Life with DVR

Volume 7, Issue 94; 04 Jun 2004; last modified 08 Oct 2010

This all started a few weeks ago when I got a postcard in the mail from my local cable company. The upshot of the notice was, “we’re charging you too much, why don’t you call us so we can fix that?” On the one hand, thanks for letting me know, on the other, couldn’t you just charge me less?

Freedom is not an ideal, it is not even a protection, if it means nothing more than freedom to stagnate, to live without dreams, to have no greater aim than a second car and another television set.

Adlai E. Stevenson

Go back and look at the cable TV diagrams in No New TV . Go ahead, I’ll wait. (We eventually got the TV, by the way.) Is that wiring nuts or what? The DVR or “Digital Video Recorder” has eliminated some of that rats nest: +1.

DVRs are little set-top boxes that contain a hard disk, a couple of cable TV tuners, and some software to let you manage the small library of programming that you can build up. “Tivo” is one of the more popular brands. Ours is a Explorer 8000 from Scientific-Atlanta.

This all started a few weeks ago when I got a postcard in the mail from my local cable company. The upshot of the notice was, “we’re charging you too much, why don’t you call us so we can fix that?” On the one hand, thanks for letting me know, on the other, couldn’t you just charge me less?

It turns out they’d rearranged some service packages and our a la carte selection of services was now more expensive than a package that included all those services plus a few more channels plus faster internet service. “Sign me up,” I said.

After wrapping up the changes came the obligatory “is there anything else I can do for you today?” I pointed out that what I really wanted from them was a “Tivo thing, a DVR built into the cable box.” “Oh,” she replied, “we have those now” before rattling off some of the specifications of the box. “Sign me up,” I interrupted.

Folks have told me that Tivo “changed the way they watched television.” If you haven’t seen one of these things, it works like this: the cable box has a built in TV guide, you select the programs your interested in (now, today, or any time later this week, whatever’s available in the guide) and push “record”. The box asks if you want to record just this show, or all episodes of this show. If you select all episodes you can tell it how many to keep (all or the last 1-5 episodes) and how long to keep them.

Because the box has two tuners built in, you can record one show while you watch another or even record two shows simultaneously (if do that, you have to watch one of them, or something else from your library, as you’ve run out of tuners). And no A/B switches in sight, hooray!

If you’re watching “live TV,” the box is always buffering up to an hour of the current channel. This means you can “pause” live TV (+1), rewind a few seconds to hear that bit of dialog you missed (+1), and, if you give the show a five or ten minute head start (by pausing just before it starts and then going off to make popcorn or something), you can fast forward through the commercials. Conspicuous in its absence is a “skip forward 30 seconds” button (-1).

The change the way you watch TV part is that you no longer care when programs are scheduled. Don’t feel like sitting down at 8:00p for your favorite show, busy doing something else? Sit down at 8:15p and start watching it, or 7:45p tomorrow. You really can do some things that you can’t do with a VCR and there’s no fiddling with tapes and A/B switches and the like.

What doesn’t work? Well, the hard disk isn’t big enough for a start, but you could have guessed that. My biggest gripe at the moment though, is that the show selection software isn’t flexible enough. Let’s take an example. I’ve setup the box to record all episodes of “Good Eats” (Alton is da man). Problem is, some days the same episode is aired like four times. I really wish the box would compare show descriptions and not bother re-recording shows it’s already got on disk. Failing that, I wish it’d let me tell it “record all episodes that are on between 6pm and midnight” or something like that.

Granted, it’s a pretty minor gripe. The user-interface is clunky in some other ways too, but really, just how convenient do we have to make television anyway? Watching less of the stuff’d probably be a better choice.

Until then, the DVR is, on balance, pretty sweet.


Hi Norm, We made the switch to Dish Network last fall. "Awesome" is too small a word to describe life with DVR now! Our remote has a 30-second jump forward button and a 5-second jump back button, and the hard drive will hold 100 hours! It is more like a VCR in that you say "I like this show, so record this time once, daily or weekly" That's about the only differences I've seen from the Tivo units. Did I mention the DVR and dish were free w/free installation?

—Posted by Scott Hudson on 04 Jun 2004 @ 06:08 UTC #


—Posted by Joe Clark on 04 Jun 2004 @ 08:28 UTC #

Wow, Joe, that's some list of problems. I googled the 8000 just after I got it and you're not alone.

It's not the unit I would have selected given a choice, but I wasn't given a choice.

Luckily, the glitches I've seen pale in comparison to yours. It's rebooted a copule of times and the audio got out of sync once, that's about it.

—Posted by Norman Walsh on 04 Jun 2004 @ 10:14 UTC #

I’m surprised nobody has mentioned MythTV (, an incredible GPL’d DVR project. The setup is not difficult, really just an apt-get and then a graphical setup program and it seems to address all of your issues and then some. Pick up a WinTV card from ebay for $10 and a nice little Shuttle mini-case and it’s a very slick setup.

—Posted by David Smith on 08 Jun 2004 @ 01:37 UTC #

I have 39 episodes of Good Eats archived. Alton is the man, no doubt about it! But in order to get that many archived you need a huge HD.

Take a look at ReplayTV (RTV). You can set it to record only first-run shows and determine the hours you'll record between. But the part I like the best is the ability to archive shows on a seperate computer over your LAN. Yeap, with the free software at it is easy to archive anything you want....and burn to DVD, although I haven't done that yet. You can also stream the shows back to the TV connected to the RTV.

I rarely watch anything in "real-time anymore, and I only watch the commercials that look interesting. It is really one of the greatest leaps forward in TV since color.

—Posted by Mark on 09 Jun 2004 @ 02:19 UTC #