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What is a DVR or Digital Video Recorder?

By T Thompson
Updated May 16, 2024
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A DVR, which is an acronym for “digital video recorder,” is a device that records and stores television shows in real time. It operates a lot like a videocassette recorder (VCR) but without the hassle of loading tapes and cuing them up. The digitally based system is usually part of a cable service plan, and is sometimes even imbedded within a television. Users can tell the device to save or record certain shows, which are then stored to a hard drive or a cloud server owned by the network. People often use this service to record shows while they are out of the house, but it can also be a useful service while a show is actually on, as it will usually allow pausing, rewinding, and fast-forwarding. As such, people can re-watch action that they missed and can commonly also zip through commercials. The service can be expensive and the recordings aren’t usually permanent; in most cases they disappear when a person’s cable subscription ends, and can also be erased or deleted in the event of a power outage or other server error. Still, the device is becoming increasingly popular, and as the technology changes many of the problems are being improved.

Basics of Operation

It’s usually fairly simple to operate one of these devices. In most cases they’re linked to the main television or entertainment system through a series of cables or other digital connections, and they’re accessible through a “main menu” screen on the television or through a special remote control function. Users can typically make their selections and set their programming selections from the TV screen rather than by manually programming buttons on the device. Shows can usually be selected by title or by timeframe, and in most cases the only thing a person has to do is tell the machine to record — setting exact start and end times isn’t usually required since the device can usually set these itself based on the show's programming length.

Accessing stored shows is usually just as easy. Users will typically go into a main menu or “library” to see a list of stored shows, which can often be watched over and over again. Titles are often arranged by date, but they can also usually be coordinated by title, series, or episode number. Many systems have separate menus for shows and movies, too.


There are many advantages to using a DVR. First, the image quality is considerably better than VCR recordings, and it is always consistent. The digital format also allows for video archiving and the transfer of data to a computer, CD, or DVD. The convenient search function allows users to quickly locate the show or specific scene that they want to watch. The device can be programmed to record an entire season of a television show, and it is even possible to watch the first half of a show while the DVR continues to tape the second half — or watch a show on one channel while the device records a different one on another.

Popular Features

One of the most popular features of this device is its ability to fast forward or skip commercials. It also allows users to pause, and replay live television. Since the machine is connected to the Internet, either through a direct link or a digital cable package, users may be able to access and view their favorite shows from anywhere in the world using a computer and a DVR remote monitoring feature. This may cost extra and may not be available with all plans.

Depending on how the device is set up, though, accessibility is usually universal throughout the house where the connection is situated. It's usually possible to watch several stored shows simultaneously on different screens — so one person can watch one show in the den, while someone else watches something totally different in the bedroom. It's also common to start a program on one device, pause it, then pick it back up later on on a different screen around the house.

”Smart” Programming

Some recording packages also come with what is known as “smart” recording or programming options. In these instances, the device will automatically record shows that are similar to shows the user has actually instructed it to record. Cable companies often use this as a way to introduce viewers to new series or programs that they might be interested in, based upon their prior tastes and preferences. This can be a great feature for busy people, but others are annoyed by it, especially if it takes up a lot of storage memory. In most cases the smart programming option can be disabled by switching it off in the device’s settings menu.


Not all digital video recorders support High Definition television (HDTV) broadcasts, although this is more commonly a problem with older devices created before HDTV became more commonplace. Devices that don’t support high definition can usually still record the shows, but the clarity isn’t as good — though in some cases the recording itself simply can’t happen, and all that comes up is an error message.

Digital recorders also typically require a subscription, either with a company that provides the specific services or with a satellite or cable television company. Fees are often billed monthly, usually bundled into the larger cable bill, and any lapses in payment can clear the cache. Programs are also sometimes deleted inadvertently at the server level if there’s a problem at the cable company, and any time people’s cable boxes malfunction stored shows can be lost. Power outages or surges can cause similar issues.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1001193 — On Mar 21, 2019

I have a cloud based DVR from Hulu. It works great. Two weeks ago we lost power for two hours. If we had a DVR from the cable company I would have missed two of my favorite shows because the cable DVR had no power.

By feasting — On Nov 18, 2012

@LisaLou – It is amazing, isn't it! I can watch a two-hour show in not much more than an hour because I can speed through all the commercials.

