What Is a DVR (Digital Video Recorder)?

Learn what this device is and how it works to your home theater's advantage

A DVR (digital video recorder) is a device or service used for recording and storing videos. Learn more about what a DVR is to help determine if you need one for your TV.

What Is a DVR and How Does It Work?

DVRs became popular in the late 1990s with the introduction of TiVo. Watching stored video allows you to rewind and fast forward at will. If you are watching live TV, you can pause and pick up where you left off.

DVRs can be integrated into the set-top box supplied by your cable or satellite provider, but they are also sold as standalone units. DVR units you buy store videos on a hard drive, but cloud DVR services keep your recordings on a remote server owned by the service provider.

You can adjust the number of hours you can store on a DVR by lowering the video quality settings.

What Is a DVR Used For?

DVRs are primarily used to record movies and TV shows so you can watch them later. You can typically set up your DVR to record specific shows or events when they air. If you have a favorite show, you can have it automatically record only new episodes and delete old ones. DVRs with multiple tuners built-in can even record multiple channels simultaneously.

The DVR sets aside buffer space on the hard drive so it can constantly record live TV. This makes it possible to pause and rewind live broadcasts. If you miss the beginning of a show, you can start from the beginning and skip through commercials.

Aside from recording TV, there are also DVRs for recording live camera feeds. These devices are typically used as part of security systems to store surveillance footage.

Do I Need a DVR With a Smart TV?

You only need a DVR if you have a live television service that supports it. You can't use a DVR to record Netflix, HBO Max, Disney Plus, or most other internet streaming services. Even if you download the app for specific networks (like NBC, CW, etc.), there's no way to record on-demand shows and movies.

That said, some streaming providers offer live television with cloud DVR. For example, you can record Hulu+ Live TV so long as you have a compatible device. DVR service usually comes with a monthly fee that's tacked on to your TV bill, but Sling TV DVR lets you record up to 50 hours of television for free.

  • What is a DVR service?

    For many years, cable providers like Comcast would offer a 'DVR service' for a monthly fee. After signing up, they would swap your old cable box out with one that had DVR functionality. This is less common in the modern day, but it still is offered.

  • What is a cloud DVR?

    A cloud DVR is a DVR with cloud features, like uploading recorded content to the cloud for easy access on other devices. A cloud DVR is less a formal product name and more a feature description.

  • What is a DVR box?

    For a long time, DVRs were their own separate boxes that sat under the TV. Today, they can be that or simply be a feature on a cable box, or their functionality can be found in various apps and programs on phones and computers.

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