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DVR Dilemma: Where Are Your TiVo Alternatives?

Today's Business section contains a story that may upset a lot of Dish Network subscribers -- the satellite broadcaster lost an appeal of TiVo's patent-infringement lawsuit, will pay that digital-video-recorder company $104 million, and may yet be forced to shut down its DVR operation entirely.

(Disclaimer: I am a Dish subscriber.)

I'm not a patent lawyer or an engineer, so I can't tell you how valid TiVo's claim is. I do know you can't call this company a "patent troll"; it didn't sit on an invention and wait to sue other people, it went out and built a product around it.

There are also still plenty of non-TiVo DVRs to choose from, though most of them seem to get a lot less love from customers than TiVo's boxes.

But just about all of these devices mirror TiVo's system in two key ways: They require paying a monthly subscription, even if it's not as steep as the $12.95 a month TiVo charges (which can be reduced with longer service plans or replaced with a $399 "lifetime" service fee). They also provide no simple way to archive a recording to DVD or another medium for viewing elsewhere (Dish has been one of the few innovators in this aspect, even if I haven't been thrilled with some of its experiments). To the extent that TiVo can persuade or compel its competitors to license its patents and then its service, this trend may only continue.

Yet I keep hearing from readers who don't want yet another monthly fee in their lives, especially when that fee covers features that they don't need.

Take TiVo Suggestions, its ability to record new shows for you to watch based on your own ratings. I'm already in massive debt to my DVR -- I'd have to sit down for a week to catch up to all the junk I've recorded on it. The last thing I need is a deeper backlog of recordings.

If you don't want to pay per month for a DVR and don't want to set up your computer to act as one, it appears that you only have one option to plug into your TV: a $300 Philips DVD recorder that also includes a hard drive. (For many people, this isn't an option anyway: It can't control a cable or satellite box, doesn't have a CableCard slot and doesn't offer any equivalent of a TiVo's electronic program guide.)

In most other situations, the electronics industry appears happy to provide customers with different tools for a task. You can choose between multiple technologies and services in just about any other area, but here we seem to be looking at a market failure. I hope this January's CES will persuade me otherwise; in the meantime, can you?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  October 7, 2008; 10:43 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Gripes , Video  
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Why don't you complain to your cable company about all the channels you don't need? godTV? lifetime? Home shopping network?
How about not paying for the arabic OCR software that is built into MSFT Windows that you probably don't use...

Bundling is a marketing tactic that companies use all the time...

Posted by: Bob | October 7, 2008 2:04 PM | Report abuse

It's sad that the easiest way to watch a program that's broadcast OTA or via cable whenever you want is just to download it off the internet (which is for some reason considered illegal). I'd call that a failure especially since this was a straightforward, if not easy, procedure on VHS.

I think it's paranoia on the part of the TV networks and movie studios--after all, they thought the world was going to come to an end because of the VCR too and I don't think they've learned their lesson. Their strategy seems to be to keep as many of these devices off the market as they can.

Posted by: BR | October 7, 2008 2:41 PM | Report abuse

I have a Panasonic DVR/DVD recorder that I bought for ~$700 about three years ago, but I don't think they're making them anymore. There's no monthly fee and an on-screen program guide (which is NOT as nice as it might be), and I can record either to the hard drive or direct to the DVD and can dub from one to the other whenever I wish. It COULD control the cable box, but then I can't watch one show and record another, so I have the cable going into the unit directly from the wall instead. But it DOESN'T do hi-def, which TIVO or the Comcast DVR would do and only has a single tuner. Still, the lack of a monthly fee makes up for a lot of shortcomings.

Posted by: Harrisburg, PA | October 7, 2008 3:12 PM | Report abuse

All I want is the digital equivalent of a VCR. No fee, I can live with manual inputting of times/channels. It's not like I have big recording needs, we're talking "tape the game while out to dinner" type recording here. Sadly I'm stuck with the lowly VCR because blank DVDs aren't blank CD cheap yet.

Posted by: dgc | October 7, 2008 3:20 PM | Report abuse

"I do know you can't call this company a "patent troll"; it didn't sit on an invention and wait to sue other people, it went out and built a product around it."

No one should be called a patent troll. The term was coined by patent pirating large companies who have an entitlement mentality. They think that they should be able to take other's patent properties without paying fair compensation.

They were able to do this for about three or four decades. They took whatever they felt like and were not held accountable.

This all changed when Ford and other auto companies stole Bob Kearn's invention. I suggest you watch Flash of Genius, a recently released movie about how Ford ripped off Bob Kearns.

