Going Digital: How to Choose the Right DVR

About 4 years ago, I tried a TiVo for the first time. These interesting digital video recording (DVR) devices have since developed a cult following. But at the time, I wasn't impressed: TiVo was expensive and required a monthly subscription fee. The video quality seemed lacking, reducing even the quality of live TV to a level below what I'd become accustomed to. And I couldn't archive TiVo content to a computer, where I might copy—or as video experts like to call it, transcode—content to different formats for use on PCs, laptops, and other devices. The TiVo seemed like a dead-end at the time.

Then, Microsoft began the beta for the first version of Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE). Since then, my family has used a Media Center PC—or, more recently, a Media Center Extender, which connects to a Media Center PC via my home network—to interface with the TV. We skip commercials, watch only the shows we care about, and archive content to PC-based hard disks. Every time I go on a trip, I copy a few recorded TV shows to my laptop, just in case I have time to watch them while I'm away.

A lot has changed in the past 5 years. First, TiVo and its primarily set-top box rival, ReplayTV, have improved dramatically. Second, many cable companies are finally offering DVR-based set-top boxes. So, I've started looking at various DVR alternatives to discover whether XP MCE is still the best option.

No Frills
Comcast and other cable operators (and satellite TV companies) are starting to offer new set-top boxes that give you basic DVR functionality. And when I say basic, I mean basic: For an additional $9.95 to $14.95 per month (typically), you can use a simple interface to record shows—but not much else. If you're looking for very basic DVR capabilities, this route might interest you. My guess, however, is that most Connected Home readers will want more than that.

Mainstream DVR
The reigning champ TiVo still requires a monthly (or lifetime) fee, but you can now buy TiVo devices that have massive storage capacities. Although its video inputs and outputs are still composite-type RCA connections, the quality appears to be similar to that of a Media Center PC or Extender—which is to say, acceptable but not fantastic. New advances such as TiVo Desktop and TiVo To Go let you copy content to your PC and transcode it for portable devices. (And, on the flip side, you can use your TiVo to display PC-based photo slide shows and listen to your PC-based music collection.)

I'll be looking more closely at TiVo and TiVo-related advances in the coming weeks, but at this time, it's pretty clear that TiVo is both less expensive and less complicated than any PC-based solution. The TiVo set-top box is simple and quiet, with no buttons or switches marring its clean face. TiVo's interface is likewise simple, with pleasant sounds and friendly menus. If you're looking for the simplest experience, TiVo is the way to go.

PC-Based DVR
I've been an XP MCE user since the first beta. It's been a love-hate relationship. Media Center PCs are more powerful than TiVo devices and can do much more. However, they are still PCs, so they also tend to be loud and buggy. PCs have no place in the den.

However, Media Center Extenders appear to solve these problems. The Extender is a set-top box, like a TiVo, that communicates over your home network with the Media Center PC, which you can have safely hidden away in a home office or other room. It's silent, which is a plus. But it's also just as buggy as the Media Center PC it drives: Our Extender crashes incessantly and refuses to download a software update that would let it display protected content—for example, from HBO. Frustrating? You bet? Recommended? No, not at all.

Make Your Choice
A new generation of PC-based DVRs might interest enthusiasts, but this software (and the required hardware) isn't exactly common or easy to set up and use. My advice is to settle on either TiVo or XP MCE. If you don't mind fiddling around with stuff, XP MCE is indeed more powerful. But if you want something that just works, and you can put up with some missing functionality, TiVo is cheaper and much simpler.

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