TV Time Shifters

Photograph: Marc Simon
I love my digital video recorder. I don't even know when my favorite shows are on--they just appear on my DVR's drive, ready to watch.

But are there better DVRs than the DirecTV box with TiVo that I have? To find out, I took several DVRs for a spin, each representing a different approach to the challenge of no-brainer, high-quality TV recording: recorders provided by satellite and cable companies, a stand-alone TiVo, a combination DVD/hard-disk unit, and a Media Center PC.

All of these DVRs have easy, intuitive menus. They let you pause and rewind live TV. The hard drives each hold over 30 hours of programming. Every unit lets you record the program you're watching with the press of a remote-control button, and record a future show or even a series of shows with a few menu selections.

Still, I wanted more than that, and so should you.

A good DVR should be trouble-free, with easy setup and simple ways to search recorded content and TV listings. It should also be a good value.

After trying the alternatives, I'm sticking with the DirecTV TiVo. For me, the convenience of a DVR/set-top box combination outweighs the optional features you can get with other DVRs. Besides, I haven't found another DVR with TiVo's searching capabilities. If your cable or satellite provider doesn't partner with TiVo, you may want to go straight to TiVo for your DVR.

Direct From Cable or Satellite

If you have digital cable or satellite TV, you have good reasons to get a DVR through your service provider. These boxes combine DVR functions with a TV-signal receiver. You won't have to find a place for another box, deal with another set of cables, or wonder where to plug in yet another AC power connector. The recordings will look slightly better, too, since the signal won't have to be converted from digital to analog and back to digital again, as is the case with stand-alone products that have only analog inputs for the TV signal. Most important, you won't have one device (the DVR) recording the shows and another one (the set-top box) changing the channels--that's a scenario asking for trouble.

On the other hand, DVR/set-top combo units usually lack the finer options. If you want a huge hard drive, or the ability to add the DVR to your home network or burn your programs onto a DVD, you may prefer an off-the-shelf DVR. You also get little choice: Vendors typically have just one or two models.

I looked at two DVRs that double as set-top boxes: one with TiVo, from DirecTV (satellite), and another that records high-definition content, from Comcast (cable).

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