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Digital Television Recorders… A Guide to Buying One

These days, you don’t have to worry about missing out on your favourite programme or film on TV because you are out or watching something else on another channel.

VHS tapes may be dead but Digital Television Recorders (DTRs) – otherwise known as Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) – will ensure every second is saved to view back later.

These simple-to-use machines, which store everything on a built-in hard drive similar to the one in your computer, are growing in popularity. You may have already heard of Sky+HD and V+ HD from Sky and Virgin but even if you don’t subscribe to these services, plenty of recording technology is still available to you.

Many are tied to Freeview or freesat, which can add a host of new channels to your viewing schedule, without the need for a monthly subscription. Freesat does however require a satellite dish so if you don’t already have one, there will be a one off installation charge.

If you’re looking to buy a DTR or PVR, there’s no better place to start than right here with our guide to the things to consider when picking the right one for you.

Why choose a digital recorder over a regular set-top box?

The cheapest set-top boxes can now be bought for under £20 and, with around 50 extra TV and radio channels on offer, they are clearly excellent value for money. However, these basic bargain boxes lack two key things – high-definition channels and the ability to record.

Digital recorders cost between £100 and £350 but are priceless because you’ll never miss a TV show again – plus some your viewing will be in glorious high-definition.

DTRs/PVRs are also able to pause and rewind live TV, record every episode of your favourite shows at the touch of a button and many can even recommend programmes based on your viewing history.

At the higher end, intelligent recording is built-in so if two shows you wish to record are on at the same time, the device will automatically find a different showing – for example on a +1 channel or late night repeat.

How many extra channels will I get?

That depends on which option you go for, either Freeview or freesat.

Freeview has been around for a long time and these boxes simply plug into your TV and into your aerial socket. They can provide up to 50 standard-definition digital channels and radio stations, such as ITV2, E4 and Challenge, plus most TVs come with built-in Freeview. Freeview+ is the brand for a digital recorder  with built-in Freeview.

You can also buy a Freeview+ HD box, which adds four high-definition stations from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to that list.

There are some standard-definition freesat boxes available but generally the high-definition ones are taking over. As the name suggests though, these devices require a satellite dish to be installed at your home.

If you were a Sky customer, and still have the dish on an outside wall or roof, this will work fine with freesat. It is a more expensive option than Freeview if you don’t have a dish already installed, but it does offer 150 extra channels, including five in high-definition compared to Freeview’s four.

Crucially both options have NO monthly or other subscription charges – you simply pay for the box and any installation and that’s it.

Why would I consider high-definition?

If you have an HD Ready television, then it doesn’t makes sense not to have an HD recorder. It simply means a much sharper and more vivid picture with clearer sound on high-definition channels.

Right now Freeview+ HD only has four high-definition stations, from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, but many more will undoubtedly follow.

HD models offer standard-definition playback on other channels and are more expensive than SD devices, which are generally found at the cheaper end of the market. HD digital recorders will clearly state they have this facility on-board.

Recording in high-definition takes up more memory than in SD, so these machines will have larger hard drives inside.

How many hours of TV can I store on my box?

Everything you record is stored on a hard drive measured in Gigabytes (GB), with 250GB, 320GB, 500GB and 1TB (Terabyte) options. This is 1024GB.

A rough way to work it out is to halve that size for SD recordings and for HD the length is a quarter of the storage capacity. So a 500GB box can record 250 hours of SD footage or 125 hours of HD. That’s plenty of room for the soaps and enough movie blockbusters to create your own home cinema.

Is there a good choice of brands on the market?

Yes, a wide variety of machines from the likes of Samsung, Toshiba and Panasonic sit alongside specialist brands such as Sagemcom and Humax.

There is no need to match the brand of digital recorder to your TV, although if you are buying both at the same time you may find a package saving on offer.

What other exciting features should I look for?

Some top-of-the-range models can now connect to the internet through a built-in wireless connection, a Wi-Fi dongle or an Ethernet cable. If using the cable, your recorder will need to be placed near to your internet router.

This web connection allows you to download apps in a similar way to your mobile phone. It means you can watch catch-up TV streamed online through BBC iPlayer, as well as check the likes of Facebook and Skype without the need for a computer. The number and type of apps will vary between each manufacturer.

Also look out for USB ports, which allow you to put content on your box that you may have stored on your laptop.

What about digital recorders from Sky or Virgin Media?

Britain’s major satellite and cable firms both offer their own digital recorders with the brand names Sky+HD and V+ HD.

The key advantage is the sheer amount of channels you can access, with Sky+HD offering more than 200 stations including 50 high-definition ones. You can also subscribe to ‘premium’ channels with content such as Premier League football and the latest Hollywood movies. These boxes, and the installation, are also usually free or heavily discounted.

However, you will have to pay a monthly subscription charge, whereas Freeview and freesat are totally cost-free from the moment you plug them into your telly.

Sky and Virgin boxes may also lack some features, such as intelligent recording, available on these rival standalone digital recorders.

Can you play DVDs on these machines?

There are still some combined DVD players/recorders available that also have a built-in hard drive but these do not provide Freeview or freesat.

They also do not contain a Blu-ray drive for high-definition disc playback of movies. Samsung does however offer a Freeview+ HD recorder with a 3D Blu-ray player built-in. If you are considering buying a Blu-ray player, read our separate buyer’s guide.

Jargon Buster

  • Twin Tuner – All digital recorders come with this, allowing you to watch one programme while you record another. Some more expensive models let you record two shows at the same time as watching a third that’s saved on the hard drive.
  • HDMI - The name of the ports and the associated cable to connect your digital recorder to a high-definition TV. You will usually have to buy the lead separately and they can cost anything from £10 to more than £100 depending on the quality and build of the lead itself.

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