DVRs Go Mainstream
By Cliff Roth
TiVo deserves mucho credit for popularizing the concept of digital disk-drive video recording, and giving it a friendly face and name that has become almost as synonymous with what it represents as Kleenex was to tissues and Xerox was to photocopies in a bygone era. But TiVo has never been the only game in town, and these days name recognition alone isn't going to cut it in an increasingly crowded market. Personal video recorders, or PVRs—also known as hard disk recorders (HDRs) and digital video recorders (DVRs)—are becoming an integral part of home entertainment systems everywhere. It's a given that your customers will want one—provided you can properly show its benefits.
Even in the early days, back in the late 90s, TiVo never had a monopoly on the concept of tapeless TV recording: Arch-rival Replay, now owned by D&M Holdings, actually came to market simultaneously, with a product that many considered superior. Echostar—parent of DishTV—has more DVRs currently deployed than TiVo, although few outside of the Dish Network know it. And even as far back as Windows 98, PCs have had the ability to function as digital TV recorders. But TiVo always had the edge when it came to marketing pizzazz, public recognition, overall slickness and simplicity.
Today TiVo faces even more competition. Increasingly, "TiVo-like" functionality is being built right into cable TV and satellite TV set-top boxes too. Though these don't always have as good an interface, particularly in terms of look and feel, as TiVo has, they make up for it with two very big advantages: ease of installation, and in some cases, no monthly fees.
A DVR BY ANY OTHER NAME
TiVo describes its system as a PVR, or personal video recorder. The company trademarked this, so no other manufacturers officially use the term PVR, though many consumers and salespeople do. In the early days, Replay called their device a "Personal Television Server," though the acronym was never in play. DVR is the term most cable and satellite providers use.
You can get much of the same functionality from a rewritable DVD Recorder that you get from hard disk recording. The DVD is obviously more limited in the length of available recording time, with 6 to 12-hours per disc generally being the maximum (at lowest recording quality). The better DVD-Recorders therefore also incorporate a hard disk drive (HDD) to increase recording time to 60 hours or more, thus creating a DVD-R with DVR. There are also DVD players—not recorders—with built-in DVR.
In this article we'll use the term "DVR" to apply to all of the above.
When choosing a DVR there are two basic groups—mainstream choices that are appropriate for the vast majority of installations, and more esoteric options that are usually inappropriate for a customer's home, but which you should know about just in case. Here are the pros and cons for each:
The most common, widely available DVR choices are:
• A TiVo "standalone" set-top box.
Advantages: This is the most well-known brand name, and has a slick, animated user-friendly interface. New models can network between rooms in a home. The device automatically records not just what you request, but also what it suggests—opinions about this suggestion "feature" vary. (Custom installers: ask clients if they want this feature disabled.)
Disadvantages: Users must pay a subscription fee or a "lifetime" fee for each box, and the system uses an IR emitter to control cable or satellite box (see "Hookups and Hangups.")
• A Replay standalone set top box.
Advantages: A straightforward user interface offers many advanced adjustments over recording and playback, including a new "JumpIt" playback feature to quickly find a segment buried deep within a program. Some older models, still available on the Web, skip commercials automatically, and can transfer programs between units over the Internet, as well as a home network.
Disadvantages: Users must pay a subscription fee or "lifetime" fee for each box, and the system uses an IR emitter to control cable or satellite box.
• A cable-TV set-top box with built-in DVR.
Advantages: No hook-up/IR emitter hassles. Dual tuners let users watch one channel while recording another.
Disadvantages: Monthly fee for each DVR-equipped cable box. Also, these are none yet available in all areas of the U.S. Usually made by either Motorola or Scientific Atlanta, the choice of box and recording capacity is made by the local cable system, which then leases them to customers.
• A satellite-TV set-top box with built-in DVR.
Advantages: No hook-up/IR emitter hassles. Dual tuners let you watch one channel while recording another, or record two shows at once. With Dish, there's no additional monthly fee for this.
Disadvantages: Customer must purchase the hardware. User interfaces can be a bit primitive compared with TiVo. DirecTV receivers with built-in TiVo charge extra for this service.
• A DVD-Recorder with built-in DVR.
Advantages: Makes it easy to archive special recordings by copying from the hard drive to DVD. Many models include free program guide service (including a "lite" version of TiVo, called TiVo Basic) and have no monthly fees.
