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TiVo DVRs face stiffer competition

If you're a cable (including fiber-optic) subscriber, you can either rent a DVR from your provider or buy one from a third-party company like TiVo or Arris (makers of the Moxi DVR). Traditionally, TiVo-based DVRs have gotten the lion's share of recommendations based on their polished, easy-to-use interface. However, the current TiVo HD DVR, the TiVo Premiere, has received a more mixed reaction. That's been compounded by the fact that the DVRs supplied by cable and telecom (Verizon Fios, for example) have improved markedly and that TiVo boxes also cost considerably more than DVRs available from most cable providers. Dave Zatz of ZatzNotFunny.com says that while TiVo remains the go-to choice if you want a retail DVR, it's no longer a necessity. He adds that most people seem to be satisfied with the digital video recorders provided by their satellite and cable TV companies, and that many of those out-do TiVo's capabilities in various areas.

The TiVo Premiere (*Est. $100 and up, plus TiVo service) and TiVo Premiere XL (*Est. $300 and up, plus TiVo service) are TiVo's HD DVRs. The two DVRs are very similar, but the more expensive Premiere XL adds a bigger hard drive for 150 hours of HD recording (versus 45 in the standard Premiere), a backlit remote control and THX certification.

With TiVo, you have to pay a service fee on top of the price for the set-top box. In comparison, large cable companies such as Time Warner and Cox Communications charge between $8 and $20 per month for the service, but there's no equipment to buy. Because you are renting the DVR from the provider, you can take advantage of future equipment upgrades -- though some occasionally charge an upgrade fee to replace equipment that's still working normally.

TiVo sparked a little bit of controversy in 2010 when it revamped its pricing model. In the past TiVo owners paid full price, more or less, for the hardware, plus a monthly fee for the service, and that's still available as an option. However, TiVo has embraced a cell-phone model that offers a subsidized price for the hardware, but includes a higher monthly fee for the service. To be specific, the subsidized Tivo Premiere costs $99.99, while the subsidized TiVo Premiere XL costs $299.99, plus $19.99 a month for service for either DVR. The trade off for accepting the subsidized price is a one-year service commitment with early-termination penalties. For those who object to a service commitment, TiVo will sell the DVRs at full retail-- $299.99 for the Premiere, $499.99 for the Premiere XL -- but the monthly service charge remains the same. In addition, owners can opt for a lifetime subscription for their DVRs, which costs $499.99. Lifetime is defined as life of the box and accompanies the box if it is sold to a different owner.

In October 2011, TiVo released a new version of its DVR, the TiVo Premiere Elite (*Est. $500, plus service). In terms of hardware, there are some considerable differences between it and TiVo's other DVRs. For starters, all analog support has been removed, which means that the Premiere Elite is a nonstarter for those who get TV reception over the air, including cord cutters who have ditched their pay-TV providers. But subscribers to digital cable services will find four digital tuners, a huge hard drive capable of storing up to 300 hours of HD content and THX certification. Reports at TiVoCommunity.com indicate that performance is improved over the standard Premiere and Premiere XL, due at least in part to improved software that has yet to migrate to those DVRs. Monthly and lifetime service charges are the same as for the Premiere and Premier XL, but there is no service commitment requirement. However, no professional reviewers have yet weighed in on the Premiere Elite.

The cost of the equipment is not the only issue with DVRs from TiVo. That company's DVR also doubles as the cable box and requires provider-issued M-series (multistream) CableCards to function, which typically rent for $4 per month. Older S-series single-stream cards will work as well, but you will only be able to record a single channel at a time.

CableCards (which take the place of a component cable box) are problematic for a number of reasons beyond cost. CableCards -- including multistream CableCards -- only support one-way communication, which disables some of the functionality of digital cable systems, including the interactive programming guide (not that big a deal if you have a TiVo) and video on demand.

TiVo diehards -- and there are a lot of them -- say that TiVo's friendly interface and extra features are well worth the higher price and other issues when compared with boxes rented from Time Warner and the like. For example, TiVo has a Wish List function that automatically records programs based on a specified genre, actor or keyword. TiVo also learns what programs you like and will make suggestions for similar programs. You can remotely program your TiVo from any web browser or even your cell phone, but that's a feature that's also become common with DVRs from satellite and cable providers.

