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What is a Personal Video Recorder?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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A personal video recorder (PVR), also known as a digital video recorder (DVR), is an electronic device that records television programs or movies to a hard disk storage medium, rather than to compact disc or DVD. Once stored on the drive, the program can be watched directly from the drive, burned to disc, or transferred to a thumb drive for portability, depending on the PVR.

Brought to market in 1999, TiVo® was one of the first commercially available DVRs. Several features made the personal video recorder popular, including the ability to pause live TV and replay recently viewed scenes. Perhaps the most compelling feature was the ability to readily program the device in several different ways, making it easy to capture desired programming. For example, one might set TiVo to record a “Season Pass” of a particular series, automatically capturing every episode without need of individual programming.

TiVo expanded over the years to incorporate many more features and perks. It can be connected to the home network to download online multimedia content, including access to the Netflix® Watch Instantly feature for movies, documentaries and anime. One can also listen to online music or share digital pictures, receive weather and traffic reports, and watch YouTube videos.

While TiVo has had great success, it also has its detractors. To get the features mentioned, a TiVo box requires a monthly paid subscription. Secondly, TiVo collects and maintains records of the viewing habits of each of its customers, albeit in aggregate form, at least according to stated policies. Also, in 2005 TiVo also adopted flagging; a kind of digital rights management whereby a flagged program cannot be transferred to disc or other media and is automatically deleted after a certain period of time, thus limiting its use.

Satellite and cable companies noted the success of TiVo and began distributing their own version of the personal video recorder built into select set-top boxes. The PVR-flavored box costs just a couple bucks more per month than the set-top box to lease, and the DVR service runs another $5-$10 US Dollars per month. For someone who doesn’t need all the bells and whistles of TiVo, this is a cheaper alternative that doesn’t require an outlay of cash for a PVR box. Like the TiVo box, a built-in DVR contains two tuners so that one can record one program while watching another. Another option is to record two programs simultaneously while watching a third pre-recorded program.

If you prefer to avoid monthly PVR fees all together, you might opt to buy a stand-alone personal video recorder from a third party. A box like this can record over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts received by antenna or decrypted cable or satellite signals. Note, however, that even if the personal video recorder has two tuners built in, it will not be able to record two broadcasts simultaneously unless both are OTA, or one is OTA and the other is a decrypted signal, because a standard set-top box only decrypts one channel at a time. To get around this, you must order a two-tuner set-top box.

A personal video recorder is also available in the form of an internal computer card for desktop systems, sometimes called a TV tuner card. These cards feature in-ports for connecting a set-top box or television in order to record programming directly to computer disk. Most cards come with software, but many free PVR software programs are also available that will work with various cards.

While this option can be an economical choice and convenient in that content goes straight to the computer where it can be most easily manipulated, there are drawbacks. The computer must be situated close enough to the signal source (TV or set-top box) to physically cable the devices together. Also, the computer must remain connected and powered up whenever a recording is to be made. For these reasons an extra computer might be put to good use as a personal video recorder, streaming captured data to an external drive that can be easily accessed by other computers without having to disconnect the dedicated computer from the TV or set-top box.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By Viranty — On Jul 15, 2014

In relation to the fourth paragraph, I actually find this to be a problem with a lot of providers. Even though some companies (and their monthly subscription services) are accurate, others not so much. As an example, you could have a service provider that you've been subscribed to for months, and they offer you to only pay nine dollars a month, one hundred eight dollars per year. A bit far fetched, but it's only an example. However, in desperation, they might increase the monthly rate, adding additional costs as well. That's why you need to be careful with who you choose as a service provider. It's always best to check reviews first.

By Hazali — On Jul 15, 2014

Is anyone else really surprised at how much video recording devices have changed in these past years? Many years ago, they had cassettes. Then in the 1990's they had VCR's. However, in this day and age, those have become obsolete, and most people now own DVDs. While they're obviously much more convenient, it's also an example of how far technology has come, and how it will continue to grow.

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