Saturday, 14 June 2008

The joy of hard drives: why buy a DVR or PVR, & ditch the VCR

Surprisingly few people I know have digital video recorders or DVRs (also known as personal video recorders or PVRs), geeks and gadget fans excepted. Why haven't PVRs caught on more in the UK?

Here's why I extol the virtues of hard disk PVRs, by way of comparison with the bad ol' days of VCRs (video cassette recorders). And also why I think hard drive DVRs beat DVD ones hands down. Feel free to use this to persuade any remaining doubters in your family!

Sky Plus (Sky+) is the best known PVR, but you don't have to be a Sky subscriber to get a PVR. If you watch TV more than minimally, don't replace your videocassette recorder with another VCR or even a VCR/ DVD/ Freeview combo - do yourself a favour and get a DVR (ideally with two Freeview tuners, even better with a hard drive). They cost about the same, or even less.

I've had two Panasonic DVRs, then two Topfield Freeview PVRs (by a Korean company - I really like the Topfield, especially the ability to add features via mini-programs called TAPs). This one little gizmo has transformed my life - or at least my TV viewing.

Here are what I consider the main pros and cons of hard drive PVRs / DVRs.

Advantages of hard drive DVRs

1. Quality

VCR: recordings on tape aren't top quality, and if you keep watching a favourite recording over and over (no, I don't mean that kind of recording, though some well might), the quality will get worse and worse as the tape wears out. Or breaks.

DVR: digital quality reproduction, every time.

2. Convenience, flexibility & timesaving in watching recordings

To me this is the biggest selling point of hard drive PVRs.

VCR: something's started recording. Drat, I can't watch another videotape cos, well, there's tape in there it's recording on, innit. Can't even start watching this recording till it's finished that recording.

PVR: something's recording. I can record something else at the same time (if I have a more than single tuner DVR). I can watch another previously recorded programme while it's recording. I can even start watching the current recording from its beginning, while its ending is still being broadcast and recorded, how cool is that? Can't do that with DVD recorders, nope (except DVD-RAM ones which let you watch something previously recorded on the same DVD that it's recording on to).

Or how about this -

VCR: want to watch recording X? Got to find it first. Hmmm, which tape is it on, again? Rummage, much mess (or more mess, in my case). OK, found it. I think (what does that scribble say again?). Nope, read that scrawl wrong, try this one instead. OK, got it. Cue fast forward, rewind, back and forth to find the right spot to start from. Who knows how much later.

DVR: want to watch recording X? Call up the list of recordings with one button press, it's automatically saved the titles of all the recorded programmes. Scroll or page up and down till you find the one I want, then select it. Fast forward and rewind very fast (2x, 6x etc speeds possible), till I find it.

And this -

VCR: got to stop watching and do something else. Must jot down how far along the cassette this spot is so I can find it again. I could just leave it at the same spot, of course, but if I want to watch something else on the same tape in the meantime, I'd have to hunt for the spot again.

PVR: got to stop watching and do something else. Right, I'll just add a marker/bookmark at this spot (I can add several to the same recording), then jump quickly to the right place next time I select that recording. Anyway, the Toppy remembers the last place I got to and if I stop, go watch another recording, turn it off, turn it back on and pick a recording again, it starts from where I left off.

3. Save space and (again) time

VCR: shelves bursting with videocassettes, errr what's on which video tape? Got to find one that's empty or has enough space for the next recording, ummm now how many minutes is left on this one? Not enough, got to find another. OK. Lots of fun with forward and rewind to find the right spot to tape from...

: just set it to record. As long as there's enough space left on the hard drive (usually there will be), that's it, it automatically finds a spot and records. No cassette or disk swapping or shuffling! (Though with DVD PVRs you still have to find storage space for the DVDs, and then find a DVD with enough blank space on it).

3. Programming recordings

VCR: so it's not too bad with Videoplus. But you may still have to set padding manually (to start the recording a bit earlier than the scheduled time and end it some minutes later than the scheduled finish time, in case of you miss the ending or indeed beginning due to last minute delayed starts, schedule changes etc). Setting channel, date, start and end times manually is a big pain. And if it's recording when you think "Oh I must remember to program X", forget it, multi-tasking is not the VCR's forte, you'll have to wait till it finishes recording before you can program something new (or edit an existing thing).

DVR: ah the beauty of EPGs! (electronic programme guides). 2 weeks of programme listings automatically downloaded over the air by the PVR. Call up the TV guide with one button press, pick your programme from the TV schedules shown, hit Record, and that's it. Simple to make that a daily or weekly recording too. Some software like MyStuff for the Topfield will even spot if a movie carries on after a news break, and prompt you to record the second half too. I've missed the ending of so many films on ITV especially, because I didn't notice to program the 2nd half too. No more of that!

If you want to program something else while it's recording, no problem either. You can even edit an existing item while it's recording.

5. Fave programmes and automatic searches

VCR: set a repeat recording for the same time each day or week. And pray they don't change the advertised time, as TV stations sometimes arbitrarily do with little or no warning. Usually just so viewers can miss the ending.

with the Toppy at least, via add-on software downloads like MyStuff you can find a program in the EPG which you want to record, or that you've already recorded in your archive, then hit one button, and it will automatically record it each time that show is on, whatever time it's on. With the ability to finetune those automatic recordings by channel, day etc (so to avoid repeats you set it only record the programme when it's on channel X but not channel Y, or shown in the evenings but not if shown in the morning, etc - and any combo).

Desperate not to miss a series or movie that's going to air in a couple months? Even if it's too far in the future to show up in the 2-week EPG, you can add a search for it to record it automatically as and when it starts being broadcast - on a Toppy, anyway.

