Everyone's been talking about DVD recorders for the last couple of years but a better, cleverer alternative is gaining momentum. Personal video recorders (PVRs) use internal hard disks to store video digitally in the same way that computers store files. However, PVRs are simple to use because they are designed for one specific purpose - to record TV programmes at the touch of a button - and despite being state-of-the-art, you can get one from about £200.
Hard disk capacity is large (40-80GB at least), so you can store many hours of programmes without fumbling for a spare blank tape or disc to make a recording and because everything is stored on one menu-driven hard disk, it's simple to find it again later.
Types of PVR
All PVRs operate on the same principle of an internal hard disk drive (HDD) but there are different ways that the HDD can be used and various types of products. Standalone HDD recorders are rare as they are most useful when tied to other technologies such as digital TV receivers or DVD recorders.
The highest profile PVR in the UK is Sky+, which includes two digital satellite TV tuners. Its integration into Sky's electronic programme guide (EPG) makes it one of the simplest ways to choose what to record and play. PVRs for the digital terrestrial platform are also becoming available and will grow in popularity now that Freeview is well established and that its own EPG is up and running.
The other main type of PVR is the DVD-HDD combi. These are ideal if you like to edit and archive recordings. You get the high quality, high capacity advantage of a hard disk fused to a DVD recorder, so you can record TV shows or camcorder footage to HDD, make edits and copy what you want to keep onto DVD, often with high-speed transferring.
What's good about PVRs?
PVRs record digitally, like DVD recorders, so at best the AV quality is identical or very close to the original. PVRs with built-in digital TV tuners don't normally allow you to 'step down' the picture quality to increase capacity, but HDD-DVD combis usually do. A key benefit of Sky+ is that it will receive Dolby Digital 5.1 from Sky's movie channels so it's currently the only way to get full DVD-style surround sound from digital TV.
Most PVRs conveniently enable you to play and record at the same time so you can watch what you like from the hard drive - even a current recording before the programme has finished. Digital TV PVRs with two tuners allow you to record one digital channel while watching another. Some, like Sky+, record two channels at once. The better PVRs will be upgradable over the air or internet and have some level of sophistication beyond easy timer setting, so they will automatically record the next episode of a series if you wish.
It's no surprise that PVR users get very attached to their machines and as a result watch more hours of TV, with most of their viewing being 'non-live' and, if from a commercial channel, zipping through ads, saving 15 minutes per broadcast hour. PVRs also remove the need for random channel surfing. Keep your PVR well stocked and you'll always have something worth watching because you put it there to begin with.
What's bad about PVRs?
There are very few PVR drawbacks. It's a shame that the most sophisticated example, TiVo, was only available in the UK briefly, though it may return in the future. The best available PVR for features is undoubtedly Sky+ but you have to have a Sky subscription and there's an additional service charge unless you have premium movie or sports channels. Freeview PVRs lag somewhat behind, especially in the adoption of the EPG and series-linking features, but they should catch up soon; likewise cable PVRs, which should appear during 2005.
HDD-DVD combi recorders are fairly 'dumb' in that analogue TV tuners are commonplace - not built-in digital ones - and if you connect to an external digibox then they won't really communicate. You'll often have to set two timers manually, one each for the digibox and recorder, and your resulting recording will not be named automatically with the programme title. This is being resolved with the appearance of GuidePlus and other built-in free EPG systems that work across analogue and digital channels.
On the horizon
GuidePlus (the 21st century version of VideoPlus) will spread, as will integrated digital TV PVRs or combis with bigger hard drives. Such products may be suitable for High Definition TV recording, long-term archiving or video networking. Add-ons such as wireless distribution, broadband connectivity and digital video outputs will become more common, as will ports for external hard drives and copying programmes to pocket-sized media players.
Three to try:
Sky+ Price: £199-£399 www.sky.com/skyplus
The UK's leading PVR is available in 40GB (20hr) or 160GB (80hr) models with twin tuners. It's upgradeable and very easy to use but requires a digital satellite installation and subscription.
DigiFusion FVRT100 Price: £250 www.fusiondigitec.com
A 40GB twin-tuner Freeview PVR with decent picture quality and its own EPG but it feels cheap and user friendliness is poor. It might be worth waiting for the Humax PVR-9200T in 2005.
Pioneer DVR-920H Price: £1,299 www.pioneer.co.uk
The Rolls Royce of HDD-DVD combis, with 250GB of storage, the GuidePlus EPG and ample editing features and connections, including HDMI digital video output for compatible plasma, LCDs and projectors.
What's your opinion of PVRs? Have your say in our forum.
If the standalone versions of PVRs are either expensive (Sky+ 160GB plus monthly subscription) or lack a digital TV tuner (like most DVD and hard disc recorders) why not mention the very good PC solutions that exist today? More and more people already have a media PC in their living rooms. Plug a DVB-T card in one of these and you’ve got a perfect PVR: The capacity of the hard disc is huge (and can be upgraded easily if necessary), the software can be downloaded from the internet and can also be updated easily. Plus, there’s a broader choice of third-party software available if you’re not satisfied with the package that comes with the card. I just got a Nebula DigiTV PCI card. So far, I’m very happy with my decision not to go for a standalone ...