If you can't stand to leave home knowing you might miss an episode of Lost or 24, you need a digital video recorder. Gone are the days of the VCR--today's DVRs let you schedule recordings of your favorite shows and replay them at your convenience. And you don't have to shell out big bucks to get one.
Several big-name cable companies, including Comcast, are offering DVRs to subscribers for a monthly fee. So how do these "rental" DVRs stack up to ReplayTV and TiVo? I put Comcast's DVR to the test and found that, while the price may be right, the device is certainly not perfect.
The Comcast DVR -- an 80GB-capacity box that holds about 40 hours of standard-definition programming.
Comcast began offering DVR rentals to subscribers in select cities late last year; the service is now available in all of the company's markets. For $10 a month (on top of your cable bill), you get a 80GB-capacity box that holds about 40 hours of standard-definition programming, according to Comcast representatives. In comparison, a TiVo Series 2 box that stores 40 hours of programming lists for $100 on TiVo.com--and that price is after a $100 mail-in rebate. TiVo also charges $13 per month (or $299 for the lifetime of the product) for using the TiVo service.
For now, you still have to choose between a Comcast DVR and one from TiVo, but that will change. This week the two companies announced that they will partner on DVRs in the future. Beginning in "mid-to-late 2006," according to a statement released by TiVo on Tuesday, Comcast customers will have access to a Comcast DVR that features TiVo software. Pricing has not yet been announced.
Beats TiVo Here
Other than its low price, the Comcast DVR's best feature is its dual-tuner capability. That means you can record one show while watching another or, if you're away from the TV, record two programs at the same time. Most TiVo boxes allow you to watch and record only one show at a time, though TiVo boxes with DirectTV feature the dual-tuner capability. If you live in a household like mine, where two people often have opposing views on what to watch, this dual-tuner feature comes in very handy, and it's something that's sadly lacking from TiVo.
Also lacking from TiVo is support for high-definition programming, which the Comcast box offers. According to Comcast representatives, it can hold 10 to 15 hours of HD programming, though we were unable to test that claim.
However, in most other aspects--especially ease of use--the Comcast DVR lags behind TiVo. This is where Comcast customers will really benefit from the new deal with TiVo, getting Comcast's DVR box with TiVo's excellent software. The current Comcast software lacks TiVo's friendly "TiVo Central" screen, which features clearly marked links to your saved recordings and lets you pick programs to record. On the Comcast DVR, the main screen is more muddled, with graphic icons instead of text explanations. You have to highlight each icon with the remote to see which function it serves, such as searching for programs to record or viewing scheduled recordings.
But once your programs have been recorded, they are easy to find, play back, pause, and delete.
In two months of testing my Comcast box, manufactured by Motorola, I had minor problems with the DVR's pause capability. On two occasions I paused a program only to find I was unable to resume playing it. One time it froze completely, and I was unable to view the program until I changed the channel and then changed it back--which meant that all of the content I had saved by pausing the TV was gone. On another occasion, I was able to resume playing, but the playback was garbled. The picture went in and out, and there was no audio. Again, I had to change the channel to resume viewing normal content.
In three years of ownership, I once had a similar problem with my TiVo. It froze while fast-forwarding through paused TV. To fix it, I had to unplug the TiVo and plug it back in. Once it booted back up, it played fine.
My other quibbles with the Comcast DVR are minor. Entering the title of a program to record is more time-consuming than it should be, for example. Instead of presenting you with an on-screen keyboard of sorts, like TiVo, the Comcast DVR forces you to scroll through letters of the alphabet to spell out the title. It also lacks a feature to rival TiVo's WishLists, which let you record all programs featuring a certain actor or centered on a certain topic.
Ninety percent of Comcast subscribers who sign up for the DVR service will receive a Motorola box, while 10 percent will receive a box manufactured by Scientific Atlanta, Comcast representatives say.
Depending on where you live, Comcast may charge an installation fee, which can range from $15 to $40, Comcast says. And despite the fact that Comcast says the service should cost only $9.95 per month, my cable bill actually showed a charge of $15. That charge was broken down as $9.95 for the DVR service, $0.30 for the remote, and $4.75 for an "HD box". I contacted Comcast about the disparity in price and was told that the $4.75 was an equipment charge for the box, which varies from market to market.
So would I opt for a Comcast DVR? Its attractive price, support for HDTV, and its dual-tuning capability make it a viable alternative to TiVo and ReplayTV, especially if you've never used a DVR before or are interested in testing out the technology. As for this self-confessed TiVo addict, there's room for only one DVR in my heart--but next year, when TiVo and Comcast join forces, I will likely make room for another.