Digital Video Recorders (DVR) are also called Personal Video Recorders (PVR) and the two names can be used interchangeably. I currently use SageTV Media Center which I have installed on a server computer in my basement. They are effectively digital VCRs, but can have many other features, like:
- multi-room access
- music, photo, and video playback
- access to online content like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, or Youtube
- many hours of video recording
- the ability to record more than one show at a time.
They’re great, and I suggest you get one.
I used to have a TiVo, which I got in 2000. It was a tough sell with my wife, who asked “why do we need a special VCR”? But once she used it, she was sold. The Tivo was great. The UI is well thought out and logical and except for having the modem zapped during a thunder storm, worked perfectly for many years. I expanded the storage space and added an ethernet card to replace the modem. As I got into digital music, photos, and videos, I started looking for a way to access them from my TV and in 2003, found networked DVD players, like this GoVideo model. These played DVDs, like normal, but could also connect to a wired network and access content served by a program installed on one of your computers. It worked ok for music and photos, but was horrible for videos. It was super finicky and could not access the videos on the Tivo. Tivo released updated software and I got a great deal on a Series2 Tivo, which was faster and had better networking functions. It was still a PITA to access the content stored on my computer though. And I was getting tired of Tivo’s monthly fees.
We had moved to a larger home around then and now had more displays and I was looking for ways to access our content from each of these displays in a consistent manner. Tivo didn’t support this elegantly at the time (2005 / 2006) and as far as I know, they still don’t. I also didn’t want to deal with having separate favorites lists and duplication of resources or have what is effectively a full computer at each of my displays.
So I started looking into media center software using extender devices. Extenders are low cost, low power, very quiet devices which communicate with software installed on your computer and allow you to control things and display content.
There are two categories:
These are computer-like devices that you purchase and connect up to a TV.
- Tivo: Tivo is the most well known DVR and in fact is in danger, if it’s not already there, of becomming “verbed”, like Xerox or Cleanex. People talk about “tivoing” something, even if they don’t own a Tivo. They recently released a fourth generation of their hardware, which is much more powerful and flexible. The base model, the Tivo Premiere, is $300. You need to purchase a Tivo for each room that you want to access your recordings from. Monthly fees are $12.95 / month, or $400 for lifetime service. The Tivo is useless without the monthly service. You can add more recording space,
- Moxi: This did not exist at the time, but now, it could be a reasonable choice. It’s a DVR appliance like the TiVo, but with a few differences. There’s no monthly fee. They have an extender device ($300). The main units cost roughly the same as the latest Tivo units. They both support services like Netflix, Amazon, and Youtube, although the Moxi does require additional software, which is currently free. Moxi has a comparison posted against Tivo here, but it’s not updated with Tivo’s most recently released models.
- ReplayTV: A defunct brand which was purchased by DirectTV.
- Your cable company’s DVR. Most likely, your cable company supplies a DVR which you won’t have to buy but will pay a relatively small monthly fee for. It will suck: limited recording space and a horrible user interface.
DVR / media center software
These are computer programs that you install on your computer. They can record programs and perform all other sorts of functions.
- BeyondTV: They didn’t have an integrated music / photos / video module or support extenders. They’ve since stopped active development on their consumer products.
- Windows Media Center: Limited extender support, uncertain support from Microsoft as a viable product line. Reliant on Windows. Only comes with some versions of Windows.
- GBPVR: A Windows open source project that supports extenders MVP (old and no longer manufactured) and Popcorn Hour (new and still in production). Here’s an interesting post by someone about the experience of using GBPVR w/ the Popcorn hour. Note though that it’s on the SageTV forum.
- MythTV: An open source Linux-based software. Does not support extenders, although you can build your own low powered computers which would fill that function. Notoriously complex to install and keep running.
- SageTV Media Center: A solid, multiiplatform (Windows, MAC, Linux) DVR w/ integrated music / photo / video functionality. Not free: $80. The price includes guide data downloads and free upgrades. Great community support. They sell their own hardware extenders ($200) and have a software extender, SageTV Placeshifter, which usually costs $30, but can also be found as part of a bundle.
I like and chose SageTV for a few reasons:
- While I have been a Windows user for a long time, I don’t love it, and am happy that SageTV is available for other platforms.
- Hardware and software extenders give me the flexibility to watch on all my TVs or computers, even when travelling.
- Low software cost and free upgrades.
- Extremely active community forum, who are really helpful and develop all sorts of plugins and add-ons.
- Free tech support from SageTV, although via email only.
- Integrated music, videos, and photos.
- Relatively easy configuration.
I discuss SageTV more in my next article.