Why Use a DVR?
The top performers in our review are Dish Hopper 3, the Gold Award winner; TiVo Roamio Pro, the Silver Award winner; and TiVo Bolt, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a DVR to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
Believe it or not, there once was a time when catching your favorite show meant scheduling your activities around your TV program. Thanks to the advent of digital video recorders (DVRs) those days are gone. With a DVR, your TV watching can be set around your schedule, instead of the other way around, freeing you up to do more important things.
In many instances, a DVR replaces your cable box, and you can watch shows without an accompanying cable or satellite subscription. With many DVR recorders, you have the option of acquiring a CableCARD from a cable provider and accessing digital channels by inserting the card into a slot on the DVR. The best DVRs have streaming apps like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video and allow you to access channels over the air or through unscrambled digital signals. Unlike recording onto VHS or Betamax, recording on DVRs is quick, easy and potentially even automatic.
DVRs typically have internal hard drives that allow you to record shows directly onto the device, and you can set most of them to record your favorite shows when there is a new episode and skip the reruns – that way you never forget to set it and your hard drive doesn’t get bogged down with shows you’ve already seen. While the majority of DVRs have plenty of internal storage space, they often have eSATA ports that let you expand the storage capacity by connecting an external hard drive via a USB port.
It wasn’t that long ago that the thought of having the ability to manipulate TV by pausing, rewinding and fast-forwarding seemed almost ludicrous. But virtually all DVRs can now do exactly that. You can skip over commercials, cruise by sappy love scenes or watch a winning touchdown in slow motion. To help you choose the right DVR for your home, we’ve written articles on DVRs to help you narrow down your selection. If you don’t want to bother with a DVR, you can also watch a variety of content on Internet TV Sites.
How Do DVRs Work?
While we’ve all heard the term DVR, also commonly called a DVR recorder, most of us may not know exactly how it works. Having a basic understanding can help you better compare and analyze each device’s specs and functionality to find the best DVR for your needs. Essentially, a DVR is a hard drive, and when you record and save content to it, it’s not much different than saving something to your own computer.
Depending on the specific DVR you have, you connect any combination of cords from it to various devices such as your television and cable box. From these external devices, the DVR receives signals through its tuner, and these signals then split, traveling to the hard drive then to your screen. Additionally, the signal may travel through an MPEG-2 encoder if it needs to convert from analog to digital or vice versa, though this is usually only the case if the signal source is from a satellite or cable. It can do this for multiple shows, depending on how many tuners it has.
Most DVRs also require a subscription to a service or cable contract and don’t work without one. Only the TiVo Roamio OTA has no subscription.
Planning Ahead: Understanding How Much Content Takes Up a Gigabyte of Storage
One of the main things to consider when buying a DVR is how much recorded content it can hold. A DVR’s actual capacity depends on its hardware, software and how much bloatware is loaded by the provider. In general, though, HD and 4K content take up more space on the hard drive than standard-resolution (SD) videos since they have higher resolutions. Because of this, you can’t record as much HD or 4K content as you can SD content. Consider whether you regularly watch more HD or SD content to help you find a DVR with the right storage capacity for your needs.
Gray Area: What’s Legal to Record and What Isn’t?
In this age of rampant piracy, content providers and studios are on guard to protect their content and punish those who want to illegally obtain or distribute it. DVRs that come with a satellite or cable subscription let you record any of the content they’ve licensed for as long as you’re their customer. This is justified because you ultimately download the commercials that pay for their content along with the content itself. However, using them to record content outside of the companies’ parameters is where things enter a legal gray area. In the United States, the law is really only focused on the source of the content.
Content-recording ethics are a bit murkier when you buy a third-party DVR instead of getting one from your cable provider because it isn’t tied to a cable or satellite subscription. If you don’t want to be tied down to a cable subscription, you can opt for an over-the-air DVR, such as the TiVo Roamio OTA, which can legally capture content from free over-the-air channels you can access with a simple antenna. While you don’t have access to all the channels included in a cable or satellite subscription, it may be enough if you just want a little TV to watch every now and then.