6. Pausing live TV

VCR: you're watching live TV (not a recording) and the phone rings, doorbell goes or food boils over, etc. You have to see to whatever it is, and then you've missed a whole chunk of what you were viewing.

just hit Pause, go do your thang, and when you're free again (as long as it's not more than about half an hour later, usually), hit Play and carry on from exactly when you left ott. Now this is a handy feature, but when Tivo DVR came to the UK this was about the only benefit they focused their ad campaign on. Big mistake. They should have sung the advantages of nos. 1 and 2, which are the main features I love. I believe that Tivo bombed in the UK, although they still survive in the US, because they just didn't get across the right message (as to which, incidentally, this video on how to do DIY user research / testing may be instructive).

7. Spur of the moment recording

VCR: watching something, think oooh this is good, wish I'd taped it for the kid / other half / myself. Well, tough luck matey, you shoulda programmed it in advance shouldn't ya?

DVR: no problem. You can even "rewind" live TV (up to about 30 minutes back, on the Toppy anyway - other PVRs' "buffer" may differ) to start recording the whole programme from an earlier point, onwards, so you record the start of the show too.

The downside? Saving to DVD

Lots of pros, but one con to note. A pure hard drive-only PVR won't let you archive recordings to DVD easily, though one that's combined with a DVD recorder would. A hard drive PVR with twin Freeview tuners and DVD player/recorder would be ideal, and one day I'll get one.

The Panny I own had a DVD recorder, but it only had one tuner, and in a later model, the Panasonic DMR E100H, the sods ruined a perfectly good (indeed very good) user interface, so I won't risk buying Panasonic again anymore, myself.

Still, it's not impossible to save recordings even with a hard drive-only DVR. With my Toppy I can transfer a recorded .rec file from Toppy to PC or Mac (or rather, an additional huge hard drive connected to PC, as the files are pretty big), then burn them to DVD on my computer for later viewing.

That's another advantage of the Toppy - it has a huge, knowledgeable and helpful user community at (and in other countries), who do things like provide instructions on how to archive recordings, and write free little programs (called TAPs) to fix bugs or annoyances or to enhance the Toppy. I didn't write about them in my main list of pros as these benefits are I suspect specific to the Toppy rather than for PVRs generally. But I'm sure some other brands have decent users communities too.

Don't get me wrong, I've had my share of problems with the Toppy - but they haven't put me off, and other Toppy owners are really helpful in getting them fixed, much faster than a support line would (though I've never had to try Toppy direct).

The Topfield also has slot for Top-Up TV card, if you want the option of subscribing for that later. I never did it - now that we have BBC iPlayer, and I can also record all my fave programs so easily from Freeview to Toppy, I've my work cut out just watching those, never mind stuff on pay TV channels too! (I'm not desperate to be among the first to watch the latest trendiest thing ASAP, I'm happy to wait most of the time.)

Anyway, this post isn't aimed at comparing DVRs or advising on which to buy, as I've only tried the 2 brands (2 models of each, mind). If any other brands would care to invite me to try and review their products, my contact details are in the sidebar.

Meanwhile, as you can tell, my personal preference is for the Toppy, rather than Panasonic. If you decide to go for a Topfield be warned that a new model, the 5810, is out, so you might want to get that model, or else pick up the older 5800 cheaper (some people prefer the older model however - check out the differences between the Topfield 5800 and the 5810).

Buying tips

I'll just end with a few buying tips:
  1. What about Blu-Ray? Good question. Increasingly you can get BluRay recorders (e.g. the Sony BDP-S1E was the first European Blu-ray disc player) especially now it's won the format war against HD-DVD. 25 or 50 GB storage on a single Blu-Ray disc is good, of course, but personally being lazy about swapping discs I prefer to have 250GB on a hard drive, or even 500GB now. Plus, I'm waiting for the cost of Blu Ray to come down a lot more. Your choice...

  2. If you get a PVR, ideally get one with two Freeview tuners, for more flexibility. Heck, 3 tuners if there are any! Of course this saves you from buying a separate Freeview set top box too, if you've not got digital terrestrial TV yet.

  3. I prefer hard drive PVRs myself, as mentioned I'm lazy about swapping discs, but it's your choice - if you can find a combo hard drive and DVD recorder at a decent price, consider it (but don't forget DVD recorders may record to different DVD formats e.g. DVD-RAM, DVD+R etc. I was a DVD-RAM fan because of no. 2 above, but blank DVD-RAMs were more expensive and might not play in other players, and DVD-RAM seems now to be pretty much dead. DVD-R seems the most compatible.)

  4. If you get a hard drive DVR, get one with the biggest hard drive you can afford. If there's space you'll fill it up, believe me! I'm constantly trying delete stuff from my 250 GB PVR.

  5. If you want Top-Up TV then obviously get one with an appropriate card slot.

  6. Size matters! I'm virtually out of room on my TV stand and STBs (set-top boxes) can accumulate... Thin is good.

  7. If you're wondering about how to hook it all up, see my guide on how to connect audiovisual (AV) devices.

  8. Consider getting a universal remote control for extra convenience.

  9. Converting from VCRs - there are lots of tools and howtos now to help you digitise your old VHS videocassette tape collection i.e. convert them to digital files to burn to DVD or store on hard drive etc; you can even buy dedicated gadgets to do it for you. I won't go into that here, just see e.g. this Google search.
And talking of conversions, I hope that's enough to convert remaining doubters to the joys of digital PVRs, or help you to convert others in your family who've been against it!

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