If you love TV, then you need a digital TV recorder. It's as simple as that. Using a hard drive to record programmes is easier to live with than VHS and more practical than burning to blank DVD.
So it's obvious why the digital TV recorder is hugely popular. Millions now use them to sidestep the tyranny of programme schedulers and keep tabs on every episode of their favourite TV show.
Digital TV recorders are commonly called PVRs (Personal Video Recorder), although some brands prefer the term DTR (Digital TV Recorder). Whatever way you name it, they do much the same thing. But of course there are significant distinctions between models that you need to be aware of before you part with any cash.
Free vs subscription
If you already subscribe to a pay TV cable or satellite service, you've probably got a TV recorder as part of your package. The UK's biggest pay TV operator, Sky, can take credit for effectively kick-starting the PVR market in the UK with its trendsetting Sky+ set-top box. Designed to be easy to use from the outset, Sky+ allowed anyone to record TV shows without having to master complicated timer programming routines.
Sky's principal rival Virgin Media also offers cable boxes with integrated digital recording. Some of these use the advanced TiVo platform, which brings with it bonus functionality. For example, a Recommendations Engine automatically records programmes it thinks you might like, based on past viewing preferences. These are parked in the clear space on your hard drive, but automatically get deleted when you need to make room for your own recordings.
Of course, you don't have to take out a pay TV subscription just to get the benefit of digital timeshifting. If you prefer to keep things free and easy, then a Freeview HD+ digital recorder will be the best solution. Alternatively, if your main source of TV is the Freesat satellite service, there are dedicated TV recorders for that system as well.
Basic features explained
Digital TV recorders come in different shapes and sizes, but all offer the same core features: they allow you to record one channel while watching another, or permit two channels to be recorded simultaneously.
Setting recordings up is no more complicated than finding the episode you want on the unit's EPG (electronic programme guide) and hitting the big red 'R' (record) button on the remote zapper. You'll also be able to start recording mid-way through a show you're watching, should you need to hot foot it elsewhere.
The standard EPG on these gadgets covers a seven- to eight-day period. To ensure you never miss a programme, you'll also have the option of Series Linking. This tells the PVR to record all upcoming episodes of a given programme. Series Links are generally smart enough to catch a show even when it gets shifted around the schedules, perhaps delayed due to overrunning sports coverage or bumped because of disappointing ratings. Series Linking is also the best way to keep on top of your telly when you take a two-week holiday; that one-week EPG just isn't far-reaching enough to record individual episodes.
Another cool trick available on most PVRs is the ability to pause live TV. A cache on the hard drive records the channel you pause, so that you can catch up with it when you've made a cuppa or dealt with a phone call.
High definition or standard?
If you have a shiny new HDTV, then it makes sense to get a high definition TV recorder. Freeview HD+ models are available from various brands and allow you to watch and record the two BBC HD channels, ITV HD and Channel 4 HD, as well as all the other Freeview offerings. Remember, hi-def recordings take up more room on your hard drive, but that extra picture clarity is usually worth the sacrifice in disc space.
Alternatively, if you simply want an inexpensive recorder for a second room, then a standard definition Freeview model may well suffice. It'll certainly save you a few quid.
Of course, not all set-top boxes are recorders. There are still a fair number of single-tuner receivers available. These simply 'receive' TV and were particularly popular when Freeview was first introduced, allowing owners of conventional analogue screens to get with the latest digital technology.
But with Freeview built in to all new sets these days, the need for a separate 'dumb' digital receiver is receding fast.
Beat the Switchover
It won't be too long before analogue TV broadcasting in the UK comes to an end. But if you do have an older telly with an analogue tuner, you can always keep it in commission by partnering it with a digital TV receiver or recorder. The tuner in the receiver/recorder simply becomes the main tuner for the TV -- watch everything via the PVR's SCART and your TV will continue to serve its purpose.
Things to be wary of before you buy
Perhaps the most irritating aspect of some digital TV recorders is the operating noise they make. Badly designed boxes have a problem dissipating heat and tend to use loud fans. All PVRs need integrated fans, but they should be 'whisper' quiet. This means they shouldn't really be noticeable over the general hubbub created by your TV.
We suggest you also look out for the size of the hard drive included. If you're opting for an HD capable recorder, you should probably think twice before buying a PVR with a hard drive offering less than 500GB. This gives you the capacity to store 70 hours of HD recordings, or 250 hours of standard-definition.
In order to stand out from the crowd, TV recorder manufacturers are starting to add extra features to win you over.
Some recording boxes include catch-up TV, in the shape of the BBC iPlayer. Others may feature media playback (usually MP3s and AVI video) from USB. Some even allow you to move your timeshifted recordings from the hard drive to a USB stick, so that you can play them elsewhere.
Check out our reviews to learn more about these special features.