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TV Your Way: Digital Video Recorders

Say goodbye to commercials -- and hello to convenience -- with digital video recorders.

By Rebecca Day

TV Your Way
TV Your Way
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Illustration by Chris Philpot

Too busy to catch the latest episode of Friday Night Lights? Tired of trying to persuade your daughter to do her homework instead of watching The Hills? Your family could benefit from a digital video recorder (DVR). Nearly 14 million people have jumped onto the DVR bandwagon, and here's why:

Which system is right for you? It depends on how much you want to pay -- and how much time you have to play.

Choose Your Channel: Bundled Up Cable/Satellite DVRs ($)

You want a basic, no-frills DVR without the commitment of owning equipment.

Most cable and satellite companies lease DVRs to subscribers. With a cable DVR, the programming guide information is transmitted to your home over the cable, eliminating the need for a telephone line. Satellite companies -- which usually bundle DVR service with their higher-end receivers and offer the capability as a service add-on -- typically require a telephone line.

Cost: DVR boxes are $10 a month, on top of the basic cost of renting a cable or satellite box. A subscription is $5.99 monthly for DirecTV, while DISH is $5.98 and includes a DVR lease for new subscribers.

Choose Your Channel: Off the Shelf TiVo ($$)

You want to control what your kids can watch and experiment with advanced recording options.

Available at retail outlets, TiVo comes with family-friendly elements, such as KidZone, a password-protected "area" where parents can find and store programs appropriate for different age groups. A four-digit password puts TiVo into KidZone mode, and the password has to be re-entered before anyone can "leave" the zone. (Parents can still record their favorite shows, but kids can't access the programs without the code.)

"TiVoToGo" lets you take your favorite shows with you, either through an Ethernet cable, or wirelessly, using a USB adapter ($30). Download TiVoToGo software to your networked PC, then transfer recorded shows to your laptop or to a portable media player like an iPod or Sony PlayStation Portable.

A broadband Internet connection also gives TiVo subscribers access to programs (movies can take four to six hours to download) from Amazon.com. Rent movies for $3.99 each or buy for $10 to $15; TV shows are $1.99 to own.

Cost: Boxes run from $100 for an 80-hour standard-definition recorder to $300 for a full-blown HDTV recorder, which stores 180 hours of standard TV or 20 hours of HDTV. Subscriptions are $12.95 to $16.95 a month, depending on whether you commit to one, two, or three years. Yearly prepaid plans range from $179 to $299.

Choose Your Channel: New Addition Moxi ($$$)

You're a tech-savvy "early adopter" who wants to access Internet video, music, and digital photos -- as well as regular television programming -- through your TV.

Moxi is currently being offered to some cable subscribers but will soon be available in stores. Its high-speed search capabilities and filters let you quickly find the programs you want to record (which will become more important as consumers are faced with seemingly infinite television and Internet options).

Moxi also boasts rich graphics and a quarter-screen live TV view that keeps you tuned in to one program while searching for something else to watch.

Cost: Boxes start at $1,000. A high-definition box includes a DVD player and streams video, pictures, and music from a PC to the TV. Games like solitaire, poker, and sudoku are also available. As of press time, Moxi subscription fees were still being determined.

Technologies, Unite!

Since people are always online these days, and many kids spend more time on the computer than they do watching television, the two technologies were bound to merge at some point. Look to YouTube, iTunes, and Amazon's Unbox to make the Internet as much a source of new video programming as cable or satellite.

PC: Microsoft's Media Center option -- with TV tuner cards and DVR software -- is included in Windows Vista Home Premium. The drawback to a computer-based DVR is that few people want to watch TV on a computer monitor. So manufacturers are creating products that pull recorded programs from a PC and show them on the living room TV, like Microsoft's Xbox 360. HP's MediaSmart TVs allow you to watch television programs (and listen to music and view digital pictures) stored on your computer.

Cost: Windows Vista Home Premium is $30 more than the cost of a standard PC. The TV tuner adds $100. (The computer can then function as its own DVR using its hard drive for storage.)

Apple: The trivet-size Apple TV syncs your iTunes library with your television (works for Mac or PC) so you can retrieve programs or music you've downloaded from iTunes via your wired or wireless home network and play them through the TV. ABC programs can be purchased on iTunes the day after they've aired.

Cost: from $299; TV shows, $1.99 an episode; movies, from $9.99 to $14.99.



Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the March 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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