Disadvantages: Requires an IR emitter to change channels on cable or satellite box (same as with standalone TiVo or Replay.) Also, the format war over DVD recording standards creates confusion and uncertainty for these products.
• A DVD Player with built-in DVR.
Advantages: Clearly an interim solution, the main advantages of these hybrid units are simplified hookup to the TV set or A/V switcher (since a single connection is used for both DVD playback and DVR), and low cost compared with DVD Recorders.
Disadvantages The IR emitter, and the lack of DVD recording ability.
• Windows Media Center PC: Bill Gates has been scheming to take over the brains of cable-TV boxes for years—until then, a Windows Media Center PC is the next best thing (from a geek's perspective.) This solution is only for the computer enthusiast—the PC has to be booted up all the time to make recordings, and you must look at the Windows desktop on your TV screen to navigate the system, using a special remote control. Advantages include the ability to share recordings over a local network from one PC to another, and the ability to expand recording capacity to hundreds, or even thousands of hours, by installing big hard drives. A free program guide service is included, too. The downside is that you're using a computer to watch TV. The learning curve can be steep if, for example, your client needs to explain to the baby sitter how to playback a kid's show using the PC.
• Sony Vaio Gigapocket PC: Essentially the same pros and cons as the Windows Media Center option, Gigapocket is Sony's own proprietary PC-based video recording system, and has been around a bit longer. A free program guide service is included, too.
• Moxi Media Center: Moxi received tons of nationwide press a few years ago, but is marketed through local cable-TV systems, and is currently only available in a few cities. Initially, Moxi was supposed to be available for Dish satellite, but that hasn't happened yet. Instead, the company has become part of Digeo, a company that sells set top box software to cable TV.) Like TiVo, Moxi offers a very user-friendly "front end." Moxi's unique, centralized technology shines in multi-room environments, because the second and third and fourth set top boxes—for the bedrooms and kitchen—cost much less than the main box and all have access to the same centralized "library" of recordings. Moxi also copies audio CDs to the system, for playback in any room.
• Roll Your Own: If you're a computer fanatic (or your client is) check out the numerous Web sites devoted to building your own DVR. Many are based on the Linux operating system, and most are focused on avoiding monthly fees. If this sounds like something you'd be interested in doing for your customers, do a Google search for "Build your own DVR."
IS THE PRICE RIGHT?
The cost of adding DVR functionality to a home theater system and/or whole-home installation can add up quickly. It is comprised of several factors. First, of course, is the cost of the equipment—such as a TiVo set-top box, or a new satellite-TV box with built-in hard drive. Currently, just about all cable-TV boxes are leased, but over the next few years customers will begin being able to buy the box.
Next, you have to consider monthly fees and/or lifetime subscription fees. Both TiVo and Replay offer a choice of paying a monthly fee, typically $12.95, or a lifetime subscription fee (typically $300) that is good for the lifetime of the box, including repair/replacements, but not applicable to upgrade units. TiVo recently began offering discounts for multi-room installations, at $6.95/month for additional boxes. Most cable-TV systems charge an additional monthly lease fee for a built in DVR—typically this runs $9 per month, and is applicable for each box. (If each of three cable boxes, in the living room and two bedrooms, has built-in DVR capability, the customer may pay an additional $27 per month.)
As explained in "DVR Hookups," the best way to connect a standalone TiVo or Replay to cable-TV is to dedicate a separate cable-TV box to the DVR, so there's never any conflict with "live" TV viewing. The customer will have to pay for the additional cable-TV box, typically a lease fee of about $3 to $6 per month.
For many years the Dish satellite TV has represented the best value in DVR, because Dish charges no additional monthly fee for the hard drive recording service. Customers simply pay more up front for the additional hardware.
DirecTV, on the other hand, currently charges a monthly fee ($4.99) for DirecTV with built-in TiVo. The fee is waived for subscribers to the company's Total Choice Premier package. DirecTV does not charge this fee for each box, however—in a multi-room DirecTV DVR with TiVo home, the fee is still $4.99. It's anticipated that DirecTV will ultimately match Dish in offering built-in DVR with no monthly fees, sometime in the future, now that Rupert Murdoch's media empire owns DirecTV.
