Ten Things You Should Know Before Buying a High Def DVR


With the recent launch of CableCARD Vista Media Centers, many people are reconsidering buying (or upgrading to) a high definition DVR. But with all the different choices and various benefits and drawbacks of each, it's hard to choose the one that's right for you.

Do you go with a cheap $9 a month rental from Comcast and put up with all its flaws to save money? Do you plunk down a couple hundred bucks and a monthly fee for a TiVo Series 3 because it just works the way you want it? Do you go all out and spend a couple grand for a Vista Media Center that has every single extra feature you could possibly want in a PC? Or do you go to the other extreme and build your own MythTV/SageTV/XP Media Center machine out of spare parts?

Here are the ten things you should know before you decide.


0) Do you have HDTV cable and an HDTV set? The pre-requisite to even getting an HD DVR is actually having high def cable and an HDTV. Make sure you're signed up for high definition cable from your cable provider (it's usually $5-$15 more a month) and have an HDTV to watch it on. The super-cheap EDTV sets you find at Costco won't support up to the 1080i resolution that HD cable brings, which means all those extra pixels are going to waste. Make sure you have the necessary equipment before you go and spend the money on an HD recorder.

1) Are you cheap? This is the biggest and most important question. Admit it, you're cheap. Hell, I'm pretty cheap too. Do you really need to spend $500 or $2000 for a system only to have to keep on paying rental or subscription fees of nearly $100 a month? Do you really want to watch that much TV? If not, then renting a HD DVR from your cable company or building your own Myth TV or XP Media Center Edition box with an over the air (OTA) HD recorder could be for you.

2) Are you familiar with Linux/PCs? If you are cheap (see #1), then you're probably contemplating salvaging an old PC and building a media center out of that. The only problem is that MythTV requires anywhere from slight Linux knowledge (installing some packages) to uber haxor Linux knowledge (recompiling kernels, fiddling with code and compiling), depending on what PC components you already have and which ones you can get your hands on. Even if you're going for a Windows XP MCE-based box, you might still have to go out and look for drivers and download updates to your current software. It's not nearly as easy as buying a TiVo or a pre-built Vista Media Center box.

3) Does someone nontechnical need to use it? If you or your wife/husband/roommates don't know the first thing about computers, you're going to want to go with TiVo. Although Vista's CableCARD HTPC is pretty easy to use (as we saw in our TiVo head-to-head), it's still a PC and still suffers from the same old PC problems like freezing or crashing. If you want the absolute simplest interface while still keeping features intact, you'll want a TiVo Series 3. Also, if you've already owned a TiVo before, you're going to want to stick with TiVo. Learning another system, even if it is easy like Vista's Media Center, is unnecessary if you're already an expert at one.

4) Do you need DivX/XviD playback? If you're often downloading TV shows and movies off of BitTorrent, you're going to want a way to watch them on your TV. And if you don't have an upscaling DVD player that supports DivX, a Vista CableCARD HTPC or a do-it-yourself Myth/XP machine can do the trick. However, most of the time HDTV encodes you find on BitTorrent are of poorer quality than the feeds you get from your cable provider—because they've been re-encoded, naturally. You'll want to watch most of your TV programming from your DVR instead of from BitTorrent if you can help it.

5) Do you have Satellite TV? If you have Dish or DirecTV, your own provider has a box made just to cram down your throat, so you're usually stuck with those. The DIY solutions like MythTV or XP MCE won't work with satellite, but Microsoft and DirecTV said they're going to integrate an app/plug-in into Vista Media Centers that allow reception of DirecTV. In this case, the receiver is your Vista HTPC, which brings with it all the benefits that HTPC systems have.

6) Do you need photos and music? Gaming? Internet browsing? Vista Media Centers trounce TiVo when it comes to viewing photos and playing back your music. To a slightly lesser extent, so do MythTV and XP MCE boxes. If you're going to want to play games or browse the Internet from your couch like some kind of non-shitty WebTV, a PC is the way to go.

7) Do you need On Demand? HD cable in general? This one's a little tricky. For On Demand, the only HD DVR that supports this is the one from your cable company. Both TiVos and Vista machines don't. Also, if you want HD cable, that totally rules out home-made machines like MythTV, which don't have CableCARD support and can only get cable over the air using an ATSC card. Depending on where you live, how big an antenna you use (yeah, you'll have to use an antenna), and what channels your local stations broadcast in HD, you may or may not have the same experience as HD cable.

8) Do you watch a lot of TV? If you record a lot of TV, you're going to need a lot of space. The DVRs from your cable company only have 120GB of space (the Comcast Motorola box), TiVo only has 250GB unless you upgrade it with an external hard drive, but Vista Media Centers and do-it-yourself solutions are almost infinitely expandable thanks to the fact that they're PCs. In fact, you could even store the recordings on another server over the network, or burn them to DVDs if you want to archive them.

9) Can you stand a PC in the living room? We're fine with it, but many people hate the sight of a PC in their home entertainment setups. This is a huge win for TiVo, since it looks like it belongs in your media center. However, you can technically get an extender like an Xbox 360 and get the exact same experience as if you had the Vista Media Center in your living room. This way, you can house your machine in another room and have a (relatively) quiet front-end. The same is true for MythTV systems, which can also be extended with smaller front ends and have larger servers in the back room.

10) Do you love Macs? Although we prefer to go with a TiVo 3 or Vista Media Center, we know of a couple people that are so tied into the Apple ecosystem of iTunes music and movies that they really want that experience in the living room as well. Using something like a Miglia TVMini HD+, you can turn your Mac Mini into a DVR that even records in DivX. Add to that the fact that you have a Mac with Front Row attached to your TV—so you can easily watch iTunes movies or listen to iTunes music—and you have the perfect setup for a Mac head who wants DVR features. The only caveat, like the issues MythTV systems run into on #7, is that you can only record over the air HD and not stuff from cable. (Of course, TiVo's desktop app is well supported on the Mac, so you can stream music and photos from your Apple, and a MCE PC can still run iTunes.)

With all these options, it's probably tough to decide which one is right for you. There's no perfect solution right now (neither TiVo nor Vista HTPCs are great for everyone), so you should pick the features you really, really need to have and choose the DVR that meets most of them.

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