do have lump sum payment options
  • Limited warranty - manufacturer warranties are often limited, sometimes as little as 90 days from time of purchase

Pros: There are some very compelling reasons, though, to purchase a stand-alone DVR.

  • A broader range of capabilities - transferring favorite programs to DVD or another computer, larger hard drives for more storage space, extras geared towards specific units, such as Yahoo! Weather for TiVo consumers
  • Versatility - changing location in the home and using with alternate TVs, writing to DVD instead of keeping the program stored long term on the unit’s hard drive, can disconnect from TV without losing your cable or satellite service
  • Availability - remote locations are not dependent upon a company’s service area
  • Cheaper - long term, the fees through a cable or satellite service will add up
  • Can have multiples - it's fairly easy to set up multiple units, if you go with a brand like TiVo or ReplayTV

If you’re comfortable with DVRs and want to do more than casual viewing, this is probably the option for you; but don’t forget to see if option #3 is more attractive.


Does a standalone DVR sound like what you're looking for? Take a Deeper Dive for more info on choosing a standalone DVR.


Option #3: A Homebrew (or DIY) DVR

Homebrew DVRs are, as hinted by the term, created at home and built to personal specifications by the tech-savy among us. This really isn’t a feasible option unless you’re fairly comfortable with home computers; building your own box from the ground up goes well beyond the everyday “plug and play” relationship.

Why homebrew, then? Because this option gives you the best flexibility, the most DVR power, and it can be customized to what the consumer needs and wants. Keep in mind that it can also be expensive, depending on what upgrades you need for your computer, but typically the minimum requirements are a TV capture card and DVR software.

Various software programs are available to the homebrew crowd, including MythTV, SageTV, Freevo and GB-PVR. Depending on the program you decide to use in your box, you’ll need either Windows or Linux OS. There may also be a fee.

Pros and Cons

The bottom line: What are the drawbacks and benefits for going with this option?

Cons: While the homebrew option can, in many ways, be the best bang for your buck, there are still drawbacks to this choice.

  • Initial costs - if you have to upgrade your equipment or purchase a TV capture card
  • Technical difficulty - installing new components, setting up software

Pros: Homebrew can be worth the effort!

  • Customization - you can build a DVR for exactly what you need No monthly fees - no subscription service to pay for
  • Networking - you can create a true “media center” for your home theater, including sharing photos, videos, movies and music

So if you’re not overwhelmed by technology, you feel comfortable sticking your hands into your computer’s guts, and if you want a powerful DVR system to perfectly fit your needs, this final option is the one for you.

Also, for further study, check out a two part discussion on the comparison between homebrew solutions like MythTV and proprietary solutions like TiVo (or most standalone or integrated units): The battle between open-source and proprietary DVRs

Let's Wrap Things Up

Now that you’ve looked at what choices are out there, you’re probably thinking, “Okay, that’s not so bad.” But the hardest part comes once you’ve made the decision about which option you want; you still have the daunting task of wading through the available choices within each category so you can pick that best option for your budget and needs.

While integrated units are definitely a great contender for the budget conscious, or anyone not interested in owning their own hardware, they’re also the simplest option to evaluate. Stand-alone and homebrew DVR choices can be much more complicated. In the next three segments, we’ll examine what stand-alone DVRs and homebrew options have to offer in equipment, costs, and ease of use.


Does a homebrewed DVR sound right for you? Take a Deeper Dive for more info on choosing a Homebrew DVR solution.

The rest of the story... Keep up with today's DVR options as we continue with our four-part series:

Part 2: Deeper Dive into Integrated DVRs
Part 3: Deeper Dive into Standalone DVRs
Part 4: Deeper Dive into Homebrew DVRs

Do you love your DVR? Do you hate it? Share your thoughts on all things DVR with the Playground!