Exploring Today's DVR Options: Integrated DVRs

You need a DVR. In Part 1 of this series, we explored some of the options out there. Now what? It's time to look at what's available within each of the three main categories. If you've decided that you like the simplicity of going with your local cable or satellite provider, here's a breakdown of the top three companies offering integrated services so you can check out what they have to offer as far DVRs go.

Cable

Cable is a convenient, and popular, viewing option. There's no need for extra equipment (such as a satellite dish or extra tuners for different televisions in the house) if all you're interested in is your basic cable service, but there are drawbacks in going with cable when considering DVR service.

First, you'll need to subscribe to digital cable. This will require a tuner box for every television set that you want to use DVR service with, instantly excluding one of the reasons people prefer cable over satellite. An example: you want a DVR in your bedroom and living room. You'll need two digital tuner/DVR boxes.

While their promotional line is "no extra fees" don't be fooled: there really are extra fees. Digital cable service costs slightly more than basic cable because you have to add the tuner box onto your bill, and the digital cable/DVR box costs a little more to rent a month than the standard digital cable tuner would. Never forget that "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch!"

A quick check with the three main cable providers (Time Warner, Cox, and Comcast) showed that they each offer the same basic DVR services, such as an SD-DVR or an HD-DVR. But remember, if you opt to go with the HD-DVR, recordings take up more hard drive space which means you can save fewer programs.

With digital cable, it's a little different. It comes into your house encrypted, which is why you need a digital set-top box from your cable provider, to decrypt the signal. Most of the channels over 100, including your pay per view and specialty channels, are digital. So what does this have to do with dual channel recording? Here's the bottom line. Your DVR has the ability to record two analog channels simultaneously. Or, one analog and one digital, but it doesn't have the capability to record two digital channels at one time, because it has to decrypt the incoming signal.

How big of a drawback this is depends on your viewing habits. If the bulk of your interests fall on the digital only channels, this will be more of a negative for you than someone who primarily watches channels below 99 (typically analog channels are 1-99, with digital beginning over 100).

One final note that concerns cable subscribers. The claim of dual channel recording capabilities can be deceptive, and the reason why can get a little confusing. Basically, television signals are coming into your home in two different formats: analog and digital. With analog signals, the information isn't encrypted. All you need to do is "plug and play" which means when you subscribe to your basic cable service, you just need a TV and a coax cable.

 


Is an integrated DVR not quite right for you? Take a Deeper Dive into Today's DVR Options.

DirecTV

Satellite TV puts some people off because of the extra equipment required. Plus, there's the cost of installation. But don't let this scare you away. If you subscribe to their service, you can often get the equipment for free. A lot of the time you can even get it professionally installed at no extra cost. DirecTV used to offer a TiVo DVR but they've since changed to an in-house system; it's been less well-received, but still offers the trademark advantages of TiVo.

Like with cable service, you'll need a separate DVR/tuner for each television you want to have the service available with. There may or may not be a separate rental fee, depending on the entertainment package you subscribe to.

The DVRs offer up to 200 hours of recorded programming in SD format, and as much as 50 hours in HD. You also have the ability to record on two different channels while simultaneously watching a previously recorded program. There are also some neat extras, like a horoscope channel, news, weather and on-screen caller ID.

Earlier, I'd mentioned dual channel recording. Keep in mind that one video line supports recording on only one channel. Even with digital cable, if you have a single cable line, you'll only be able to record one channel. So, how do you take advantage of dual channel recording? For cable, it's an easy fix. All you have to do is buy an inexpensive splitter and you're in business. For satellite, the solution is less simple and more expensive. You'll need a dual video line installed. If you can't do it yourself, their technicians can for around US$100.

My husband happens to know how to do this so we were able to do it on our own before the tech arrived to install our dish and receivers, but we did have to buy the necessary cable and a couple of inexpensive, but specialized, tools. It wasn't what I'd call easy, but it wasn't overly difficult, either.

DirecTV offers two different DVR packages: DVR Plus and HD DVR Plus. With the Plus package, there's no rental fee, the price is rolled into the subscription cost, and you can have multiple DVR systems for your home without any additional fees.

If HD is important to you, you'll need to take a closer look at the satellite option.

 


Is an integrated DVR not quite right for you? Take a Deeper Dive into Today's DVR Options.

DishNetwork

There are only a few minor differences between Dish and DirecTV. Both offer dual channel DVRs, HD packages, and with either of these DVR systems you get some of the unique options I mentioned above, such as on-screen caller ID, weather, and news. Dish, like DirecTV, offers two basic DVR packages: HD-DVR and SD-DVR.

Dish, like DirecTV, also offers dual-channel capabilities, though you'll need to install a second video line (as with DirecTV). Here, though is where Dish differs from DirecTV. On the back of their SD-DVR unit is a panel with inputs for TV1 and TV2.

This allows you to use one receiver for two separate televisions. The one hitch is that you'll still need to either have them professionally run the cable through your walls or do it yourself, otherwise you will end up with unsightly cable running through your home to get to the second television set. There are two remotes, marked conveniently as 1 and 2, with 1 using IR and 2 using RF. The use of RF allows you to operate the second TV outside of line of sight.

The important thing to remember is that regardless of having two televisions on one receiver, you can still only record two channels at one time. You can't record two on TV1 and record two on TV2. One satellite input equals one recorded signal. Two inputs allows you to record two signals. The benefit of Dish's setup, though, is that you can access recorded shows on a different Television set.

Dish, like DirecTV, offers an HD-DVR receiver for one to two televisions (again, using the same TV1 and TV2 setup as shown above, with the added output for HD). Note that only TV1 will have HD capability. Also, with an HD-DVR you have to remember that you can record less than standard as the programs take up more hard drive space. For Dish, they state it's up to 30 hours versus the 50 hours advertised for DirecTV, even though both claim to record up to 200 hours of SD-TV.

When two companies offer comparable products, a good tip is to ask around. Get some opinions from friends, colleagues and family on how well the company's products are in your area. Depending on their locations, one company may have a better reputation than another, so be sure to look for consumer reviews and ask people you know for their feedback to help you choose. In my area, DirecTV tends to get a thumbs-up over DishNetwork, but where my parents live, they've had the opposite experience. And to add to the mix, our neighbor loved their cable service while ours was spotty at best.

The Bottom Line

When it comes down to it, there really isn't a clear winner between cable and satellite. Even between the various satellite companies, their packages and options are comparable. Ultimately, satellite edges out cable because of the HD capabilities. Cable isn't quite there yet, and you have to pay extra for a subscription to digital cable in order to use the HD service. With satellite, the signal is already HD, so it comes to you already optimized for the HD-DVR units.

Some of you have probably already decided that integrated isn't for you and you're interested in purchasing your own DVR unit. If this is the case, then you'll definitely want to pay closer attention to the third article in this series, where I address some of the options available in stand-alone units.

 


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

 

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