The days of taping television for watching later are past. Well, at least the tapes are mostly gone. Now recordings are made on hard drives in devices called digital video recorders, or DVRs.
TiVo was the first to popularize the convenience of recording TV to digital files. TiVo is still around, and in its first decade it slowly added features. But now TiVo is facing a growing list of competitors that have spurred a golden age of innovation. Today's recorders are more powerful, easier to use, and rapidly adding new capabilities.
Currently, only about a third of U.S. homes have DVRs. For those who haven't tried them, a basic recorder can radically change how they watch television. No longer are viewers forced to watch their favorite shows when they're broadcast. They can "time shift" to watch a show when it's convenient for them, and with much greater ease than the old VCRs.
But consumers are now getting much more for the money. The recorders are tapping the Internet for streaming video and using home networks to share recordings among multiple rooms. Internet news, weather, and Facebook updates come through the boxes to the television. Other models are slinging their recordings to remote users across the Internet or cable system, or even across wireless networks.
[Getting video while on the move will be easier with new 4G wireless networks.]
Not everyone can choose their recorder. Some are restricted to using a DVR from their cable or satellite company. But a better DVR is often reason enough to switch TV providers. It might even be reason to cut the cable service and high monthly bills. Here are some of the hottest new advances in digital recorders:
Flexible TiVo. TiVo's latest offering, the new Premiere model, is not only faster and prettier, but it does a credible job combining broadcast TV with Internet streaming. The device's revamped look takes advantage of widescreen HDTV sets, putting more information on the screen. New search functions can find shows on cable as well as in streaming services such as Netflix, YouTube, and on-demand services from Amazon and Blockbuster.
The new software now incorporates Adobe Flash, enabling TiVo to add services such as Pandora, Twitter, and Facebook, and it's still easier to use than the recorders that cable and satellite companies will rent to their customers. The Internet features aren't found on most cable and satellite boxes.
The premium service, however, costs a premium. The Premiere starts at $300 and carries a monthly fee that starts at about $10. Many cable and satellite providers add a similar fee to the monthly bill for recorders, but don't charge for the box itself. It can be a hassle to get TiVo to work with premium cable channels, and the device won't work with satellite providers who don't sell it themselves. But it's a great choice for people who are cutting cable altogether and depending solely on new digital over-the-air broadcasts.
Multiroom Moxi. Another box that can combine broadcast video with Internet streaming, the Moxi is a good option for homes with multiple TVs. The Moxi doesn't have monthly fees. Buyers instead pay the cost upfront, as the device sells for about $200 more than comparable TiVo models, But it can be cheaper in the long run.
A top-of-the-line Moxi at $600 can record three channels simultaneously while replaying a fourth that's already recorded. The box is also easy to network to televisions in other rooms through $300 Moxi Mate extenders. Using a Mate feels like having another Moxi in the other room.
A package deal of the three-tuner model and two Moxi Mates costs $1,000. That seems pricey, but it's only $100 more than three TiVos. And none of the Moxis have TiVo's monthly fees. Still, the TiVo software is faster, more stable, and easier to use. Unlike the TiVo, the Moxi requires a networked computer and add-on software to stream Internet video. Like the TiVo, it can be a hassle to get it working with premium cable channels. It won't work with over-the-air broadcast TV.