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Tablo
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Channel Master
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We purchase every product we review with our own funds—we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

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Shopping Guide for Best DVRs

When it comes to the greatest inventions of mankind, sliced bread ranks right up there. The microprocessor ushered in the era of technology, and the discovery of penicillin changed the health of human beings forever. People could argue for days about which are the most important inventions in human history.

When it comes to watching TV, it’s arguable that the DVR (Digital Video Recorder) is the best invention. Having the ability to watch television programming on your time schedule definitely makes TV more enjoyable. Pausing and rewinding sports programs to take a closer look at a play is a great option. And the ability to skip commercials is a coveted feature!

Determining which DVR best complements your television watching habits can be a little tricky. If you have a cable or satellite TV subscription, you may end up with a DVR from the provider. In such a case, you have the option of purchasing a third-party DVR and using it instead — this is an option taken up by many folks. After a while, all of these choices can become confusing, especially when you’re also trying to figure out compatibilities.

If you're ready to purchase a DVR now, check out our top five picks above. Keep reading to learn more about DVRs and which one is the best for you.

DVRs from cable/satellite providers are often combined with a set-top box. This means you only need one box cluttering your room.

You can rely on the product research we perform here at BestReviews. We never accept free samples from manufacturers. To compile the best information, we conduct thorough product research and interview experts and owners to find out how they feel about certain products.

We’ve closely studied the different DVR options on the market — fast forwarding through commercials all along the way.

Continue reading to understand how different DVRs work and which features are most important to have.

Important to know: most internet streaming services don’t allow video to be stored on a DVR.

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Finding a DVR

The market is flush with DVRs right now. Some are sold through places like Amazon, and some are available from television subscription package providers.

Finding a DVR

Provider

If you subscribe to a cable or satellite TV package, chances are the service provider has its own DVR. You could choose to use that DVR, confident in the knowledge that it is compatible with your service.

Finding a DVR

Third Party

Third-party DVRs are also available. These DVRs aren’t tied to any subscription television provider like DirecTV or Comcast. You can think of them as free agents; they work with a variety of programming options. All of the DVRs on our shortlist fall into this “third party” category.

EXPERT TIP

If you find your DVR is running out of space, you may be able to start recording your shows at a lower resolution. This will save storage space versus recording in HD resolution.


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Comparing DVRs

  • Third-party DVRs are purchased by consumers outright, whereas cable/satellite DVRs may be “rented” to the consumer for a monthly fee.

  • Some third-party DVRs have a monthly subscription fee.

  • A cable or satellite TV provider almost certainly will charge you a monthly subscription to use its DVR.

  • In some cases, however, the cable/satellite TV provider may give you the DVR for “free” in exchange for your subscription to their service.

Not surprisingly, cable/satellite TV providers would rather you use their DVR than a third-party DVR. So, they don’t provide compatibility with every third-party DVR maker.

Along those same lines, if you’ve been a DISH satellite subscriber, you won’t be able to take your Hopper DVR to your new Charter cable subscription.

In short, if you want to use a third-party DVR with a subscription package, check for compatibility before buying.

DID YOU KNOW?

When watching live TV, the DVR automatically queues the video, keeping it in memory. You then can pause and rewind. But once you change the channel, most DVRs clear the memory queue.

DVR Features

Newer DVRs have quite a few valuable features that make them easier to use than ever before. If you love your TV, you will want to take advantage of these features.

Features

Connection Options

DVRs have a variety of ports on the back of the unit. But the easiest method of connecting a DVR to a TV is via an HDMI cable. You can connect other devices to the DVR, like an external hard drive, through a second HDMI port or a USB port. Many DVRs have an input port for an Ethernet cable to allow you to connect it to the Internet. Some allow WiFi connectivity, too.

The best way to connect a DVR to your HDTV is through an HDMI cable.

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Features

Control Options

Most DVRs offer the same types of video control options. If the video was previously recorded and stored on the DVR’s hard drive, you can pause, fast forward, and rewind the video.

With live TV, you can pause and rewind. Fast forwarding is not available with live TV, unless you rewound or paused the live TV video earlier and have not yet caught up to current time.

EXPERT TIP

If you choose a third-party DVR, make sure the remote control works with the TV as well as the DVR. It’s just easier to keep track of one remote control.


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Features

Hard Drive Size

The storage mechanism of a DVR is a hard drive, a technology similar to what’s used on a computer. This makes sense, as digital video is basically a digital binary file, just like any computer file. The storage size of the hard drive inside a DVR varies from model to model.

Few DVR manufacturers openly advertise the size of the hard drive in their products. Rather, the size of the hard drive is listed as the number of hours of programming you can store.

Notably, however, the Magnavox Terabyte Hard Disc Drive in our matrix includes its storage amount (one terabyte) right in its name! Then again, a terabyte is definitely something to tout, as that’s a lot of DVR storage.

With some newer DVRs, you can add extra storage space by attaching an external hard drive or an old DVR to a USB port on the newer DVR.
Features

Interface

A DVR’s interface includes the menus by which you’ll pick recording options and watch your stored programs. It also usually includes a programming guide. These interfaces vary from maker to maker, so shop around to find one you like.

Some interfaces are confusing to set up and have a clunky design, while others are easy to use. The programming guide should offer a list of channels and information about each show. You should be able to set up recording directly from the programming guide.

Owners of the Channel Master DVR say they love its snappy, easy-to-use interface.

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Features

Multiple Programs

Some DVRs allow you to record one, two, or even more other programs while watching TV. This is a fabulous feature that helps ensure you never miss a show. You may need a cable/satellite TV subscription package to make it work, though. The TiVo Bolt in our matrix can record up to four programs simultaneously, for example.

