Tell me about Digital Video Recorders

This is probably a GQ technically, but I’m posting it here because I’d also like some opinions about different features and maybe even suggestions about different technology.

As far as technology goes I’m still pretty much in the “Fire” stage with only a conceptual understanding of “the wheel.” So when it comes to recording TV shows, well, I have this 20 year-old VCR…

My big question is: Do I need cable or a satellite arrangement to make a DVR go? Or can I work it with a signal from my antenna? Because I’m not liking tapes and I shouldn’t have to be limited to that kind of storage anymore.

Feel free to ask and answer anything I may have left out.

Firstly, any DVR should work with just about any cable, satellite, or regular aerial hookup that you have. As long as you can get a signal into your TV, you should be able to get a signal into your DVR and record it.

One thing to consider, up front, is what you need it for and how much you want to spend. If you don’t record very much, and your main aim is to get rid of VCR tapes, then you might want to consider buying a DVD Recorder rather than a Digital Video Recorder.

A Digital Video Recorder, with a hard drive, is generally still considerably more expensive than a DVD Recorder, which doesn’t have a hard drive and records straight onto blank DVDs. A few months ago, we bought a DVD Recorder precisely because we were getting tired of having bulky tapes lying around all over the place. We don’t record very much stuff for permanent use; we mainly use it for time shifting. We use DVD-RWs, so that once we’ve watched a show, we can just erase the DVD and use it again. I got this one for $60, and so far it has worked fine.

DVRs with hard drives are generally a lot more expensive, although quite a few cable and satellite TV providers will give you one free with your subscription. TIVO boxes can also be had pretty cheap, but require a monthly fee. I’ll let someone more experienced talk more about DVRs. So far, a DVD recorder has been fine for my needs.

For the hell of it, I read the small print when I bought a Tivo. It will work perfectly fine without paying any subscription fees. Record anything you want…

…if you know when it’s airing and can set the Tivo to record at that time. The monthly fee you’re paying is for them to continually send you updated channel content. It’s just the Guide. Without paying a monthly fee, it’s very much like it’s just a VCR. A lot of the fun Tivo-type features rely on knowing what’s going to be on in the next week. Wishlists, recommendations, broad recording search parameters (you can be damned sure this Marylander will catch Curling any time it airs anywhere on his cable, thanks to a recording request for Sports:CURLING), etc.

At least that’s how it was about three years ago when I bought my Tivo and got the lifetime membership.

Are you sure about this? I’ve never heard anyone else say anything about it. I’ve been looking for something to record my digital stuff in from my antenna so I can ditch the cable completely. Right now it’s hard enough to find recorders with a digital tuner in them, and only a handful that were made a few years ago record digital that are free. Those still go for 4-500 on eBay. The only other way I know to get digital is to either get one and pay for it through cable/sat, or a Tivo, or build a MythTV. I’d rather just pay the $200 or so and never pay another fee again.

I would also like to know for certain if TiVo can work without a subscription.

I hadn’t considered DVD recorders. Questions:

  1. how much are the blank discs?
  2. how much programming do they hold?
  3. how many times can you resuse them? They probably claim infinite, but have you encountered discs that eventually go bad?

I have HD based DVD Recorder. 99.5% of the time I record to the HD and delete, but occasionally I archive on DVD. (I edit out the commercials before archiving) It gets the programming information over the air. There has been some hiccoughs (loses the info completely, reset being the best way to get it back), but in general it works quite well. It also makes a passable DVD player.


I’ve gone through three of these things. The first had a program problem that kept resetting itself. The next went with my TV when the cable got hit by lightning. I still have the last one.

The disks are a couple of bucks each. I’ve had mine for two years or so now, all told, and have gone through 6-7 disks. A couple of things I have kept. I have had one or two disks go bad, but then I usually record things weekly so they do get used a lot. Usually they skip a bit, or some times I’ve seen where they showed a few frames of something I’ve gotten rid of. Over all not that bad though.

They hold just about two hours of shows at normal quality. The worst part about that is I’ve taken to record a minute or two before and a mintue or two after so I make sure I get everything, after a couple of shows sometimes the last show gets a few seconds cut off.