Most, but not all, DVD-Recorders with hard drives incorporate a free electronic program guide (EPG) service, either from Gemstar or from TiVo (the "free" TiVo-light.) The EPG is the key to having DVR-functionality; without it, recordings must be manually entered the old fashioned way, by entering channel number, start time, and stop time. These DVD Recorders with built-in hard drives and free EPG service represent the best value in the "standalone" category. However, the free "Basic TiVo" service is quite limited for setting up repeat recordings, and the EPG only covers three days of listings. Upgrading to full "TiVo Plus" service, with the ability to automatically record favorite shows ("Season Pass") and seven-day listings, costs the usual $12.95/month or $299 lifetime.
ADVANCED FEATURES, HOME NETWORKING
AND HIGH DEF
Home networking of DVRs offers two major conveniences. Each unit can have access to the library of recorded programs on the other units—instead of 80 hours, a three-room installation has 240 hours accessible. And you can start watching a recording in the living room, pause it, and continue watching from the bedroom. Currently, such networkable units are available from both TiVo and Replay.
For high-definition recording, your customers will probably want satellite service. TiVo does not yet have a standalone HD model, but they do offer a DirecTV HD version. Dish has an HD receiver, too, and Voom will offer this capability beginning in September. Most cable-TV DVRs do not record in high def, however this varies by community. DVD Recorders don't usually handle hi def either. Note that when recording HD, the capacity of the hard disk gets used up much more quickly. Replay has yet to announce an HD model.
As a custom home theater consultant helping customers make sense of these choices and making recommendations of what to put where, you're walking a fine line. You must assess the technical skills of your clients and make appropriate recommendations. You may have to come up with the best compromise for different members of the family, or different solutions for different rooms, based on their preferences.
If you're working with a new home or with a client who is first moving in, you'll have more flexibility in choosing between cable-TV and satellite-TV providers. Otherwise, the client will probably prefer to stay with what they've already got. If they've got cable-TV already, and they're happy with it, then it's probably not a good idea to recommend they switch to satellite, with all the different channel numbers and the physical installation of the satellite antenna. See if their local cable provider offers a DVR-equipped box, or install a stand-alone device like TiVo.
Presenting the client with all the DVR choices—the pros and cons and costs of each—can be daunting. Be patient, and listen. If they keep saying "TiVo," determine whether they really want this name-brand version of DVR service, or just the concept.
Remember that what seems easy to you can be quite confusing to the client. Walk them through the process of setting up recordings for their favorite shows. After all, a bit of hand-holding is what custom installation is all about.
TiVo is still the DVR
that most people know,
and its technology powers many other DVR brands.
Who would have thought Dish Network would be the biggest DVR seller?
The flagship DVR-921 can record in high definition.
Newcomer Humax offers a sleek DVR with TiVo technology.
The T2500 can feed separate viewing zones in the home.
DVR Hookups and Hangups
The biggest disadvantage of a standalone box—such as TiVo or Replay or a DVD Recorder (or Player) with DVR—is that you usually hook it up to control another se-top box—the cable-TV or satellite-TV box. The controlling connection is either a cable (preferable) or, more often, an infra-red (IR) emitter that attaches to the front of the cable-TV box. Two problems occur frequently with this arrangement: The IR emitter can become separated from the cable box, rendering the DVR unable to change channels, and the cable or satellite box can receive conflicting signals when the user changes channels manually, and the DVR ends up recording the wrong channel.
The IR-emitter problem will eventually be eliminated by the incorporation of CableCard technology, essentially turning the TiVo or other DVR into a cable-TV decoder box. This is still some time off in the future—most local cable systems
don't offer the CableCards yet. And when available, local cable companies may be leasing the CableCards for monthly
fees approaching what they would charge for a DVR-equipped cable-TV box, making the advantages of the standalone
For now, the IR-emitter problems can be effectively eliminated by adding a second cable-TV box, dedicated for use by the DVR. Attach the IR emitter to the front, and tape the box's front panel so that it can't receive IR signals from the regular remote control.
Using a second cable TV box allows the client to continue watching cable TV the way they always have, with the same remote control, for "live TV." They can also watch using the live TV feature of TiVo or Replay—with the advantages of being able to pause a live program.
Changing channels on Replay and Tivo can be slow and frustrating when watching live TV, compared to using the cable box directly. Some clients will resent being forced to always watch through TiVo or Replay—the dedicated cable box lets them have the choice of which way to watch.