DVRs and HTPCs: The Battle For Your Living Room

If you’re still using a traditional VCR, now might be the time to step out of the 20th century. PVRs, DVRs and HTPCs are the new VCR, and if you aren’t currently using one, chances are you will very soon.

PVRs (Personal Video Recorders) and DVRs (Digital Video Recorders) are essentially the same thing – a hard-drive based set-top unit designed to record television shows digitally. HTPCs (Home Theater PCs) are computers designed to interface with your television and stereo, allowing access to all of your media files – and the ability to digitally record TV as well – in the comfort of your favorite viewing area.

The company whose name has become synonymous with DVR technology is TiVo, and their first DVR products helped fuel one of the most rapid and enthusiastic adoption rates in the history of consumer electronics. But TiVo has faced stiff competition over the last few years, notably from the company that claims to have invented DVR technology in 1997, ReplayTV. Competition of late has come from two different sides: the cable companies who are offering their own DVR solutions, and home-built or pre-configured HTPCs.

With three different competing technologies, there are several factors you’ll want to consider before you make a decision. In this article we’ll discuss those factors, and try to determine what you should look for in a device to replace your VCR. We’ll categorize these devices into three groups: DVRs (ReplayTV and TiVo boxes); Cable Company DVRs (DVRs offered by your cable company); and HTPCs (any DVR-type device that is built from computer components).

While TiVo and ReplayTV have enjoyed the exposure in the retail market, cable companies are trying to cut into that dominance by offering their own solutions. Each of these solutions has its own unique abilities and unfortunately, none of them offer “everything” that you could need just yet.

Comparing the Services

Each of the products shares a few commonalities. For one, they all offer digital recording of television shows to a hard drive as well as the ability to pause and rewind live TV. That of course is the main reason for a DVR. They are each able to tune cable TV stations – or in the case of DirecTiVo, tune DirecTV. But here’s where the differences are important. Since digital cable services are scrambled and can only be de-scrambled (legally) by cable company-provided boxes, tuning digital cable channels – and recording them – is an ability that TiVo or ReplayTV boxes do not have.

ReplayTV certainly has the look of a device that belongs in your home theater or living room.

If you don’t have digital cable service or don’t plan to, this won’t be an issue, but for the growing number of subscribers that receive digital cable, there are some tradeoffs to be made. ReplayTV, TiVo, and home theater PC solutions require the DVR unit itself, plus a digital cable box controlled by a “remote mouse” – a device that allows you to change the channel on your cable box via the DVR’s remote – in order to tune and record digital cable. Besides having two devices instead of just one, this layout also introduces a bit of lag in the changing of channels which can be annoying to many users.

The Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000 offered by Time Warner Cable and several other providers combines the digital cable tuner and the DVR in one unit. The Explorer 8000 also has two tuners – giving it the ability to record two shows at once or allow you to record one and watch another at the same time. This feature is only available on TiVo’s DirecTV DVR and no other products by TiVo or ReplayTV at this time. But if the remote control channel-changing latency is something that will bother you, the Explorer 8000 will drive you insane. The 8000 suffers from some extreme latency issues because the system is constantly recording – the feature that allows you to pause or rewind live TV – and just doesn’t have enough resources to do that and instantly change channels at the same time. Many users have reported having to wait up to 10 seconds for the unit to respond to the remote control commands, and often when it does, it doesn’t do it right. For instance, if you want channel 701 for HBO, it may take a few seconds to register. By the time it registers, it may just input channel 70 and then enter. A few seconds later channel 1 will be selected. Of course by this time you may have hit 701 again thinking the remote missed the entire command. Cable company DVRs also have the ability to tune and record their HDTV services, again something that TiVo and ReplayTV can not do.

Remote latency issues aside, the cable company DVRs are the hands-down winners if you want only one box to control your digital cable, want the convenience of two tuners, or want to record HDTV. But as devoted TiVo users will tell you, it’s the software that makes all of the difference.

One of the reasons why TiVo is the industry leader right now is their robust software which allows users to easily find and record the shows they want. Features such as WishList and Season Pass are designed to make recording and watching recorded shows simpler and more intuitive. The WishList feature allows TiVo users to tell the unit to look for certain shows and record them. It can be set to not record episodes that are already recorded and can skip repeats. This is helpful when a show is aired on different channels, such as a syndicated sitcom or baseball games that are shown on different networks. Season Pass is similar to Wishlists, but only for one channel. TiVo also has some robust search options, allowing users to search by categories, keywords, and wildcards. It also suggests shows you may want to watch or record based on your viewing preferences.

ReplayTV also has some advanced recording and search functionalities, such as the ability to find shows based on an actor’s name, and internet-based scheduling. It is these advanced features that make TiVo and ReplayTV units much more advanced than the cable company DVRs.

Networking Your DVRs

The latest push in DVR technology is the ability to network the units in your home. The lure here is the ability to share recorded shows to multiple locations in your house, to share digital photos or music stored on your network, and to even copy shows to DVD. Both TiVo and ReplayTV offer some or a combination of some of these abilities, but these features are still in their infancy.