Bob's Fight against the then all powerful auto industry sensitized the public to the fact that large companies are often not very reputable when dealing with those who they think cannot defend themselves. After that large companies started losing cases.

Other factors such as the creation of a special appellate court and large company's shift to short term gain were additional factors leading to a much more sophisticated inventor community which does defend their patent rights.

Old habits die hard in corporate cultures, especially those who thought they have an inalienable right to take inventions and destroy the inventors to cover their tracks.

Inventors are not doing anything different than any citizen does when wronged. We seek redress from the courts and when you see large judgments against a company keep in mind that they are being found to have committed larceny on the grandest of scales.

Ronald J. Riley,

Speaking only on my own behalf.
President - - RJR at
Executive Director - - RJR at
Senior Fellow -
President - Alliance for American Innovation
Caretaker of Intellectual Property Creators on behalf of deceased founder Paul Heckel
Washington, DC
Direct (202) 318-1595 - 9 am to 9 pm EST.

Posted by: Ronald J Riley | October 7, 2008 3:37 PM | Report abuse

I'm happy (well, satisfied) with the cable company's dvr. But if I watched/recorded lots enough to want the capabilities of a TiVo, or just wanted a cheap vcr replacement, I'd go with MythTV (

The problem is, MythTV is software. So you need to buy the Linux box, the HDTV receiver to plug into it, install all the drivers, then install MythTV. Then tweak it....

Oh, and it may not handle channels that require a cable card...

Posted by: wiredog | October 7, 2008 3:39 PM | Report abuse

When DirecTV made the decision to replace their wonderful TiVo boxes with their own DVRs (for HD) I was bummed. I've had a DirecTiVo for years and loved all the features that were unique to TiVo. I'm sure they're patented. But the ultimate irksome quality of the newer DirecTV DVR is that it cannot seem to deal with a program that ends a minute or so late. It will cancel recording of the next program so it can get that last minute. There is no way to tell it to stop recording a minute ahead of time. The TiVo would handle that like a champ, automatically. So, because CBS wants us to watch Bones and whatever else happens to be on next, (I couldn't tell you what it is because I never watch live TV), they schedule Bones to start at 8PM and end at 9:01. Anything that is programmed to start at 9:00 PM gets bumped.

So, TiVo. You may have great inventions, but you have terrible marketing, and licensing must be equally terrible if companies would rather drop you for their own lame products. Work on that, would you? I'd love to have a DirecTV HD TiVo. Please?

Posted by: Jeff | October 7, 2008 3:51 PM | Report abuse

Jeff: As per DirectTV and TiVo, see

It looks like you are getting your wish.

As per the Panasonic DVR, I also have one of those (DMR-E95H) and enjoy the ability to burn DVDs and not have a monthly fee. It has TV guild data and searching, but not really as nice as TiVo's. It hasn't been bug free however... see for a good discussion of the issues of the problems people have run into. Even with those problems... I really like the box. I don't have an HD TV yet, so the lack of HD isn't an issue with me... yet.

I don't understand why there aren't more products on the market like that any more.

Dgc: All I wanted originally was a VCR like experience with a hard drive. But I found the TV-Guide data and the ability to watch while recording make using a DVR very different than just a VCR on a hard drive.

Posted by: Mark | October 7, 2008 4:56 PM | Report abuse


I'm right on the same page with you. I'm amazed that there is nobody manufacturing a VCR with a digital tuner. For those of us who don't consider cable a worthwhile expense ("100 channels and nothing worth watching"), and who just want to time-shift programs, or zip through commercials, it's hard to beat a VCR for ease of use.

I finally ended up buying a "refurbished" Panasonic dvd recorder/vcr combo on ebay (DMR-EZ475V) for about $90. The unit is extremely finicky until you get used to its quirks, so there are lots of refurbished units available. My hunch is that these are not refurbs, but perfectly good retail returns which were assumed to be defective by buyers because the units kept freezing. Simple things, like accidently pushing the cassette "eject" button, rather than the power switch, will freeze it up real good -- an easy mistake, since the eject button is where you would expect the power switch to be.

To my great surprise, it is impossible to record the ATSC signal to the VCR -- although you can copy from the DVD player to the VCR. You have to record digital broadcasts to a DVD. I tried DVD+RW for awhile, but discovered that they were only good for about a dozen uses before read/write errors occurred. I switched to DVD-RAM, and so far this seems to be a good medium. The disks will record 8 hours in EP mode with a reasonably clear picture, and the one I'm using has lasted three months now in daily use.

