PVRs & set-top boxes
The best way to record TV
By Lewis Skinner
The VCR may be dead, but there's more ways to record TV now than ever before. Our guide will help you make sense of the jargon and find the device that's best suited to your needs.
Want to check out what's on offer instead? Then head straight over to our PVR and set-top box Best Buys.
Personal video recorders (PVRs)
A personal video recorder (PVR) is a versatile TV-recording device that stores the programmes you have recorded onto a large internal hard disk drive. The latest free-TV and pay-TV PVRs generally have at least 500GB of memory, meaning they can hold hundreds of hours of recordings.
- The latest PVRs allow you to record two programmes at once
- Many PVRs can record high-definition TV
- Good PVRs are very easy to use
- Limited memory means that PVRs aren't great for archiving programmes
- You can’t share recordings with other people
At the heart of a PVR is an on-screen electronic programme guide (EPG) that lists all the TV programmes to be shown over the next week. You can scroll through these listings using the remote control and select all the programmes that you want to record. The PVR then does the rest.
Most PVRs allow you to watch one programme while recording another, or record two programmes simultaneously while watching a third you've previously recorded. You can pause live TV or start watching a programme before it has finished recording, perhaps skipping through the ad breaks as you catch up with the live broadcast.
The hard disk size limits the amount of programmes you can store at any one time. A 500GB hard drive can store about 250 hours of TV in standard definition, or 125 hours in high definition. So PVRs aren't ideal for archiving programmes you want to keep long-term, but you can download programmes to a separate DVD recorder if you want to do this.
The best PVRs are very easy to use, have well-laid-out EPGs and intuitive remote controls.
A DVD recorder (sometimes known as a DVDr) records TV programmes onto a recordable DVD disc. However, a DVD disc can usually only hold between one to four hours of footage. If you’re intending to use it as your main TV-recording device then buying one with a built-in hard disk is probably the most sensible option.
- You can record TV programmes for long-term storage
- You can share recordings with family and friends
- You can only record one programme at a time
- Most DVD players can't record HDTV
- Generally more difficult to use than PVRs
- Can only record Freeview channels
If you're interested then take a look at our Blu-ray DVD player reviews.
DVD recorders explained
Like PVRs, DVD recorders have an on-screen EPG that lists all the TV programmes to be shown over the next week. You can use this to choose what you want to record and set it up in advance.
You’ll need to swap discs when they fill-up - typically, a single disc will store around two hours of good-quality recordings, or more if you're prepared to compromise on picture quality.
Recordable discs can be either 'write-once' - which means that once full you can't record on them again - or 're-writeable' - which means you can use them repeatedly, erasing previous recordings to free up space for new ones.
Once a disc is full of recordings you want to keep, it can be 'finalised', which means that it will also play on other DVD players. As such, DVD recorders are ideal for recording TV programmes that you want to keep long-term or share with family and friends.
You can also buy DVD-Ram discs, where programmes aren’t saved in the order you record them but all available blank space is used, maximising the recording space. You can also take advantage of the ‘time slip’ feature, so you can start watching a recording while the player continues to record the live show.
DVD-Ram discs are expensive and aren’t compatible with all machines, but they do make better use of their memory than other disc types.
If you want to be able to record high-definition (HD) TV, you’ll need to buy a Blu-ray DVD recorder. These are expensive and there aren’t many on the market.
The best DVD recorders are easy to use, load discs fast, and deliver excellent picture and sound quality. We no longer review standalone DVD recorders at Which? because most people choose PVRs these days.
PVR/DVD recorder combis
PVR/DVD recorder combis combine the hard disk storage capacity of a PVR - typically 250 hours, or 125 in HD - with the option to transfer your favourite recordings onto DVD if you want to keep them for a long time or share them with others. This is ideal if you want the best of both worlds.
- Large internal hard drive
- Can archive to DVD
- Can generally only record one programme at a time
- More complicated to use than a standalone PVR
They’re generally more complicated to use than a good standalone PVR. So if both a PVR and a DVD recorder are required, we would recommend buying two separate devices, unless space is an issue.
Now that you're up to speed, take a look at all of our Best Buy PVRs and set-top boxes.