TiVo, cable-company DVR or home theater PC: Decisions, Decisions

Looking to record your favorite HD shows to a digital video recorder (HD DVR)? You’re not alone. As of December, 2007, 20% of U.S. households had a DVR, up from 12% at the beginning of the year. Your choices are proliferating, and if you have cable service and are trying to decide between the company-issue DVR and one you buy yourself, we’re here to sort out the choices for you.

When TiVo announced YouTube integration last week, it got us to wondering: Is TiVo that much better? How do recorders offered by cable companies and PC-based video recording stack up to the more-expensive TiVo? TiVo is the premium choice, but cable companies are leasing units for a lower overall cost but without all TiVo’s frills. On the other hand, you might be interested in a home theater PC (HTPC) that has HD video recording capabilities, but if you want to record high-def premium cable TV shows (as opposed to off-air broadcasts), you’ll find yourself buying a new computer with a CableCARD or two along for the ride. Here’s an overview:

You Get This With All of Them
The best three reasons people want a DVR are to watch shows at any time, pause live TV, and to skip commercials. All DVRs can do an admirable job of those basic functions. Dual-tuner capability is now commonplace. This gives you the ability to watch a show while you’re recording another (or with many models, while recording two others), or to record two shows at the same time. All have the ability to record all episodes of a series — TiVo calls this a “season pass.”


The user interface of TiVo is unparalleled in the DVR world. It’s just downright user-friendly, and you can immediately learn how to use it. Its thumbs up/thumbs down feature lets you indicate which types of shows you like, and then TiVo will find other shows you might enjoy based on those preferences. It automatically records its suggestions, but erases the recordings automatically if it needs to make room for shows you’ve scheduled. It lets you remotely schedule recordings on your machine from any Web browser. Its killer function is available only after you enter a secret key sequence: 30-second skip. Push a button, skip a commercial. That one feature is life-changing.

Tivo’s catch? Price, where you’ll pay at least $8/month (when you sign up for three years) for the program guide that’s essential to the service, around $3/month for each of the two cable cards you’ll need, and then around $250 for the TiVoHD box (although we recently saw a refurbished unit for $180). The fancier TiVo Series3 HD DVR, with a screen that shows what it’s recording and more disk space, is a lot more expensive than that, but it’s been discontinued.


Cable company-supplied DVR
Cable companies are scrambling to improve their traditionally awful DVR offerings, with HD boxes whose hardware, and especially software, is vastly inferior to TiVo but steadily improving. Their set-top boxes typically consist of the Scientific-Atlanta (now Cisco) 8300HD, the Motorola DCT-6412 (pictured above), and a few others. Their interfaces get the job done, with “season pass” capabilities, passable program guides and usually awkward search functions. Noticeably missing are the beloved 30-second skip function and that TiVo remote that fits perfectly in the hand. However, the line is blurring here between TiVo and cable company DVRs, because some cablers such as Comcast are now starting to roll out TiVo software in their HD set-top boxes. If your cable company offers such a hardware/software combination, it might represent a happy medium.

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Home Theater PC
If you want the ultimate in power and flexibility, a home theater PC (HTPC) such as the Alienware Hangar18 Home Entertainment Center pictured above is the way to go. With Windows Media Center installed (standard with Windows Vista Ultimate and Home Premium, or Windows XP Media Center Edition), the user experience is second only to that of TiVo. But there’s a catch. If you want to record scrambled cable TV shows, you’ll need to buy a pricey HTPC that’s been approved by the powers that be, namely CableLabs, the gatekeeper for everything having to do with CableCARD. That’s the credit card-size receiver that takes the place of that bulky set-top box you’ve grow accustomed to over the years. Since the PC you’re using has to have HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) from cable to screen, the outboard boxes that can accommodate cable cards, such as the ATI TV Wonder pictured at left, are only sold with certain crazy-expensive PCs that comply with this requirement.

It’s rigged like this because content creators don’t want you to easily copy premium HD programs (such as those from pay service HBO) onto your PC and spread them far and wide to those who haven’t paid for them. As a result, if you want to get an old PC and convert it into a CableCARD-totin’ HD DVR, you can’t. However, you can get an HDTV tuner for your PC that can record video, but all your shows will have to be received either over the air with an old-fashioned antenna or unencrypted (usually local TV stations only) over cable.

Use That DVR!
You’re on your way to choosing your route to HD DVR Nirvana. All the above choices have their advantages, but none is perfect. The price of a TiVoHD box is coming down enough to make it a competitive option, though it’s still more expensive than the cable company DVR with its lack of up-front costs. That Comcast HD DVR with the TiVo software seems like it could be ideal, but it’s not widespread yet, not everyone has access to Comcast, and there’s disagreement about whether it works very well yet. The Home Theater PC is the most powerful and versatile, but most are unreasonably expensive and chasing a moving standard that could change soon.