If you can put up with the annoyance of the units quirks until you get used to it, the $90 price tag for a "used" one is worth it.

Posted by: fudd | October 7, 2008 6:46 PM | Report abuse

NOTHING, no DVD-R, no MythTV, NO VCR, NOTHING is easier to use and more worthwhile than Tivo. Tivo is the Apple and IPod of DVRs and MythTV is virtually the HP/UX of DVRs. Anyone saying that downloading video from the internet is easier than Tivo is lying. If you have kids, the ability for the Tivo to notice what you record and pre-stock your DVR with 10-20 kids shows for the rainy day or the day they are home with a gold is a literal life-saver. Since I got the tivo I reduced my netflix subscription to 3 dvds and I haven't watched one single broadcast show live again. There is absolutely no comparison with any other product and I own a set-top dvd recorder, own a pc-based tv tuner, and friends have MythTV, ReplayTV and that lousy Dish tuner.

Posted by: DCer | October 7, 2008 9:21 PM | Report abuse

I think I have to agree with DCer - I have had 3 different TiVO boxes over the years, now with an HD box (and an older Series 2), and there is no other device that can touch a finger to the ease of using a TiVO. My mother use it without training (the same person who still cannot remember know how to program her car radio - the same car she has had since 1995 - and that just involves holding down the button, nothing complicated). Is the added expense worth it? As with anything else, it depends on your priorities. The setup can take some time (more to do with cable cards and Verizon not having a clue how to activate them - all they had to do was send some kind of signal to the cable card but it took 12 different techs and customer support people to figure that out).

Being able to transfer programs onto my laptop for when I travel is the greatest convenience. I don't purchase DVDs at all any more. Also, I can burn shows to DVD if I want to preserve them.

Nothing is perfect, but TiVO is much more perfect than any other DVR out there.

Posted by: ssolomo | October 8, 2008 9:07 AM | Report abuse

I just want to toss in a comment about TiVo suggestions. Rob, you say you'd never be able to catch up on the backlog. So don't. Nobody's forcing you to watch the suggestions, and they're the first to get deleted when there's a space issue anyway. In the meantime, a "well-trained" TiVo can be nearly prescient in its ability to suggest things that you might like. I never told my box to record "Scrubs", but when I all I wanted the other day was a half hour break of mindless fun, it was nice to find it on the list.

Posted by: LarryMac | October 8, 2008 9:41 AM | Report abuse

I have three DirecTV with TiVo set top boxes and refuse to give them up for the newer DirecTV DVRs. They run flawlessly and intuitively. Also, because I am on DirecTV, I only pay 5.99 a month for the DVR to work on all three TiVo units, instead of 12.95 a month. Also, DirecTV just extended its agreement with TiVo and announced the new HD DVR with TiVo as mentioned above. It's hard to beat.

Posted by: Woodley Parker | October 8, 2008 9:50 AM | Report abuse

After reading many of the posts praising Tivo I almost felt compelled to dump my MythTV setup which costs me $1.65/month(Schedules Direct) and get me a Tivo...almost. MythTV setup through Mythdora, a dedicated linux distribution, is groovy man.

Posted by: rajihammer | October 8, 2008 12:07 PM | Report abuse

I'm a true believer in Tivo also. I think it is the greatest thing since TV was invented. I've had it for 5(?) years now and love it. I originally got the lifetime membership so I haven't paid a thing in years. I'm on my 2nd unit - a series 2 - and am considering the HD box. If I want to record a DVD I just save the show to the VCR, take the tape to my VCR/DVD combo recorder and make a DVD. I think everyone else has a long way to go to beat TIVO.

Posted by: kweilo | October 8, 2008 12:34 PM | Report abuse

The Magnavox H2160MW9 is nearly a clone to the Philips DVR, and it is cheaper (~$250). I have both of these, and they both work well.

Posted by: DVR user | October 8, 2008 12:37 PM | Report abuse

I've got the Philips DVR/DVD recorder - from Sams for $249 - and it works great for over the air with simple loop/rabbit ears. Only odd thing is I find it seemingly running the fan or hard drive on it's own once in a while without my having turned it on.

Posted by: M in Ct | October 8, 2008 1:04 PM | Report abuse

I too have a Panasonic DVR combination unit that is now about 3 years old. I only have basic cable and no cable box, so I hook directly to the cable input. Shows can be selected and recorded on a weekly/daily frequency or one-time from the menu displayed on the TV. Selections can be recorded on DVR, DVD, VHS or CF card.
In September we got a 52" HDTV so will be upgrading from basic cable to HD digital which requires also renting a cable box; I opted for the HD digital DVR at a higher monthly fee. I was informed by the Concast sales tech that the unit could be purchased as of November, saving monthly rental cost. And I was told the unit would be from Panasonic or Motorola, I hope it will be the Panasonic.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 8, 2008 7:29 PM | Report abuse

Other than Tivo, are there any good DVR options for OTA HDTV? How do the PC- and Mac-based tuner options work?

