Exploring Today's DVR Options: Standalone DVRs

In Part 2 of this series, we discussed the integrated DVR. Today's article will cover standalone DVRs and some of the different options available on today's market.

A standalone DVR is one that the consumer generally leases or purchases, and is used in addition to the box provided for you by your cable or satellite service provider. These units can come with a bunch of different features and prices.

Despite the variety of manufacturers out there—and there are plenty of them—the fact remains that TiVo is top dog. Although they've had some issues in the past with the original TiVo units, they've redrawn the line in the sand with their Series 2 and Series 3 boxes.

TiVo Series 2 DT

The TiVo Series 2 DT offers you a choice between two options. The less expensive model can record up to 80 hours of SD programming for around US$120. For another US$100 more, you can buy one with a larger capacity drive, capable of recording up to 180 hours of programming. The hard drive size (and therefore the price) is the only difference between these two models. Both units offer the same functionality:

  • Dual channel recording capability*
  • TV guide with search options by title, actor, sports team or keyword
  • Season passes and other specialized recording options.
  • Schedule recordings anywhere from the web
  • Transfer shows to laptop or other select portable devices**
  • Share photos, listen to internet radio and podcasts, Yahoo! Weather*
  • TiVo KidZone
  • TiVoCast

* Two analog channels or one analog and one digital channel, but you cannot record two digital channels simultaneously

**Requires an Ethernet cable or USB cable, not included.

Prices, as I mentioned above, average US$120 for the 80-hr model, and US$220 for the 180-hr model.

If you happen to have a Series 2 with broadband service, there are a host of additional features available. Some of these are free, such as games and streaming internet radio. But many of the services that are offered are either fee-based or require subscriptions to access the content.

TiVo's HD-DVR: The Series 3

The Series 3 is a big jump in price, but there's a reason for that. The Series 2 supports SD only, whereas the Series 3 offers the ability to record HDTV. Not only do you get the services offered with a Series 2 model, but you also get a few extra ones to sweeten the pot:

  • Digital Media Recorder with THX-certification*
  • Control live HDTV while recording 2 digital cable channels at once
  • 300 hours of SD programming or 32 hours of HD programming
  • Schedule recordings from tivo.com
  • Advanced TiVo broadband features

* TiVo's website claims that, globally, it's the only model currently certified for THX.

So how much is the jump in capabilities going to cost you? A good chunk of money. The price for the Series 3 is around US$800; TiVo has been running some good web specials, but I don't expect the price to drop permanently anytime soon. You've got to put a lot of money out if you want HD, so you'll have to decide if the additional cost's worth it to you.

As for the monthly fees, TiVo offers specials on those from time to time, as well. There is one, currently, that offers the first year of service free, but you need to purchase a three year subscription to get that. They have several different plans available; the longer you sign on for, the cheaper it gets. Right now, a one year contract is US$17 per month, two years will run you around US$15, and three years will get you the cheapest monthly rate at around US$13 a month.

There's also the option of paying the fees up front. Going this route will get you even more of a discount. One year will run you US$179, and two and three year contracts are prices at US$299. Obviously, these prices are subject to change but at least you have an idea of what it'll cost you by going with the TiVo option. Keep an eye out for sales and discount codes or coupons (you can occasionally find them online).


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



Non-TiVo Standalone Units

But if monthly fees and contracts aren't what you're looking for, then what's out there? The answer is surprisingly little, but I did manage to unearth a couple of gems.

Toshiba RD-XS35 is a powerful machine offering more than just DVR capabilities. It's a multi-media machine that allows you to record programs in the standard DVR format on a 160 GB hard drive, but also the ability to record to DVDs. The RD-XS35 can read a multitude of file formats, including: DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD-RAM, CD, CD-R, CD-RW, VCD, SVCD, MP3, WMA, and JPEG. You're not going to get HD with this machine, but at US$350 the price is reasonable.

Panasonic delivers a multi-media machine designed to meet all of your needs for around US$500, which is a little bit pricier than the Toshiba . Sporting an 80GB hard drive, the Panasonic DMR-EH75 is much more than just a DVR. This machine will play all of the disc formats that the Toshiba can, plus it plays VHS tapes, DVDs, and can even record to DVD. There's even an SD slot so you can transfer photos or videos onto the hard drive

Unlike the Toshiba, Panasonic delivers with an HDMI connection; if you don't know what this means, don't worry, you're not alone. HDMI allows you to connect multiple components with one wire, giving you the ability to get that HD picture in 1080i, but only if your TV is an HDTV.

Once again, the HD capability comes at a cost to you. However, unlike the TiVo Series 3 that weighs in at almost triple the cost of the non-HD units, Panasonic's all-in-one will only set you back about US$440-500 (depending on specials). That's only about a US$100-$150 more than the Toshiba, but it's almost half the cost of the TiVo Series 3. If HD is important to you, then you definitely should consider this machine.

But one thing to remember with these standalones; they all received similar comments by reviewers. Installation wasn't easy and the TV guide programming interface could prove difficult to use and in some areas it wasn't supported at all. The good news is that technology is always on the upswing. Issues with the TV guide interface were in the process of being resolved, but be sure to read the fine print and save your receipt in case you run into difficulties.

Finally, when you start shopping, pay careful attention to unit specs. Aside from the TiVo units, there wasn't a whole lot available as far as standalone DVRs go. There are, however, a lot of DVD recorders. An easy way to tell the difference is that a DVR requires a hard drive. A straight-up recorder won't have one, and every program you want to record will need to be written to disc while it airs. A DVR requires a hard drive, so be sure to carefully read the box. If you don't see a hard drive on the specs, it's not a DVR.

So what now?

We've reviewed the basic DVR options available, we've looked at what's available in integrated, and now we've examined some options in standalone units. It's a lot of information, but yet, there's more.

There is one final choice to look at a little closer: Homebrew 101. Here, we'll break down what's entailed in building your own PVR, and what to start looking at in order to get building.


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

Part 1: Deeper Dive into Today's DVR Options
Part 2: Deeper Dive into Integrated 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!