How to Choose a DVR

It is time for a DVR? There's a simple premise behind digital video recorders, or DVRs: Instead of television controlling your schedule, you control television's schedule. A DVR lets you watch what you want when you want and even gives you the option to pause and rewind live programming. You won't need to worry about having blank tapes or DVDs, but you could run into storage issues and you'll need to be aware of monthly fees.

Understanding DVR
A DVR is simply a hard drive with a television tuner. It allows you to program the television shows you want to record, either on a one-time or regular basis. There's no tapes or DVDs involved, but you will need a cable or satellite hookup if you wish to record those programs.

There's real wow factor with a DVR. First, they're incredibly easy to program. A DVR uses a programming guide similar to the guide channel you see on cable and satellite TV. You just highlight the shows you want, and the DVR does the rest.

Second, a DVR can be programmed in unusual ways. Let's say you want to record everything that features George Clooney or another favorite actor. Some DVRs will let you program in the name, and then they'll scour the programming guide each day and record every show that lists George Clooney, including talk shows, movies and TV series.

Third, a DVR breaks you out of the linear TV experience. Because a DVR uses digital media, it can record and play back at the same time. If you get home 15 minutes late for your favorite show, you can watch it from the beginning while the DVR records the end. Didn't get a replay on that questionable sideline call? You can rewind the game yourself and watch it in slow motion, then rejoin the live action.

A DVR records in MPEG format, which is readable by most computers, so you can export your recordings to your PC and edit them or take them with you.

Features to Consider
The recording space on a DVR is limited. The available space on a DVR is measured in hours, and spending more will get you more recording time. Once you run out of recording time, you'll need to delete some of what you've recorded or find another way of storing it.

DVRs can record at different speeds, much like VCRs. This lets you fit more programming on the built-in hard drive, but it also reduces the quality of the recordings. When you're shopping, pay careful attention to how recording time is calculated. For DVRs that record high-definition programs, you'll see an accurate number of recording hours. For standard programming, you'll see the words "up to," which measures recording time at the lowest possible image and sound quality. As a general rule, higher-quality recording time is 1/10th of the maximum recording time promised, so a DVR that claims "up to 300" hours of recording time will give you 30 hours at the highest possible resolution. If you just need to record a few programs each week, a basic DVR that holds around 60 hours of programming will do.

One feature that's a must is an ATSC tuner. All television in the United States will be digital beginning in February 2009. A DVR that lacks an ATSC tuner won't work after that date. High-end DVRs have dual ATSC tuners that let you record two programs at once.

You'll also want to consider the programming guide, which a DVR needs to operate. TiVo is the most popular programming guide for DVRs, but you must pay a monthly fee of $15 to $20 for TiVo service. TiVo is the simplest and most feature-rich programming guide, so it might be worth the monthly cost to you. Shopping around may get you a better deal on a monthly programming guide, or you can get a DVR through your cable or satellite provider at a discounted rate.

Saving Your Recordings
Once the hard drive on the DVR is full, you'll either need to discard some recordings to free up space or find a more permanent way to save them. There are still some DVRs available with built-in VCRs, but VCR technology is on the way out, so these aren't a good long-term solution.

That leaves DVD and additional hard drives as your best choices. A DVR with a built-in DVD player is the simplest choice. You simply decide what to save on the DVD and the machine records it. You can then store the DVD, although most rewritable DVDs have a useful lifespan of 10 years or less.

For digital storage, you can use your PC, as long as the DVR you choose supports a USB or Ethernet connection for networking. Ethernet is preferable, because it can move large amounts of data faster, which saves transfer time. One thing to consider is digital rights management (DRM), which allows copyright holders to prevent consumers from making digital copies of their work. Digital television programs that are protected by DRM can't be copied to your PC, and in some cases you won't be able to burn a DVD either.

The other choice is to keep everything digital by plugging in an external hard drive. Maxtor, Apricorn and Speco are among the companies that make external hard drives built exclusively for use with a DVR. You'll need to make sure that your DVR supports an external hard drive, and it's a good idea to look for FireWire connections, which are even faster than Ethernet.

High-Definition DVRs
The newest DVRs on the market can record and play back high-definition digital video at resolutions up to 1080i. These DVRs are expensive because they need larger hard drives to store high-definition programming.

If you're thinking about a high-definition DVR, there are two things to consider. First, you want HDMI ports that can stream large amounts of audio and video data. Second, be sure that the DVR supports MPEG4 video encoding. MPEG4 is expected to become the standard format for high-definition programming, so you'll need a DVR that supports it to record HDTV shows.

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