Posted by: GJ | October 8, 2008 9:24 PM | Report abuse

I've been wondering that myself.

Posted by: glow | October 9, 2008 9:53 AM | Report abuse

Windows Media Center works pretty well in getting HDTV over the air with an antenna. The program guide downloads regularly and you can record a single show easily enough to your hard drive. You can program it to record a single show or to get it each time it airs. You can also copy that to a DVD, though it is no longer in HD quality. Your hard drive space gets rapidly used up.

Check out
for lots of information on how well (or not well) the PC option works.

Posted by: Neil Ottenstein | October 9, 2008 11:49 AM | Report abuse

I have a Panasonic DMR-EH50 which works well (Arlington basic cable, free TV-Guide program guide, records to HDD, can be dubbed to DVD). I noticed its used price on Ebay has been going UP, it's at $250-$350, was $170 last year!

I always wondered why R. Pegoraro doesn't mention this option. It's a well-kept secret.

I assume it will no longer work if I upgrade to digital cable, though!

Posted by: Anonymous | October 9, 2008 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Until July I was a Dishnetwork DVR user. I had to move to where I couldn't get reception so I tried TiVo with Cox. In the end I settled on Verizon's FiOS DVR. Here's my opinion of the 3 after having used them all quite a bit in a short period of time.

We were happy with Dishnetwork's dual-tuner dual-output DVR. We had a living room TV and a bedroom TV. This single DVR fed both and worked flawlessly. We could watch, record, pause, etc. separate shows on separate TVs. Never had to worry about which room to watch what. The software Dish used was very user friendly. The bedroom remote was RF so there was no need for a tuner or DVR box in the bedroom. Could pause a show halfway through and then switch rooms to watch the remainder. As mentioned above, we had to move because of a job change and couldn't get Dish reception at our new house.

The TiVo/Cox solution didn't work well for us because Cox's lineup doesn't talk to TiVo so well: we couldn't record the local TV stations! All other stations worked fine. I spent hours on the phone with both TiVo and Cox to no avail. I blame this on Cox wanting to force you to use their equipment, pay their fee, etc. I suspect they know it screws up other DVRs and thus protects their domain. As for the TiVo interface and features (it did work on all the other stations), we liked it but thought the Dishnetwork DVR had some more useful little tools. However, the big drawback of the TiVo box was that it could feed only one TV. You can buy another TiVo box and a wireless transmitter, pay another monthly fee, and have the 2 talk to eachother, but that's a pretty cumbersome (and expensive) setup after having seen the simplicity and equal functionality of the Dish solution. The only value improvement I saw in the TiVo system was being able to rent movies online, saving me a trip to the store. But most TV providers have a VOD selection now anyway, albeit a much smaller selection.

So we dropped that and settled on the Verizon FiOS multi-room DVR system. This recorder talks to the tuner in other rooms so you can play your recordings on every TV you have a FiOS tuner connected to. This meets our current and possibly future needs. But there is one drawback... the other TVs can't pause live TV, only the master DVR can. So it has an advantage on Dish in that it can feed more than 2 TVs, but it has a disadvantage in that only one of them has the live TV pause feature: the others show live TV or play a previously recorded show. As for the software, it seems pretty slick and has most of the tricks the others have, and some new ones we didn't see before. I think the software is a matter of preference because it's pretty simple for any of them to do it.

Of course, you can always lease another DVR with any of the above providers but like most, I'm sick of having a thousand subscription services to pay every month. (Pretty soon we'll be paying subscriptions to our grocery store. Want more broccoli? Sorry, but you've reached your monthly subscription limit... want to upgrade and get more?)

In the end, we still like the Dishnetwork solution the best because we had full DVR functionality in 2 rooms, with one master list of recordings accessible from either TV. The Verizon solution is good but still 2nd on our list... however it does give us the option to cheaply add a 3rd TV to the network without having to get another DVR. Useful for when we build that master entertainment room! TiVo seemed pretty good, but I guess I expected more from the pioneer: I swear there were better functions and easier screens on the other systems but again that might just be a matter of personal preference. And if you live in the Vienna/Oakton area and have Cox, I wouldn't go near TiVo. (Or vice versa.)

