The Five Hidden Differences Between DVRs

December 23, 2005

Digital Video Recorders are fast becoming “commodity” items — Tivos are now selling for pocket change (leaving aside the monthly fee), cable and satellite providers are throwing in “house brand” DVRs cheap or even free for new and renewing subscribers, and some days it seems harder to find a Windows machine that’s not a Media Center than it does to find one that is.

Unfortunately, what makes a DVR worth using isn’t always the obvious features that they tell you about.  Sure, you can select between them based on recording time or disk storage, or how many standard definition or high def programs they’ll record simultaneously, but once it’s installed and you have to live with it, you’ll find that there are some major differences between the players.

Sometimes you have advanced warning — for example, this week DirecTV is taking a lot of heat for problems with their new post-Tivo house-brand DVRs, but often you’ll need to do a little online sleuthing around to find out what user experience are really like.

So what’s really important?  Funny you should ask.  Having owned a fairly wide variety of DVRs over the past few years, and played with a few different ones that friends own, I’ve decided that the following five issues are what really separate great DVR experiences from just another case of gadget misery.


Let’s face it — if you can’t trust your DVR to record your favorite programs when you want them recorded, then it’s useless.  Reliability forgives a lot of other sins, but no other single feature is more important.

I’ve yet to find anything more reliable than a Tivo.  The thing just works. 

In my experience, a properly configured Windows MCE system is a close second, but if you’re rolling your own MCE system, then getting it properly configured can be a trick. 

The Dishplayer 942 comes in third; problems with the previous software update caused the occasional missed show.  Worse, it wasn’t smart enough to know it missed it and pick it up later in the schedule, which Windows MCE seems to do quite well.


No matter how many nifty features a DVR has, they are totally useless if you can’t get to them easily and intuitively.  This means not only a good working “10 Foot” interface (which isn’t that easy to do to begin with), but a remote that’s easy, comfortable to use, and has the right keys where they’re supposed to be.

Of course, it’s not only got to be the right interface, it’s got to be the right interface for you.  I do most of my viewing on widescreen displays, and (rock and roll having been good to me over the years) I often turn on Closed Captions.  This means I really appreciate easy access to turn Closed Caption on and off on the remote, as well as a quick way to switch between various stretch modes for non-wide-screen content.

Tivo misses these altogether; you have to use your TV remote and whatever functionality your TV might have for both. 

Windows MCE is a pain for both — you have to bring up the Program Information dialog to change zoom settings; if you want to change closed captioning, you’ve got to go to the main audio settings in the settings section (which you can get to from the Program Information display).

The Dishplayer 942 has a handy zoom button right on the remote for changing stretch modes.  Unfortunately, the closed captions settings are buried about 297 clicks deep in the settings.

Another interface issue is the “modality” of the interface.  The Dishplayer is a heavily modal interface — when you’re doing one thing, you’re doing one thing, and that’s it.  For instance, in the recorded program and program guide dialogs, it runs the current program in a window, but you can’t do anything to it — pause it, stop it, back it up, etc., until you cancel all of the way out to the main viewing interface.

Windows MCE goes the other way — the program continues running in a window almost all of the time, but there are a couple of miscues here too; for example, the “skip forward” key is used to advance the guide display 12 hours — but if a program is running it often skips the program forward instead.

Guide Data

When you buy a DVR, you’re not just getting hardware, you’re also getting a service that continually updates the program guide with information. 

Unfortunately, not all guide data services are created equally.  Some have good program information, others have the bare minimum.  Worse, how well a DVR does in recording favorite  programs and avoiding programs it’s already recorded is dependent on the guide data being correct. 

Sometimes this is the problem of the programmer — BBC America is notorious for missing program information (sometimes a generic description, sometimes nothing at all) for series programs, leaving the DVR no choice but to record every instance of a favorite program because it can’t tell them apart.

On the other hand, when one DVR gets it right, and another doesn’t, it’s a good sign that the problem lies in the guide data that the “wrong” DVR uses.

Timeliness of updates is also important — there are often last minute changes to programming, and how fast your DVR is aware of it controls how well you’ll get your program recorded properly. 

As a recent example, a last minute Presidential address skewed the times on a couple of programs I had set to record afterwards.  Both the Dishplayer and Windows MCE missed the last fifteen minutes of the first one, but MCE corrected itself and got all of the second one, while the Dishplayer did not.

Flexibility of Programming

Sometimes just asking a DVR for a “Season Pass” or to “Record Series” isn’t enough. 

Most DVRs are now flexible enough to let you add minutes before or after a scheduled recording time to get around programs with goofy start or end times (like say, ABC on Sunday nights).

Where we separate the great from the merely adequate is in features beyond this.  Let’s say you decided mid-season that you wanted to record a series.  You don’t want just “new” episodes, since you want to grab any reruns that you might have missed.  Worse, the show is in syndication, with two year old episodes (that you don’t want) running late night on the same channel, and half a dozen others.

Windows MCE offers a tremendous amount of flexibility here — you can not only select “new” or “all”, but you can lock a series schedule to only record from a single channel, or even a single time.   Or you can go hog-wild and tell it that it can record any episodes of that program on any channel, at any time.  Even better, you can set the maximum number it will grab in a day, and the maximum number it will keep stored.   This lets you safely set a recording for something like “The Daily Show” without worrying that you’ll go away for three days and have 45 hours of Jon Stewart to wade through.  You can even set most of these options to a default setting for when you add a new recording.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Dishplayer 942 has minimal “smarts” you can set on recording schedules, making some recording choices just a little more dangerous than others.


Even if everything is working the way you want it, the whole idea of a DVR is convenience — and it’s not terribly convenient if you spend five minutes staring at “Please Wait” dialogs when you ask it to do something.

Tivo has always been just terrible about this, particularly after you’ve added a fair number of season passes and have rated a bunch of programs.  To be fair, this may have improved on some of the more recent high-end designs, but my resounding memory of Tivo was watching that silly little clock dialog every time I wanted to use it.

The Dishplayer 942 is a bit clunky in the interface and has it’s faults, but the interface is always snappy and responsive for what it does support.

Windows MCE of course is dependent on how fast a computer you invest in. 

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2 Responses to “The Five Hidden Differences Between DVRs”

  1. Joe Clark on December 23rd, 2005 6:43 pm

    Then there are the DVRs (and especially DVD recorders) that do not reliably record and play captions back, particularly if the source was a videotape.

    *Then* there are the problems with HDTV captions (a completely different technology), teletext in PAL countries (different again), and digital-TV captions in PAL countries (several different technologies yet again, including DVB).

  2. Chuck Lawson on December 24th, 2005 1:37 pm

    Closed Captioning in general is a big can of worms — or at least it is here; I don’t know how much of the problem is in the programs, the signal source (Dish Network, in my case) or in the DVRs themselves.

    I see a lot of programs with missing or broken captions, on all of my systems. In fact, sometimes the broken-up captions can inadvertently be screamingly funny.

    Outside of the broken text, on the plus side, the 942 and MCE both have fairly good looking captions; MCE defaults to a semi-transparent background, and the 942 can be set to this also, which I like.

    On the negatives though, the 942 often falls behind on captions, which can be a bit distracting. On MCE if you’re using a “zoom” mode, it expands the captions also, which leaves them a bit on the too large side. MCE’s captions on native widescreen HD content look pretty good, however.

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