A DVR today is a household term and a household item. Since TiVo helped bring the idea of recording TV on a hard drive instead of a VHS cassette the world of TV watching has changed. Instead of fiddling with stacks of blank VHS tapes and re-recording over cassettes for sub-par quality recordings we all admired the ability to look at a digital TV guide on our screen, push a button, and not worry about a thing.
Many cable and satellite TV companies are now offering DVR capable boxes for an additional monthly fee. TiVo also has a similar monthly fee system, or a pricey – but worth it – lifetime subscription service. Either way you’ll find yourself paying a monthly fee to record your shows and watch them anytime you want. What, there’s an alternative you say?
Well of course there is. In this world of technology there’s almost always an alternative. If you want the ability to record shows without ever having to buy a VHS cassette again, but you aren’t the type of person that needs to record two shows at once and so on, consider this. You can purchase a DVD recorder, this is exactly like a VCR, but instead of using cassettes it uses blank DVD media. You can purchase 50 blank DVD discs for under $10 or 15 usually, each disc will hold at least 2 hours (with a maximum around 4 or 6 hours if you don’t mind the quality dip). DVDs take up less space than VHS tapes and the quality is much higher. Regular DVD discs can only be burned once, meaning you can not edit or re-use a disc, however you can buy RAM or RW model discs to get some re-use of your discs. This of course all depends on which model of recorder you buy.
The DVD Recorder is a good option for those who don’t want to pay a monthly fee and want to still record their shows at DVD quality.
My Samsung DVD Recorder and my Sony Analog to Digital Converter
Okay so if you’re really into your TV shows, and I mean you love TV and you can’t miss a second of your shows. Then this option may be for you. Maybe you’re not a fan of the cable / satellite companies with their fees, taxes, and extra charges. Maybe you get your TV via the antenna or you don’t want the monthly fee of a DVR box. Well there is a solution, but it’s initial price is high. About $400-500 high (a bit less if you’re creative). Now why so expensive? Well because you’re going to be building your own DVR. Yes, you read that correctly. A mini-computer, small enough to fit inside your entertainment cabinet. Equipped with a video capture device, enough storage to save a year of programing, and internet connectivity, this option is very popular with geeky folks everywhere.
Computers can do basically anything they’d like, which is why a small computer with enough power can easily record video on a schedule. You’ll also have the flexibility to burn shows onto DVDs, convert the videos for portable devices like an iPod or an iPhone and upgrade your storage space in the future. Now I won’t go into the details too much here but you have some options. First you need software, you can use Windows Media Center, or a free Linux distribution called MythTV. Then the hardware, depending on where your channels come from, you’ll need a TV Tuner or a Capture Card, or a combination of both in one internal card, there are also USB and FireWire external devices, but these can get pricey quickly. Of course the core of all of this is a computer, you’ll need something pretty modern to convert and save all of your TV signals, especially HDTV signals. If you’re at this point want you want to know more I’d suggest searching for some specs, if you’ve made it this far you’re probably geeky enough to figure the rest out.
The Road Less Traveled… There’s A Reason Why
Of course there’s always another odd choice I’d like to add, which is the main reason I started to write this article in the first place. Ever hear of ReplayTV? You may have. Around the year 2000 when TiVo was still young ReplayTV tried to join in on the DVR fun as well. Some of their boxes were sold by companies like Panasonic, which re-branded their boxes and sold them under their brand, Panasonic ShowStopper. I recently picked up one of these boxes, even though it’s only standard definition. Why you may ask? No monthly fees – ever! That’s right, this system was created to be used without fees, it’s initially high selling price was high enough most thought. However I bought one of these for only $29 at a local Goodwill store. This Panasonic model boasts up to 30 hours of recording on “extended” mode. I took a gamble since I didn’t know if it worked, however it seemed to be almost new in the box. There was not a scratch on the unit and all the cables and accessories were there.It has a pair of inputs and outputs, with one S-Video port per input and output. The unit works fine for recording manually just like you may have with a VCR.
So why doesn’t everyone have one of these? Well it’s easy. It’s painfully outdated. The unit I got was fresh out of the box. Upon turning it on it wanted me to plug it into a telephone line so it can dial in and download some TV listings… no biggie right? Well 10 years later that phone line it likes to dial to no longer exists. With no option to punch in your own number, you’re pretty much stuck unless you pay Panasonic $150 to upgrade the software for you. Harsh I know, they should have thought of an upgrade path. It’s a shame there’s no USB or ethernet jacks on this baby, just an archaic serial port.
But since it’s me, I wasn’t about to give up that easily. I found an enthusiast site named ‘ReplayTV Upagrade’ (www.replaytvupgrade.com). From there I downloaded the right upgraded software for my device and read the instructions. Basically the Panasonic DVR has a hard drive in it, opening the box and disconnecting the drive I then plugged it into my Windows PC. Following the instructions I erased the DVR’s hard drive and installed the newer software onto it. I put the drive back in the case and crossed my fingers.
To my surprise it worked without an issue! The system bypassed the seemingly mandatory dial-in via a telephone line and got straight to business. I setup my video output settings, confirmed I had the right cables plugged in where, and it worked. I was able to record live TV from my cablebox directly to my newly bought 10-year old Panasonic DVR. Now I came to realize why nobody uses these anymore, they’re a bit of a pain to get going. But hey, they still work fine. It’s not HD, but it’s fine for catching up on a show. The built-in TV guide needs a telephone line to download the TV listings data. Since I was able to get the unit up and running without a phone line after the upgrade I didn’t see the need to disconnect everything and go into the other room to download the guide. If it’s still available that is.
At this point I was satisfied with my purchase. I can use the device to record TV shows, record myself playing a video game, or copy family home video VHS tapes. I do have a converter for my computer that does this. But sometimes it’s handy to not have to use a computer just to record something. Where was I… oh yes, the DVR.
Television will never be the same way again, the DVR has changed the way most of us watch TV. We no longer live our lives around when our shows are on. If we miss it we know it’s recorded for us at home. The DVR is a great invention, and while TiVo’s DVR is a highly-polished and well made device, it’s good to know there are alternatives out there. From the high-tech mini-computer in your media cabinet, to the 10 year old DVR that nobody expects to be in use today.