Posted by: Anonymous | October 9, 2008 9:54 PM | Report abuse

Buy a used ReplayTV 5000 on eBay. Best investment I ever made. You can upgrade the hard drive by yourself if you're vaguely techie, and you can download the shows you record to your computer without ***any*** DRM.

Posted by: Jerry | October 10, 2008 9:09 AM | Report abuse

TiVo Alternatives? Turn off the boob tube and pay attention to your kids for a change. Help them understand that life is about living their own lives.

Posted by: Jeff B at Home | October 10, 2008 10:44 AM | Report abuse

I bought a Tivo S2 about 4? yrs ago, and at the last minute bought the lifetime service (then $299--and so glad I did). I got religion fast--the whole DVR thing, TV on-demand, just makes so much sense. Have since upgraded to a 200GB hard drive so storage not an issue. Ultimately, however, I hope this is just a passing tech and it won;t be too long before we just get it all on-demand via IP.

Posted by: ZekeP | October 10, 2008 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Check out the Sony HDD-250 or HDD 500. They were sold for a brief period of time, but were too soon and too expensive. I got mine at a Sony Outlet store for $300 each. They tune and record HDTV, outputting both HDMI and component. They take the first gen cablecard. The units are a bit cranky, due to the TV Guide on Screen system, so you don't quite have TiVO ease, but it's better than the old school time and channel programming. Check for more info. I get HDTV FREE ota, so these units are worth their weight in gold. You'll have to find them on ebay or such. I too find it very, very interesting this niche is not filled by any box that is not "tied" to a provider, and I'm SURE that is intentional.

Posted by: Casey | October 10, 2008 1:32 PM | Report abuse

DVD recorders with internal hard drives were marketed in the US up until about three years ago when TIVO became the only option.

This is not true in the rest of the world, however. DVD recorders, even Blue Ray, are being marketed everywhere with new models coming out all of the time.

The DVD hard drive recorder was supposed to replace the VCR as it is far superior technology. Instead we have a single company monopolizing the technology. This isn't the way that it is supposed to happen.

Posted by: Herb | October 11, 2008 8:17 AM | Report abuse

DVD recorders with internal hard drives were marketed in the US up until about three years ago when TIVO became the only option.

This is not true in the rest of the world, however. DVD recorders, even Blue Ray, are being marketed everywhere with new models coming out all of the time.

The DVD hard drive recorder was supposed to replace the VCR as it is far superior technology. Instead we have a single company monopolizing the technology. This isn't the way that it is supposed to happen.

Posted by: Herb | October 11, 2008 8:23 AM | Report abuse

I also purchased a Panasonic DVD recorder with a hard disk and DVD a few years ago, like one of the other readers. It gives me one week of TV Guide which is enough for my need. It let's me dub from one disk to the other. As a matter of fact, I have converted a few old VHS tapes to DVD with that recorder by connecting the two machines. It let's me watch one previously recorded show while recording another. I've been delighted with this product except it is not made anymore - I wish they would get back into it; I'd buy a second one in a heart beat. The HiDef is a newer technology and was not in the cards back when I bought it; the same goes for digital unscrambled channels which I receive via a QAM tuner. Come to think of, the scrambled digital channels are a rip-off, anyway; most of them are useless to me.

Posted by: wenzela | October 13, 2008 4:18 PM | Report abuse

If one is willing to use his/her computer as a video recorder, recording over-the-air and/or Cable/Dish programs easy and cheap. A Hauppqauge PVR-150 PCI card or equivalent is all you need to record your favorites, and editing software like VIDEREDO lets you find and delete ads and other interruptions. Scheduling software for unattended recording is readily available. No need to pay monthly fees !!!

Posted by: EOS | October 13, 2008 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Archos has ArchosTV plus, that records to a hard drive (mine is 250 gb). Works fine. It records in .avi format, which you can transfer via computer to a disk, and there are DVD players that read .avi format.

Posted by: nld | October 14, 2008 9:56 AM | Report abuse

I'm like ZekeP - bought a TiVo2 with 180 hours' capacity about 4 years ago and paid the then-$299 lifetime service fee. LOVE IT!
I travel a lot overseas and for long periods of time. When I get back and am recovering from jetlag, I can literally pick up a story line where I left off. It does take a while to catch up, but when the season is over and the reruns kick in (I have it set to record first run only), I still have about 2 months of recordings to watch.
I still haven't seen the closing ceremony of the Olympics, for example, but it'll be there until I delete it, cz that's the way I programmed it.

Posted by: Jenny | October 14, 2008 1:35 PM | Report abuse

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