While this is a wonderful feature, I have to say that my favorite thing about the DVR is being able to pause the show whenever I need to go to the kitchen, the bathroom, or to get the laundry out of the washer.

I get so much done in the middle of my show without missing any of it. Before, I would miss the best parts because I had to run a quick errand.

By StarJo — On Nov 17, 2012

I have one issue with my DVR system. I have two in my house, so I can record twice as many shows if they come on simultaneously, but if there are three shows I want to record that are on at the same time, I cannot record all three.

I know that there are other recorders available that let you record more shows at once. I just wish that my DVR had this capability, because I really don't want to buy another device.

By wavy58 — On Nov 17, 2012

@sunshined – It all depends on who you get your DVR service through. I got in on an introductory deal with my satellite provider, and I only have to pay $6 a month for my DVR.

I think that if you were going through some other avenue, you might wind up paying more. It's worth checking into, though, because as DVRs become more commonplace, they also become more affordable.

This is the same thing that happened with CD players. I remember them being so expensive when they were new that no one in my family could afford one, but now that they are so common, they are affordable.

By healthy4life — On Nov 16, 2012

I have no internet connection and no phone line, but I still have a DVR system. Mine runs through my satellite service.

By sunshined — On Oct 23, 2012

How much does it cost to have a DVR service? I have seen this advertised through the cable and satellite companies but have wondered if it is worth the extra expense or not. I don't want to start paying for something that I never use very often.

By John57 — On Oct 23, 2012

I have lots of favorite shows but little time to watch all of them. I will set up my DVR to automatically record them for me so I don't have to try to remember to do it each week.

A DVR is so much more convenient than messing with bulky VCR tapes and the quality is much better as well. Most of the shows I watch just watch one time and then don't save them.

Some of the shows I record on my DVR I never have time to watch so just delete them and don't worry about it. It is still nice to have the option to convert any shows I have recorded to a DVD for future keeping.

By LisaLou — On Oct 22, 2012

When you can sit down and watch a show without watching all the commercials it is amazing how little time it actually takes. A 30 minute TV show usually has about 10 minutes of commercials in it so that really cuts down on the amount of time.

That is one the biggest things I love about my DVR. I get so tired of watching the same commercials over and over again and love to be able to skip right over them.

By SarahSon — On Oct 21, 2012

@anon81305-- It is pretty easy to copy a movie from your DVR to a DVD so you have a hard copy of it. It would be hard to explain exactly how to do it because every DVR would have slightly different instructions. There should be a set of instructions on how to do this in the manual you got when you got your DVR. If there is a certain movie I know I want to keep I like to copy it on to a DVD so I know I will always have a copy of it.

By anon128123 — On Nov 18, 2010

If a DVR is not compatible with HDTV (considering getting one for Christmas) what would? And what would allow me to view from netflix, etc?

By anon85680 — On May 21, 2010

what other equipment (cables, wires, etc) do you need to hook up a dvr to your tv.

By anon81305 — On Apr 30, 2010

i want to copy a movie over from my dvr to a dvd.

By anon55513 — On Dec 08, 2009

I want to make video conference 1:1.

Can I use two CC TV Cameras and one DVR card with two PCs? If possible then send me the method please.

Ghosh, Howrah, India

By anon45113 — On Sep 13, 2009

how i can connect my DVR? tell me please.

By jamesdb123 — On Aug 14, 2009

I have not paid to convert our cable input to digital. I assume that the cable is converting the new digital standard signal to analog when they send the signal into our home. Assuming this is correct, does a DVR convert this analog signal into digital or do I need to pay for a digital signal through our cable company to record on a DVR?

By anon40918 — On Aug 11, 2009

How do I connect the wireless cam to the vcr and T.V.?

By GMcK — On Mar 10, 2009

I also would like to know will I be able to use a DVR when all I have is an antenna....no cable or dish?

By EaglesFan — On Dec 09, 2008

I just bought a Sony DVD/VCR (SLV_-380P). The problem is that I don't have cable tv, only a dishnet digital to analog converter box. So what I am wondering is, is there something that I could get to make this work?

By anon12959 — On May 16, 2008

Is there a device that incorporates DVR and DVD capabilities in one unit?

By hypyper — On Mar 20, 2008

will i be able to use a DVR when all i have is an antenna? no cable or dish.

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