Standalone or vendor lock-in?
March 19, 2009 8:36 AM   Subscribe

What's the deal with DVRs in America in 2009? Can I buy one off the shelf and take it home and hook it to the cable and use it successfully like a digital VCR or am I "supposed" to get one from my cable provider and get billed a monthly fee for some program-guide service I do not want?

Asking for an acquaintance, but I'm interested in the answer myself. My friend apparently is dead-set against getting a DVR from his cable provider. All he wants is the ability to record TV and watch it later, like a classic VCR but using a harddrive instead of video tapes. He's not interested in paying extra for any other services like easy recording of an entire season or a browsable program schedule.

Caveat: Building one out of a PC is not an option for him.

Also, how will the DTV transition affect him (I say it won't since he gets his signal from cable already but maybe I'm mistaken) with regard to his desire for an unencumbered DVR?
posted by Liver to Technology (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
We have a Tivo, and a $12 IR cable that allows it to control our digital cable box. Works fine as a digital VCR, downside is that we can't watch something else on the TV while it's recording a program. Might not be an issue with a newer (Tivo HD or Series 3) unit and two CableCard receivers. Overall it's not a problem in my mind; we always have enough shows recorded or on a DVD that we don't run into conflicts like that.

I think when we upgrade our cable to a new provider with some HD channels (really, it's 2009 and the one we're with doesn't offer any? Stupid) we'll probably try to make it work with a Tivo HD. I agree with you and your friend...I don't want to use the one from the cable company because they're usually sub-par and sometimes more expensive than the cost for a Tivo unit.
posted by DMan at 8:46 AM on March 19, 2009

If you have Verizon FiOS, you're pretty much locked in to their DVR offering from what I've read. Saddens me as a FiOS customer. There may be hacks - I haven't thoroughly investigated - but virtually no plug-and-play third-party DVR solution exists, in my research. My parents have Time Warner Cable and I set my mom up with a nice Lite-On DVR unit that she loves. So, it depends on your cable provider. Ask him which he has and maybe we can be of more help.
posted by xiaolongbao at 8:54 AM on March 19, 2009

The Tivo HD XL works great with digital cable. Instead of an ugly TV box, your cable provider just gives you a CableCARD which plugs into the Tivo and does all the decoding, decryption, etc. Cablecard had a rocky launch but I installed one last summer and it works great.

By default Tivo has you paying a monthly fee, although at least the original Tivos also worked as a digital VCR if you didn't subscribe. Not sure about recent models.
posted by Nelson at 8:59 AM on March 19, 2009

Just as a followup to a comment above, I have two Tivo HD boxes working just fine with Verizon FiOS. You need to get the cablecards from them, but after that no other cable boxes needed. I also have a series 2 controlling a FiOS DVR box (the DVR was free for a year, a cable box without DVR would have a monthly fee).

The Tivo HD is more than what the OP is asking about, but I know of no DVR solutions resembling what the acquaintance is asking about.
posted by dforemsky at 9:05 AM on March 19, 2009

Response by poster: My acquaintance is on Time Warner. When he first asked me I suggested TiVo but he doesn't like that idea. I think he really does just want a VCR that writes to a disk instead of a tape. Someone elsewhere suggested that older TiVo units would function as a digital VCR is you dropped the service. Anyone know if that holds true still?
posted by Liver at 9:07 AM on March 19, 2009

Actually, some of the very early series 1 Tivo boxes will work like the OP is asking about. There were also some hybrid boxes (DVD/Tivo) that I believe will still work with a free Tivo Basic service.

Something like this, though they are no longer made, would do the trick.

This table shows the models to look for - you want a model with "Tivo Basic" (the last column).
posted by dforemsky at 9:11 AM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Really, the advantage to the monthly fee on a Tivo is that it'll give you program listings, so you can say "Record CSI tonight" rather than "Record channel 10 at 9:00 PM". It's a pretty great system, but as far as I know, it would work without paid service if you were willing to program it manually like that.
posted by DMan at 9:36 AM on March 19, 2009

From the Tivo Website: Can I use the DVR without TiVo Service?

A TiVo Digital Video Recorder (DVR) is intended for use only with a paid subscription to the TiVo service. Without the TiVo service:

A TiVo DVR has extremely limited functionality, e.g., pause, fast-forward, rewind, and slow-mo live TV.

No smart, automatic-recording service functionality is represented or should be expected.

NOTE: Series1 DVRs manufactured before October of 2001 are able to make manual time-based recordings without TiVo service if they shipped with software version 1.3 or earlier.

From my own experience, you can use a Tivo without paying for the service, but you'll need to set it manually to record. Or he could look for the Series I that is noted there, but they're probably hard to come by.
posted by anastasiav at 9:43 AM on March 19, 2009

So why not something like this? It would effectively be a VCR on DVD-RW. Like the old VCR you can program it to record up to 12 shows/week.
posted by Gungho at 9:58 AM on March 19, 2009

Your friend doesn't want a traditional "DVR". He wants a DVD recorder w/ hard drive.

Something like this.

Too bad a PC is out of the question. They are extremely cheap now, don't require any kind of subscription and would be much smarter than a DVD recorder.
posted by wongcorgi at 10:40 AM on March 19, 2009

Well, he does want a traditional DVR, but the era of out-of-the-box no service required systems is dead. If you or your friend want to tinker around with computers, there are bundles of options, for Linux, Mac and Windows PCs. Computers are inexpensive enough that it might be a viable option, and then there'll be more functions to the system than just a digital VCR (playback of a variety of media is fun).
posted by filthy light thief at 10:54 AM on March 19, 2009

we have a Panasonic DMR EH75V and it totally kicks @$$. Records anything coming in, plus you can burn it onto DVD right there. We have the whole Star Trek Voyager on our home burned DVD's. we can even use our mini VCR home movie tapes and put them onto the hard drive then onto DVD. we have verizon fios for what it's worth and no compatability probs. we use their DVR for some stuff and the Panasonic for other things
posted by Redhush at 11:55 AM on March 19, 2009

Since the DTV transition question hasn't been answered your friend is correct; cable television transmissions are not affected by the transition.
posted by nanojath at 12:16 PM on March 19, 2009

One option (kinda) is the DTVPal DVR. It records over the air programs in HD and SD, but probably not anything through a cable line. It's made by Dish Network but there are no contracts or monthly fees.
posted by puritycontrol at 2:06 PM on March 19, 2009

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