With any high-definition TiVo (when equipped with an M-series CableCard) you can record in HD on all tuners and watch a previously recorded program at the same time. The DVRs have an Ethernet port for downloading program information over broadband. A wireless adapter is available (*Est. $60). The Premiere, Premiere XL and Premier Elite are compatible with virtually all cable systems, FiOS and over-the-air TV. However, the DVRs are not compatible with AT&T U-verse, Dish Network or DirecTV.

TiVo DVRs can also use their network connection to connect to the Internet to access downloadable or streaming video from Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Blockbuster on Demand and YouTube. You can also access the Rhapsody music service, Pandora Internet radio, hundreds of free Internet radio stations via Live365 and music videos via Music Choice. Photo streaming from Picasa and Photobucket are also supported. To view listings and remotely schedule recordings, you can search the web for hundreds of free video podcasts or enter the URL directly using a custom RSS feeds feature. You can also access your TiVo from the web via a browser or mobile device (including the iPad).

Free TiVo Desktop software lets you transfer music or photos (but not videos) stored on your PC or Mac to your TiVo DVR, and the PC version (but not the Mac version) lets you view programs stored on your TiVo Premiere on a PC. A step-up version of the software, TiVo Desktop Plus (*Est. $25), lets you convert programs for playback on a mobile device such as an iPod and view video files stored on your PC on your TiVo Premiere. Add Roxio Creator software (*Est. $70) to the mix and you can burn TiVo recordings to a DVD to take with you for viewing on a PC or for archiving. Roxio Toast Titanium (*Est. $80) does the same for Mac owners, and it makes it easy to stream TiVo recordings to other devices, including the iPhone and iPod touch. If you want more storage, there's an eSATA port for connecting an external hard drive.

The TiVo Premiere introduces the first major upgrade to the user interface in years, a sleek, modern HD version that makes finding programs and doing other tasks easier. However, not every reviewer is enamored. The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg dislikes the new Discovery Bar, which is used by TiVo to recommend programming or web content based on viewing habits. He says that the bar is a distraction and that it clutters menu screens. However, most other reviewers, such as Joel Santo Domingo at PCMag.com, give it a general thumbs-up.

Another change is the elimination of the 30-second commercial skip, but that's been replaced by a 30-second scan feature that will jump through a commercial in about a second. "It's not as quick as the skip, but it's effective, and we're sure it's keeping advertisers happy, so we'll accept it as a fine compromise between the functionality users want and the demands of content providers," writes Engadget.com's Nilay Patel.

The bottom line is that most reviewers like the TiVo Premiere's potential and say that it remains the best available option for cable subscribers who want a DVR other than that offered by their provider. However, even fans like Dave Zatz and Joel Santo Domingo say that it's getting harder to make a case for a TiVo. "In the end, while we really like TiVo, and the Premiere offers the richest TiVo experience yet, it's not exactly a no-brainer upgrade for current users, and it's an even tougher sell for new users," Santo Domingo writes.

Buying the TiVo Premiere isn't the only way to get the benefits of TiVo software. TiVo has struck deals with a number of large and small cable operators, including Cox, Comcast, Charter and RCN, to bring TiVo-powered cable boxes to their customers, though not all have rolled out the service or made it available in all areas. Finally, the long-awaited -- and often postponed -- DirecTV TiVo DVR was set to debut in 2011, though it has yet to appear as of November. Some TiVo features aren't available in the cable company versions -- for example, streaming from Netflix -- and costs are higher than a standard DVR, but no CableCard is required and two-way services are supported.

Moxi DVRs are a consideration

The Arris Moxi DVR is another consideration for those looking for an alternative to a cable company DVR. Reviews are mixed, but many of the most negative comments revolve around the high price, which has been greatly reduced. The Moxi DVR differs from the TiVo Premiere in several significant ways, most notably its subscription model. While TiVo makes the subscription an extra cost, Moxi builds in the subscription with the recorder, and there is no ongoing cost beyond the initial investment. Of course, that also means that the Moxi is more expensive initially.

The Moxi 3-Tuner HD DVR (*Est. $600) can hold up to 75 hours of high-definition programming or 300 hours of standard-definition programming. The interface lacks TiVo's ability to find and recommend programming, but it is in HD and is spiffy enough to have won an Emmy award. Like the TiVo Premiere, you'll need an M-series CableCard for cable-TV programming. Unlike TiVo, there is no support for over-the-air TV, and analog cable programming requires an adapter (*Est. $130) that limits recording to one channel at a time. There's an Ethernet port for connecting to your home network and the Internet, but no wireless adapter, meaning you'll need to use a third-party PowerlineAV network connection or something similar if you don't have a hard-wired Ethernet port near the DVR.

