Like Kleenex or Xerox, TiVo is a brand name that is often used as a generic term. However, TiVo is not the only digital video recorder (DVR) available, and some experts say that it might not even be the best choice anymore for lots of users. Due to a staggeringly simple interface and cool extra features, TiVo was once considered to be the king of the DVRs, but its market advantage is slipping away now that cable and satellite providers offer cheaper alternatives.
For cable subscribers, renting a DVR from your provider eliminates the up-front expense of buying a TiVo unit. To use TiVo, in addition to buying the hardware at a cost that ranges from around $100 up to about $500, you'll need to pay a $19.95 per month service fee, or opt for a one-time charge of $500; discounts are available for those who own more than one TiVo DVR. Cable/fiber subscribers will also need to pay their provider for an M-series multichannel CableCard (most cost about $4 per month); the TiVo Premiere can also accept the older single-channel S-series CableCards, but you'll only be able to use one of its two built-in tuners.
In contrast, most cable companies will rent you a dual-tuner DVR box plus programming service for $20 or less per month, with no upfront fee and no CableCard charges. Every reviewer we found says that TiVo has superior functionality and a nicer interface that's been spiffed up in the latest model. But critics are also adding that many if not most cable company DVRs are perfectly functional in their own right -- and that it's impossible to ignore the price difference.
When it comes to satellite TV, things are more clear-cut: Current TiVo DVRs are not compatible with either DirecTV or Dish Network, so if you subscribe to satellite TV, the company-provided DVRs are your only alternative. However, TiVo and DirecTV have announced an agreement for TiVo-powered DVRs; those were expected to be available sometime in 2011 but have not materialized.
Those who have chosen to cut the cord with cable (or satellite) and rely on over-the-air broadcasts for their TV entertainment have a few choices to consider. TiVo DVRs can receive over-the-air broadcasts, for example, though those who have ditched cable to get rid of monthly fees might find it hard to justify the cost of TiVo service. As an alternative, the Channel Master TV CM-7400 HD DVR is designed primarily to work with over-the-air signals and requires no monthly subscription fee. However it has a high upfront cost (*Est. $400), lacks TiVo's well-regarded programming interface and has fewer options for streaming content from the Internet. DVD recorders with built-in hard-disk drives are another alternative, though they don't provide all of the functionality -- such as dual tuners -- of a typical DVR.
Rather than record to videocassette tapes or recordable DVDs, DVRs -- sometimes also called personal video recorders -- record video to a hard-disk drive similar to those found in computers. That makes a number of features possible. One is the ability to pause live video; another is the ability to rewind live video to create an instant replay on demand. Most DVRs offer some type of one-button skip function that's conveniently timed to coincide with the length of a typical TV commercial, 30 seconds.
DVRs can also store more video than a recordable DVD. The TiVo Premiere XL (*Est. $300, plus TiVo service), for example, can hold almost 1,350 hours of standard-definition (SD) programming, or 150 hours of high-definition (HD) programming, and the newest TiVo, the four-tuner Premier Elite (*Est. $500, plus TiVo service) can hold up to 300 hours of HD.
The biggest drawback to DVRs is that archiving and sharing video is more difficult, though all let you output to a VCR or DVD recorder, and some will let you download video to an external hard drive. The TiVo Premiere will let you download video to your PC and archive it on a DVD (with the help of some extra software). Dish Network's Slingbox-enabled ViP922 lets you watch your recorded programs (or even live TV) anywhere in the world via a web browser or supported mobile device.
While there's been a bit of DVR news of late, reviewers have been slow to weigh in on the latest models, such as the TiVo Premier Elite and the Channel Master TV. Still, sites like CNET and BigPictureBigSound.com have older reports on DVRs that are quite helpful. We did see a features-based comparison of the TiVo Premier and the Channel Master TV that cord-cutters could find helpful at GizmoLovers.com. User communities, like the ones at DBSTalk.com and TiVoCommunity.com offer commentary and user reviews that are well detailed -- sometimes to the point of being overwhelming. (One review of a Dish Network DVR at DBSTalk.com is 44 pages long.)