It is ultimately a matter of permission, but it also boils down to your intention to distribute anything you’ve recorded, no matter whether it’d be free or you’d charge for it. DVRs are for personal use, only. Top Ten Reviews does not condone using a DVR for illegal recording or distribution purposes. If you are unsure what the limits are, consult your DVR’s provider or legal counsel.
DVRs: What We Tested, What We Found
As we tested the DVRs we reviewed, we looked at how each unit functioned, including how much it can store; how many simultaneous recordings it can handle; how recording and live playback can be manipulated, such as by turning on slow motion or skipping commercials; how many different sources of content it can access; and the quantity and quality of inputs and outputs it comes with. The best options were solid, feature-rich high performers.
Functionality: More Is Always Better
Odds are, if you’re considering investing in a DVR, you’re serious about keeping up with your favorite TV shows and movies. A DVR with a small hard drive can’t record much, especially if you prefer HD content over SD content. The best DVRs offer have at least 1TB – but preferably 2TB or 3TB – of storage.
Households with more than one person using a DVR to record shows should choose one that allows for simultaneous recording from more than two channels. This feature is a must have if everyone in your family loves primetime shows that play at the same time on different channels. A good DVR has at least four to six tuners that can each record different content at any given time. You should also make sure your device can skip commercials for recorded content if you prefer not to watch them.
Equally important to recording multiple shows at the same time is the ability to stream said content to different TVs throughout your home, appeasing everyone in your family. Mom and Dad can watch a movie in the living room while the kids watch a TV show in the playroom, and Uncle Joe can catch up on the latest sports tournament highlights in the guest room. Of course, it’s also important to know your little ones aren’t watching anything you don’t want them to, so also look for a unit that has parental control settings.
Access: View Only What You Need
Consider your viewing needs as well as what, if any, hardware or cable contracts you currently have as you look for a DVR. No DVR can record content from every given source. Some can record from cable or an antenna, but nothing from a satellite dish. Others may only record content from on-demand or streaming sources. A few can even replace your cable box. You may also be able to use your DVR to view your personal videos, photos and music, through apps like Plex. This helps you connect all of your media in one unified source.
You can also consider a DVR that has a companion mobile app, such as Tablo, which allows you to view your recorded content on your mobile phone, even when you’re not at home. Apps are handy if you travel a lot but still want to keep up with your favorite shows.
Input & Output: Get Connected
Each DVR differs in the ports it offers. Some offer the bare minimum – for example, just a USB port and either an HDMI or Ethernet port – while others include a coax connection, optical and analog audio ports, component and composite video ports, and even 4K connectivity in addition to the basics. Consider your needs, your existing hardware and your willingness to deal with cords when searching for a DVR, as there’s a wide variety available for any preference.
Help & Support: Warranties and Answers
Ideally, the DVR manufacturer offers a variety of customer support resources, both direct and indirect. All of them offer support over the phone, and depending on the company, you may also have live chat or email support options. If you just want to learn more about the product or troubleshoot an issue on your own, most companies have knowledgebases, user forums or FAQs sections on their websites.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison either on loan from the companies or through retail purchase. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
Driver Update Software: Our Verdict and Recommendations
Three DVRs – Dish Hopper 3, TiVo Bolt and DirecTV Genie – rose above the rest, mainly because of their powerful and versatile functionality, expansive access capacity, and extensive input and output options.
The Dish Hopper 3 is an easy choice for our number one, as it has tons of storage, is 4K video ready and can record content from the widest variety of sources. The TiVo Bolt outperformed most others, as the powerful and modern machine is 4K friendly, has an impressively advanced search function, can speed up your shows and even has a companion app on which you can watch any of your captured content, no matter where you are. The DirecTV Genie can record five shows in HD simultaneously and lets you watch two shows on the same screen.
You don’t have to forgo the convenience of a DVR if you are on a budget. There are a few DVRs out there – such as the AVerMedia EzRecorder 130 – that have comparable functionality to many premium products. Another way to help cut costs if you’re looking for a DVR is to get one that doesn’t require monthly or annual subscription fees. The TiVo OTA has no subscription cost and offers plenty of storage and functionality.
So many good TV shows, so little time. By considering your preferences and resources, you can find the right DVR to meet your needs and streamline your entertainment experience. Having the ability to record multiple channels simultaneously, skip commercials and connect with online streaming services keeps you in control of your entertainment.