PVRs – Personal Video Recorders – are one of the technologies that can dramatically change the way that you watch TV. Also known as ‘Digital TV Recorders’ or DTRs, they’re essentially a dedicated computer with a couple of TV tuners and a hard drive. You can select what you want to watch from the electronic programme guide, press a button and a recording is scheduled, much more easily than with a video recorder. Whole series can be recorded at the touch of a button, and you can watch them whenever you want.
A lot of people, at least to start with, don’t quite get what the fuss is about. They use them a little like a video recorder, as something that you turn on when you want to watch a recording, and turn off again afterwards. Personally, I think that if that’s how you use one, then you’re missing out on some of the really good stuff.
A change of habit
I use a Topfield TF5800 PVR; I think it’s one of the best standard-definition boxes available in the UK, not least because of the ability to customise it. But even without some of the more exotic features, it really is worth thinking about how a PVR can change the way you see television.
First, I hardly ever use the tuners built into my TV set; I use the Topfield all the time. One reason for doing that is that it means there’s just one remote to worry about, no more fiddling with different ones depending on whether you’re watching live, or watching a recording.
With two tuners (some cheap models only have one, but it’s rare these days), even if you’re recording one channel, you can still watch another on the PVR, so there’s no need for that artificial divide between a device for watching live and one for viewing recordings.
You can also pause live TV – great when someone comes to the door, for example. You might think “so what,” but take the next step, and realise that you can then fast forward to catch up to real time.
Perhaps that’s not so useful on the BBC (though you could fast forward through certain World Cup matches, perhaps), but on commercial channels, you can start watching, press pause when the adverts come on, go make a cup of tea, or empty the washing machine, and then fast forward through the ads, to get back to the programme.
And once you’ve tried that a few times, you’ll probably think, actually, why bother pausing in the first place? Why not just record everything, and watch it when you want. Many people are doing just that – as much of a third of the drama watched on Sky is apparently time-shifted like this.
So, instead of flicking around and seeing what’s on, and settling for the least annoying thing, a PVR can change things dramatically. Set up a few series recordings; flick through the Electronic Programme Guide once or twice a week, and find things that look interesting, setting them to record too.
Before long, you’ll find that instead of having a poor choice of whatever’s on when you turn on the TV, you have a collection of things you wanted to watch, ready to view whenever you want – and if you fancy, you can skip through the adverts too.
There’s no more rushing home to catch Dr Who, when the weather’s so glorious that you fancy another beer in the sun. And modern PVRs will automatically work out when a programme starts late, just in case the tennis unexpectedly goes on for a few days longer than you expected.
Jump to it
There’s more to some PVRs than others, of course. With the extra software you can load on a Topfield, it can do clever things like automatically search the programme guide, and set recordings itself – if anyone every starts showing ‘Oz’ again on Freeview, I’ll get it recorded, for example.
Some PVRs have ‘jump’ buttons; on mine, I can skip forwards 90 seconds, or back 30. So when the ads come on, press three or four times on the skip button, and I’m back to the action.
It’s not just for adverts, either – the backwards skip is a great tool for when someone in the room insists on talking at you, making you miss important dialogue (the “mother button”, perhaps). You’d be surprised how useful things like this become – after five years of using my PVR, I instinctively find myself reaching for the ‘skip back’ button on the remote, even when I’m watching a DVD.
For me, a PVR is now such an important part of the way I watch TV that I wouldn’t be without one. If you’re about to go digital, and wondering if you should just buy a basic set top box, I’d strongly recommend that you consider spending the extra for a PVR – though with the caveat that Freeview HD models are pretty rare at the moment, if you want HD, it might be best to wait a while and see how the different models stack up against each other.
Do I watch more TV, or less? It’s hard to say, overall. But I think I can say that I do watch more of the TV that I want, and I seldom sit down and watch something ‘just because it’s on.’
As risk of hyperbole, a PVR isn’t just a digital version of a video recorder. It’s a whole different beast. Use it as a VCR, and you’re missing the point. Use it to its full potential, and it really will change the way you watch TV, forever.