How to Choose the DVR that's Right for You

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Choosing the right method for capturing, and later viewing television programming isn't always easy. There are a lot of options on the market and what you choose will come down to several factors including price, usability and the company that provides your subscription.

That said, there are several ways to go about choosing a method for capturing TV and they can be split into three general categories:

  • Set-top box
  • DVD Recorder
  • Home Theater Computer

Each method has pros and cons that will help determine the best choice for you and your family.

Set-Top Box

This is easily the most common method people choose when it comes to buying or leasing a digital video recorder. Most, if not all, of the major cable and satellite companies, provide a set-top box that can be leased from them for a monthly fee. You also have the choice to purchase your own set-top box.

One of the biggest reasons behind the adoption of the set-top box (STB) is the ease of setup. When you order service from your provider, an installer comes to your home and does everything from connecting the STB to performing any needed setup with your existing equipment. A TiVo device walks you through everything you need to do during setup and is almost as easy as having a cable technician do it for you.

Another reason is cost. DVRs provided by your cable or satellite company will typically have no up-front cost associated with them. You simply pay the lease fee as part of your monthly bill.

There are, of course, other STBs on the market such as TiVo and Moxi. These differ greatly in the user experience and cost to lease set-top boxes. That said, the use of them is very similar. Your cable is connected to the device which then connects to the other equipment in your home theater or TV viewing room.

Overall, set-top boxes are easy to use, relatively cheap, depending on the company, and overall can provide a decent user experience.

DVD Recorders

While it may seem that DVD recorders would be one of the easier devices to use, they can actually be quite complicated, and this method is rather antiquated now. Not only can the set up be complicated, but even buying the right DVD recorder can be a challenge for several reasons.

DVD recorders work almost exactly like a VCR but instead of tapes, you use disks. Recordings are created manually and once a disk is full you'll need to replace it or in the case of a rewritable disk, overwrite the already recorded programming.

Most DVD recorders have two shortcomings: no TV tuners and no electronic programming guide. While some do provide these features, it's rare and they are becoming increasingly harder to find.

With no tuners, you'll have to connect your recorder to another device and provide a way for it to change channels on that device.

Not having a programming guide means that you'll have to manually schedule each recording. This can end up being easy to forget and there's always a chance of missing a show; something that typically doesn't happen with a DVR.

One advantage DVD recorders do have is the price. Other than the cost of buying the device, which can be over $100, your monetary investment is minimal especially if you use DVD-RW disks that can be used multiple times. There are no monthly fees associated with DVD recorders.

If you don't mind the extra work involved in programming your recordings and want to save on monthly fees or larger upfront costs, a DVD recorder may be for you.

Home Theater PCs

If you want maximum control over your DVR experience, then you may want to look at home theater PCs. Commonly called HTPCs, these are exactly what the name implies: a computer connected to your TV with the purpose of being your entertainment hub.

There are several software options when it comes to running an HTPC. Microsoft Windows Media Center, SageTV, and MythTV are three of the most popular. They each have their own pros and cons and which one you choose will depend on your needs.

HTPCs have a major advantage over both STBs and DVD recorders in terms of customization and usability. They provide access not only to a DVR system but to locally stored and internet video, music and pictures as well as other content you may want to display on your TV.

They have their disadvantages too, however. The upfront cost can be quite high with an HTPC though there is usually no monthly fee to pay. As well, a proper HTPC can be difficult to set up and maintain. There's a certain amount of dedication needed to manage one of these systems but the rewards can be substantial.


In the end, the type of DVR you choose will depend on several factors: cost, usability, and maintenance. There are a lot of options and weighing each one, while difficult, isn't impossible. While it may seem to be one of the smallest decisions you have to make, the DVR you choose will become central to your and your family's entertainment. It's worth taking the time to find a system that you'll enjoy using throughout the years.