TiVo only allows networking through a USB1.1 port, which is just too slow for high-quality digital video recordings. Newer TiVo units now offer a way to stream music and photos stored on a computer on your network to your TiVo, and ReplayTV allows for the viewing of images only. Most, if not all, cable company DVRs do not offer networking or image viewing capabilities, however the Explorer 8000 does have an IEEE1394/Firewire port and a media card slot – both of which are functionless at this time.

Enter the HTPC

While their users boast of the advanced features, ReplayTV and TiVo may have only scratched the surface of networking and the power of software scheduling. Computer enthusiasts and system builders have known for some time that computers can handle anything a DVR can, and much more. A computer-based DVR, or HTPC, can also record shows, pause live TV, change channels, search for shows and schedule multiple recordings just like ReplayTV or TiVo. But the HTPC does that, and adds all of the functionality of a regular PC. This includes the ability to: play PC games on your living room TV; browse the internet; rip, organize and play music; view downloaded movies; view digital images; play DVDs; and much more. All of this can be done via a wired or wireless network.

HTPCs come in basically two flavors – home built or store-bought. The retail HTPCs are generally based on Microsoft’s Media Center edition of Windows XP, and don’t offer (at least out of the box) the true functionality of HTPCs. Those that want the best HTPC functionality will either want to build their own, or reconfigure a retail Media Center computer.

One of the companies that have been on the forefront of the HTPC movement is Snapstream. Their DVR software was one of the first and in its latest form, is one of the most popular for HTPC enthusiasts. Snapstream?s latest offering, BeyondTV3 basically combines all that?s good about ReplayTV and TiVo into one $60 software package.

BeyondTV3 features a scheduling applications that rivals TiVo or ReplayTV’s solutions.

Along with the usual DVR functions, BeyondTV3 allows users to: record one, all or all new episodes of a show with a single click; skip blocks of commercials in recorded shows; find and record shows with a mouse, keyboard, or remote control; schedule recordings on the device itself or though the web and even a web-ready phone; and much more. Recordings can be made in MPEG2 format, which is the native format used by DVD burners, making them easily recorded to DVD.

BeyondTV3’s scheduling application allows you to perform advanced searches to find content to record, both locally and remotely over the internet. You can even schedule a recording to your HTPC at home from any computer logged into your account.

Recordings made by BeyondTV3 can also be converted to different formats, allowing them to be viewed on a PocketPC or other devices. The software also includes a web-based admin which, among other things, allows you to download recordings over the internet or stream recordings over your network. BeyondTV also works with HDTV tuner cards and the remote-mouse setup, making it just as functional as the cable company DVRs.

While BeyondTV3 has all of the functionality of TiVo and ReplayTV’s scheduling and recording power and several additional features, it also faces a few obstacles. For one, it can only handle one TV tuner, meaning you can only watch or record one show at once. However, version 3.5 of BeyondTV is due out very soon and will support dual tuners. Competitor SageTV currently supports dual tuners, but it also has a built in picture library and music jukebox. A computer with BeyondTV can also view pictures and play music with ease, but these functions are not built into the software. Snapstream is facing competition not just from SageTV, but from several open source or free applications, and a new HTPC front-end called Meedio. If Snapstream wants to hold on to the top spot, they’ll need to integrate pictures and music into their interface – something we’re sure they are working on right now.

Which solution is right for you?

It is unfortunate that there isn’t one solution that does it all, but from a competitive standpoint, that can be seen as a good thing. If cost is a big issue, there are several factors to think about. ReplayTV and TiVo both require an up-front purchase of the device, and then a monthly service agreement. In ReplayTV’s case, the cost of a device is between $149 and $799, depending on the storage capacity, and then a $12.95 monthly fee or a $299 one-time lifetime fee. TiVo’s cost is similar, with prices ranging from $199 to $399 and the same montly or lifetime fees as ReplayTV. Each manufacturer is currently offering $100 rebates on the devices as well. Cable company PVRs have no upfront cost for the device. The only charge is for the service itself, which usually is an additional $6 to $10 per month. Over the short term, the cable company DVR would be the most cost-effective, but you can’t pick and choose the hard drive size. HTPCs range in cost from home-built solutions that can cost as little as $500 or less and go up as high as several thousand dollars. Its all a matter of what components you select and how fast you want the machine. Initial cost aside, the software is relatively inexpensive and most, such as BeyondTV, don’t require a monthly fee.

If you want the ability to tune and record digital cable or HDTV without an additional component, your only solution is a cable company device. If you want advanced recording and viewing options, ReplayTV and TiVo might be the choice for you, with TiVo winning out on many of the features comparisons. Those looking for networking or picture and music support may find ReplayTV and TiVo?s solutions to be a bit lacking, but they are there.

If you want something that can nearly “do it all” an HTPC may be the way to go. Unfortunately, we’re not aware of any retail HTPCs for purchase that are as easy to use as the DVRs are out of the box. You’ll need to be a bit of a do-it-yourselfer to get the most out of an HTPC, or spend the money for someone to do it for you. But with the ability to play the latest games, browse the internet, check your e-mail and the weather, view pictures, play music and much more, the rewards of a DVR based on a computer may very well be worth the effort. If you’re truly looking for one device to be the center of your home entertainment, an HTPC is the way to go.


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