Info & Answers
DVR Dilemma: TiVo or Cable?
Ready for an HD-DVR? We compare the features and costs of TiVo against those offered by your average cable company.
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January 23, 2009 by Jeff Winston

Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) change the way you watch TV, freeing you from the shackles of network schedules. Instead of sitting down at a certain time, to watch a certain show, these boxes continually collect all the shows that interest you. Then, whenever you’re inclined, you flip through the menus and watch what you want. 

But which HD-DVR should you get? You can buy an HD TiVo, but it’s also likely that your broadband or satellite company offers an HD-DVR on monthly rental. They may even offer a DVR loaded with TiVo software. Each option has its pros and cons, and choosing the best for you will depend on your priorities. 

The Basics
All HD-DVRs can record two programs on different channels while letting you view a previously-recorded show. You record a program by entering the title (or finding it in a program grid), and let the DVR find the episodes for you. You can filter by channel, or by first-run vs. rerun, and adjust start/end times for programs that run early or late. All DVRs also have simple search capabilities, letting you hunt by title, time and channel. 

Most broadband companies offer Motorola DVRs. They come in different models but generally run the same software. Comcast also offers these same boxes loaded with TiVo-developed software. This isn’t the same software that runs on native TiVo boxes, but it goes above and beyond the standard Motorola software to introduce many elements of the TiVo experience. 

TiVo sells a few different boxes varying in capacity and secondary features. The boxes are reasonably priced, but come with subscription fees. The big difference here is that you own the box and rent the service.

Features: Disk Space
Motorola DVRs come in two capacities: 120GB and 160GB. This is gobs of space for standard-definition TV, but will hold only 12-20 hours of HDTV. Your experience will vary because shows with more action take more space. Alternately, TiVos can be purchased with up to 1TB of storage, and there are many ways to expand your TiVo capacity. TiVo sells an external drive, third-party companies provide upgrades, and the tech-savvy can upgrade the box themselves. Edge: TiVo

Programming Power
TiVo’s built-in program search capabilities are the best in the business. They include “Wishlists” that will record any future shows with specific actors, genres, or keywords, and a suggestion facility that records shows you might like based on your preferences. Also, TiVo uniquely lets you treat showings of the same program on different channels separately. Thus, you could require that first-run “Law & Order” broadcasts be saved until you delete them, whilst letting reruns on USA be deleted as they age. The TiVo software on the Comcast boxes retain most of these capabilities. Edge: TiVo

Broadband company DVRs typically require no upfront fees, and can be swapped out if they fail, or when a better model comes along. TiVos have to be purchased, you have to sign-up separately for service, and if the unit breaks, it’s up to you to get it fixed.

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Jeff Winston - Contributing Writer
Jeff Winston has been writing about home electronics since 1998. An electrical engineer, Jeff has contributed to the development of products in the computer, consumer electronics, and wireless industries. He spends his spare time with his wife, kids, and many PCs, sometimes in that order.

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