How Do Set-Top Digital Video Recorders Work?

Use a DVR to watch shows at your convenience

Most set-top digital video recorders are connected to either a cable TV signal or a satellite signal, but increasingly they are also compatible with streaming media and over-the-air programming. DVRs are like dedicated computers, whose sole responsibility is to record, store and play back digital media available from their service providers. DVRs record television programs onto an internal hard drive. These hard drives vary in size—the larger the drive, the more hours of programming you can record.

Most cable and satellite TV set-top boxes include DVR capability—usually at an additional fee. These built-in DVRs perform just like dedicated DVRs, although they may be limited to recording only programming served up by the provider. Modern stand-alone DVRs offer a broader range of recording possibilities.

How Do Set-Top DVRs Work?

The DVR—or cable box or satellite receiver with DVR capabilities—attaches to a TV via cables, usually HDMI cables, although other options are available. Programming is selected for recording using an on-screen programming guide published by the service provider. Setting a show to record is just a matter of a few button pushes. Then, you can turn off the TV and walk away, knowing that the show will record on the day and at the time indicated on the programming guide.

The DVR records the shows you program directly to its internal hard drive. Should additional space be needed, most DVRs offer connection options to add an external hard drive.

With the advent of streaming media and smart TVs, some DVRs have the capability of recording streaming shows and of accessing streaming apps such as Netflix and Amazon Video.

Benefits of DVRs

DVRs introduced the capability to pause, rewind and fast-forward TV, which remains one of its most attractive features, and allows DVR users to control their television-watching in ways unheard of in the past. When the phone rings during an important part of your favorite show, just hit pause and come back later when you're ready. 

If you have several family members with different viewing preferences, you can record everyone's favorite shows at the same time for viewing later. DVRs come with the capability of recording up to as many as 16 channels at the same time. No one has to be disappointed anymore.

The convenience of DVR service is unquestionable. Instead of planning your evening around a show in a specific time slot, you can view your favorites when it is most convenient for you.

Disadvantages of DVR Service

There are costs associated with using a DVR. Most cable and satellite companies who provide DVR services do so at an additional charge.

No matter how large a hard drive your DVR has—and 2TB to 3TB is common now—it's storage capacity is finite. If you're the type of viewer who wants to record and save the recordings indefinitely, you'll need to add an external hard drive for additional storage capacity.

Can a DVR Replace a Cable Box?

DVRs can replace a standard cable box or satellite receiver. However, they require a cable card from a provider to access a digital signal. Providers aren't forthcoming about the availability of cable cards, but they are required by law to offer the service. The provider is allowed to charge a fee for its programming guide, which is necessary to schedule recordings, hours, days or weeks in advance. 

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