Some of the problems I’ve had are they are slow to load. It usually takes a mintue or so to turn the recorder on, have it read the disk. It’s not that big of a deal but it can be annoying. You also can’t get rid of one part of the disk and have it record over it keeping the other parts of the disk. This is probably the worst. We do most of our recording on Wednesday and Thursday nights, if we happen to watch one part then we need to switch disks.

I’m still wondering what I can do. I don’t wacth a whole lot of TV, and we only have basic cable which actually gives us less then what we get with an antenna. I just want something with a hard drive, a tuner and a simple timer. I don’t need all the extra crap, and I don’t want to pay any extra. I didn’t know that Windows has something to record TV. I might have to try it out just to see. I might just get a cheap computer, put just that on there with a DVD player and have a nice set up at the house.

I started out with a Sharp 300U, which has both a hard drive, and a DVD burner. Although it work fine mechanically. the User Interface was impossible. It took a PhD in Remoteology to figure out how to record or play a program. I’m currently using a dedicated Mac Mini with an EyeTV Hybrid, and their wonderful scheduling software. This system is (IMHO) far superior to any OEM solution out there.

A google of “Tivo without subscription” gives me a whole slew of results, but most are various message boards and fan-based FAQs, not exactly the most definitive answer. Pretty much all of those say the same as I did, though. You can manually record by channel/time just as you would with a VCR.

Tivo’s official answer says you’re pretty S.O.L., though. But from their language, I’m guessing that “pressing ‘record’ at the start of a show, and then stopping it at the end” is still allowed (it only says that “No smart, automatic-recording service functionality is represented or should be expected.”).

I can answer the “how much programming do they hold” question. The standalone DVD recorders I have seen have a 1,2,4 & 6-hour mode. Understandably, there is a tradeoff between capacity and quality.

We did some tests for quality of video (audio seems less affected, and it was less important to us). Using “talking heads” -type of a source (government meetings), we could not tell the difference between the 1,2 & 4 hour modes, but the 6 hour mode was unacceptably jerky and poor.

If you are recording sports events, you might not be happy with the 4 hour mode, as fast motion stresses the encoding more than, say, a simple sitcom or news show.

The 2 hour mode is considered “standard” and equivalent to most commercial titles. Only a real archivist-purist would use the 1-hour mode as I doubt if anyone can tell the difference.

As far as disks costing several dollars – if that price is for erasables, maybe it’s a reason not to use those. I pick up -R’s for 40 cents at Wal-Mart, and even tho they can’t be erased, they can be appended, then archived or thrown away. Perhaps this is cheaper than erasables?

I had a ReplayTV for many years and was quite happy with it. I always recorded at the lowest quality and was never bothered by it. It was equivalent to what I got with my VCR. I recently switched to FIOS TV and I decided to rent their DVR rather than use the ReplayTV. Using the Replay would have been cumbersome. It did not accept a cablecard, so it could not tune the digital signal directly. If you buy a Replay or Tivo, make sure they accept such a card and make sure your company will provide one.

The DVR provided by Verizon is adequate, but the software is not quite up to the Replay. It can, however, record two programs at once which the Replay could not. It can record up to 85 hours of standard television, 20 hours HD. It costs $13 per month. They also have a “multi room dvr” that does some other tricks and costs $20.00 per month. I don’t know about that.

No way.

I’ve been using Verbatim DVD+RW discs, which cost me about $20 for a pack of 30 (about 66c each) at

Each one can (in theory, anyway), be erased and rewritten hundreds of times. I’ve already rewritten some of them at least a couple of dozen times, and have had no problems. That’s much cheaper than writing to non-rewritable media that you can’t use again.

How long does it take to erase one? I tried that with CDs years ago, and the erase cycle took so long, I discarded the idea. No way I’ll wait a half hour to erase something I can buy new for 25 cents.

I’m not sure where you’re living Inigo, but I hopped on the DVR bandwagon this year. I must say, I don’t know how I ever lived without it. I’m using Time Warner cable, and they offer a cablebox with DVR capability for a few more bucks a month. One of the nice things is that it has two tv tuners. (I’m sure other models do as well). Record two things, watch one record one, etc. See if your cable company offers the functionality.