Features

Recording Options

DVRs offer multiple recording options. You should be able to record a particular show each time it airs, either first-run episodes or all episodes. You can record the show you’re currently watching with one button press. And you can set up a single show to record through the programming guide.

You should also be able to tell the DVR to extend the recording time beyond the program’s scheduled end time. This is a handy feature for sports programming, just in case the game goes into overtime.

DID YOU KNOW?

Gone are the days when you must be at home to catch your favorite shows. With a DVR, you could capture an entire season of “off hours” programming that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.

Features

Streaming

Some DVRs allow you to access video streaming services directly through the DVR menus. These models contain apps that you can pick from, just like smart TV interfaces. If you have a Netflix subscription, for example, you’d just select the Netflix app from the DVR menu to access this streaming service.

Streaming service apps are commonly found on third-party DVRs. This is one of the strengths of the TiVo Mini in our product matrix. However, not many streaming services allow you to record a show to the DVR’s hard drive.

EXPERT TIP

When comparing different DVR models’ storage capacity, be sure that you’re looking at storage hours in full 1080p HD resolution for each model.


Staff  | BestReviews

DVR Tech Terms

  • DVR
    A DVR, short for Digital Video Recorder, is a device that can record and store live video programming. You can then play back the video at your convenience. DVRs typically provide features like a TV guide with program descriptions.

  • Hard Drive
    The hard drive is the digital data storage mechanism of the DVR. It works a lot like the hard drive in your computer for storing data.

  • HD/UHD
    High Definition (HD) video is the most common video resolution for movies and television programming. With 1080p resolution, you’ll view 1920x1080 pixels. Another type of HD is called 720p HD; it has 1280x720 pixels. HD programming is broadcast at a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. UHD programming (also called 4K) is the next generation of resolution at 3840x2160 pixels.

One of the major differences between a DVR and a VCR is the fact that you don’t have to manually set up recording of each TV episode on a DVR. For example, with TiVo, you can set up a “season pass” that records all episodes of your favorite show.

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  • HDMI
    HDMI, short for High Definition Multimedia Interface, is a standard that allows for passing HD resolution video from one device to another through a cable. The HDMI 1.4 format works well for HD programming. HDMI 2.0a is the newest format that works well with both HD and UHD (or 4K) video programming.

  • OTA
    OTA (Over The Air) programming is any TV signal that you receive from a local broadcaster through a television antenna. Certain DVRs can record this type of programming.

EXPERT TIP

If your DVR is connected to the internet, some DVR makers will allow you to use an app to connect to it and watch your stored content from a remote location.


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  • Skinny Bundle
    Compared to a traditional cable/satellite TV programming package, a skinny bundle is a “reduced” package that costs less and also offers fewer channels. You may be able to order a skinny bundle from a cable or satellite provider. But third-party companies often offer skinny bundles via internet streaming.

  • Streaming
    Streaming video is the process of playing a video from the internet. When streaming through an internet connection, you download and play the video at the same time. Most DVRs cannot store streaming programming. Whether you can store streaming video on a DVR depends on the type of streaming video service you have and type of DVR you’re using.

Important to know: it is rare to be able to save video from a skinny bundle streaming service to a DVR’s hard drive.

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Price

DVR prices vary quite a bit. You’ll pay from $150 to $400 for a third-party DVR. You then may have some monthly subscription costs for the programming guide, but this varies from model to model. As an example, the Tablo 2-Tuner Digital DVR in our matrix has no monthly fees.

If you go with a DVR from a cable or satellite provider, you may receive the DVR for “free.” But you probably will have to pay monthly fees to use the DVR, to receive HD capabilities, and/or to use a programming guide. Watch out for these hidden fees from cable or satellite providers.

If you want to record HD programming, you’ll need to make sure your DVR supports this type of resolution. Some low-end and older DVRs cannot record in HD.

FAQ

Q. How do I know how much space I have left to record on my DVR?

A. Most DVRs don’t list a precise amount of space remaining on the storage unit. Instead, the DVR may display that there’s 56% free space remaining. You can use this number to figure out how many hours of programming you can still record.

The DVR’s manufacturer should list the total number of hours of programming the DVR can store in its marketing materials. So look on the web for this information, then apply the percentage of free space remaining to the total storage number to determine how many hours of storage remain.

Q. How do I only record new episodes of a TV show?

A. Most DVRs give you the ability to distinguish between recording a first-run TV show versus recording a rerun. When setting up to record the entire series of a TV show with your DVR, look for this feature in the recording menu. It should give you the option of recording first-run shows only, repeat shows only, or both.

Q. Can I store downloaded internet video on the DVR?

A. Newer DVRs should be able to connect to the internet via an Ethernet cable or through WiFi. If your DVR is able to make an internet connection, you may be able to download video and store it. Whether you can store this downloaded video depends on the type of service from which you’re downloading it and the type of DVR you’re using.

Q. Can I use a DVR without a cable or satellite subscription?

A. There are standalone DVRs that work with over the air (OTA) programming. For example, the Channel Master DVR+ listed in our product matrix is designed specifically for use with an OTA antenna. A few third-party DVRs may work specifically with certain streaming internet video services.

Q. What exactly can I do with live TV when using a DVR?

A. Most DVRs offer the same basic functions with live video. You can pause live TV without actually saving it to the DVR’s hard drive. Each DVR will be able to hold the live TV feed paused in a memory queue for a specific amount of time, usually between 30 and 90 minutes. You can rewind live TV to the point where the memory queue started recording. And you may be able to save live TV to the hard drive, usually just by pressing a button on the remote.

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