Thursday, March 03, 2005

DVR Comparison

Ed Bott posts a review of various DVR's, and I thought I'd throw in my two cents.

I've owned a series 1 TiVo, owned a series 2 TiVo, currently own a ReplayTV 5580, currently own a Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) 2005 system that I built, and am also building a MythTV system. The MythTV system is not yet up and running, so I can't really comment on it. But, I do consider myself an advanced hobbyist, if you will. I hang out on AVS Forum HTPC groups and pay attention to a lot of the posts.

I'm not going to compare everything he said point-by-point, but just have these overall comments:

  • The TiVo UI is by far the best. That being said, my experience with their hardware extremely poor. My series 1 TiVo died after eight months of usage, and my series 2 TiVo died after only four months of usage. Both were harddrive failures and yes, I know that sometimes happens. But I've built my own computers for years, and have never had a drive fail until normal usage (and normal usage was all the TiVo's were subjected to). Getting only a combined one year out of two TiVo's tells me either I had extremely bad luck, or TiVo is using some seriously crappy hardware. My ReplayTV has been going for 2.5 years with no problems.

  • ReplayTV has by far the easiest way of accesing what you've recorded. Plug it in, run DVArchive on another computer, and copy the shows to it. They come over in mpeg format, with no DRM restrictions. Edit the commercials, save them on another storage device, burn them to DVD, whatever you want.

I do like MCE, but the review's summary that it is the best kinda glosses over some details. Such as cost: you are buying or building an entire computer, and the cost of the system is something the review doesn't mention. He also talks about certain features (playing recorded shows on a different system) that TiVo and ReplayTV in fact support! I'm not sure he really looked into the various capabilities of every offering.

As for the MCE cost - I built my own system, and obtained the OS through my Universal Subscription, so I got away cheap:

  • Biostar SFF system ~$200
  • Memory (512 MB) ~$100
  • Harddrive (80 GB) ~$80
  • Video Card ~$120
  • Athlon XP 2400 ~$75
  • DVD/CDRW ~$50
  • Hauppauge WinTV 250 ~$150

These were the approximate prices at the time I built the system. Throw it another $20 for a DVD Decoder (I bought NVidia's), something a vendor will bundle for you. That adds up to about ~$800, going with onboard sound and networking, getting the OS basically for free, and having a friend obtain the Media Center remote control for me. Plus, using a mouse and keyboard you already own. Yes you can probably find cheaper, but you'll be paying more than the cost of a TiVo or ReplayTV plus the lifetime subscription. Yes, this system does more since it is a full computer, but you are paying for that.

MCE does have some nice features, but there are some drawbacks. First, and obviously, MCE is built on Windows XP. No, I'm not here to rag on Windows XP, just point out some nuances that users of commercial electronic appliances probably don't deal with:

  • I had a power outage at my place. ReplayTV (and I'm sure TiVo would also) came back up and recorded my shows, no problem. Media Center came back up... to the Windows login screen. Not very useful. Sure, I can hack my registry to auto-login, and then configure the media center app to auto-start, but we're getting away from ease of use at this point. Not to mention the "chkdsk" that Windows will want to run to fix any problems with a dirty shutdown.
  • I'm one of the 0.01% of people in the world that don't run everything as Administrator under Windows. Surprise surprise, as a non-admin user, you can't change things like the recording quality of a show. I'd like to see your average TiVo user react to a "you must be administrator to change this setting" dialog popup on them.
  • Windows means applying security fixes, and these generally require reboots. I suppose you could do "automatic updates", but then what if Windows decides to reboot in the middle of recording a show? Would it wait until no activity?

Again, I like all my various DVR's, I just think Ed Bott's review doesn't really do justice to the TiVo/ReplayTV solutions, and ignores some issues with MCE.

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