The Moxi is Digital Living Network Alliance-compliant, which means it can stream content such as video, music and photos from your computer. You can also use PlayOn software from MediaMall (*Est. $40 for the first year, $20 thereafter) to stream content from Netflix, Hulu and other providers from the Internet. There's also a basic web browser and access to some additional online content, such as Rhapsody. Remote programming via the Internet is another option. If you need more storage, there's an eSATA port for an external hard drive, but there's no way to transfer recordings from the Moxi to a PC.

If you are interested in a multiroom setup, Arris also offers the Moxi Mate (*Est. $300), which lacks its own built-in storage but lets you watch video recorded on a 3-Tuner Moxi HD DVR connected to the same network. Like the full-fledged Moxi DVRs, it can also stream video and other media from a computer or the Internet.

Reviews for the Moxi are mixed. When the DVRs were first released, they were priced higher than they are now, which was a turnoff for many. Others complained that while the interface looks good, using it isn't as easy or intuitive as it could or should be. For example, Ben Drawbaugh at EngadgetHD.com says that "after a month of use we still get lost and frustrated with the menu navigation." On the other hand, David Birch-Jones at AVGuide.com has nothing but compliments for the user interface, saying it "wipes the typically mundane cable DVR user interface off the map."

We also saw some mixed reports on stability. Peter Suciu at BigPictureBigSound.com complains of some occasional lockups in his otherwise mostly positive review. However, Ben Drawbaugh, who has plenty of nits to pick, doesn't include stability among those. He says, "The unit is rock solid. In all of our testing it never missed a single recording or rebooted unexpectedly." Everyone raves about the picture quality.

One issue might be long-term viability -- especially in light of Moxi owners' essentially paying up front for access to the company's guide data. In a review of the Moxi Mate, CNET notes that buying into Moxi "means betting on the products' -- and the company's -- viability." Dave Zatz at ZatsNotFunny.com raises an even larger caution flag. "Anyone looking for a retail DVR should go with TiVo (especially since it's been radio silence out of Arris/Moxi and I suspect development has ceased)," he writes. In November 2011, Arris announced that its cable-technology products would begin to carry the Moxi brand, suggesting that its days of selling a DVR product to the public are coming to an end.

Cable DVRs: The best choice for most

If TiVo is too expensive, the best alternative for cable subscribers is to rent a DVR from their cable provider. While some might not be as easy to use as the above DVRs and lack some of their nicer features, reviews say that such DVRs are more cost effective and have several advantages.

Note that users rarely have any choice when it comes to cable company-provided DVRs. Providers use DVRs made by Motorola, Cisco (formerly Scientific America), Samsung and other makers. In addition, makers will typically modify their DVRs -- for example, incorporating different-size hard drives -- to meet the cable operator's specifications.

While reviewers generally prefer the functionality of DVRs like the TiVo Premiere, many also say that there are some powerful reasons to opt for a cable company-provided DVR. Perhaps the biggest plus is better integration with your cable system. There are no CableCards to worry about, so a cable company DVR will give you total access to programming, and two-way features such as video on demand are fully supported. In addition, if a new or better box is offered, it is a simple matter to trade in your gear at no or low cost.

Negatives with a cable company-provided DVR include less sophisticated search and programming options -- but reports say that setting up recordings through the cable system's interactive programming guide is usually a fairly simple affair. Many cable companies are also offering advanced features like the ability to program your DVR from the Internet or via a mobile device, or to add an external hard drive for extra storage. That leads experts like PCMag.com's Joel Santo Domingo to say that as long as you are not at wit's end with your cable company-provided DVR, and as long as you are not already a dyed-in-the-wool TiVo enthusiast, a cable company DVR is "likely a more-convenient, less-expensive choice."

DVRs - Digital Video Recorders Runners Up:

Dish Network DuoDVR ViP722K *Est. $6 per month

2 picks including: CNET, PCMag.com…

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Factory Refurbished VIP 722K Dual Tuner HD DVR Dish Network
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