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The best way to record TV

By Martin Pratt

Discover the differences between PVRs, DVD recorders and smart TV PVRs to help you choose the best digital TV recorder for you.

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The VCR may be dead, but that hasn't stopped us from finding new ways to save our favourite shows. 

There are now more ways to record TV than ever before, and none of them require maintaining a cupboard full of video tapes, or spending an age spinning back and forward through a cassette to find the right show. 

Our guide will help you weigh up your options, make sense of the jargon and find the device that's best suited to your needs.

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.

Pros:

  • The latest PVRs allow you to record multiple programs at once - in some cases as many as seven
  • They can all record Full-HD TV
  • A good PVR is very easy to use

Cons:

  • You'll have to splash out on a larger hard drive if you want to keep a sizeable archive of recordings
  • You can’t share recordings with other people

Want to check out what's on offer instead? Then head straight over to our Best PVR and set-top box guide.

PVRs explained

'PVR' stands for 'personal video recorder'. Much like VHS decks in the 90s and early 00s, they're a staple in any household that loves its TV, allowing you to easily record shows and films to watch at a later date.

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. There are some capable of even more simultaneous recordings, but they're few and far between. You can pause live TV or start watching a programme before it has finished recording, too, 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. This is the minimum size you'll see for a PVR, with pricier 1TB options (that's 1,000GB) fairly common, too. If you want to archive programmes to keep long-term you'll need a bigger hard drive. Fortunately, with the rising popularity of on-demand and catch-up services you shouldn't need to record as much as you once used to.

The best PVRs are very easy to use, have well-laid-out EPGs and intuitive remote controls. Some will even be wi-fi enabled, allowing for access to catch-up apps like BBC iPlayer or subscription apps like Netflix. They also capture shows in their original quality, with no degradation to the picture or sound.

To see all the models we've tested, click the link through to our PVR reviews.

DVD recorders

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.

They were popular for a time, but have seen a sharp decline in the number available over the past ten years or so. With PVRs and on-demand content so popular you'll likely struggle to find a new model to buy, and we don't test them, either.

Pros:

  • You can record TV programmes for long-term storage
  • You can share recordings with family and friends

Cons:

  • 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
  • Few in existence nowadays

If you're interested then take a look at our Blu-ray DVD player reviews.

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 but, much like with DVD recorders, they're something of a rarity nowadays.

Pros:

  • Large internal hard drive
  • Can archive to DVD

Cons:

  • Can generally only record one programme at a time
  • More complicated to use than a standalone PVR
  • Very few on the market

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.

How to turn your TV into a PVR

In some cases you may not even need to buy a PVR - some modern smart TVs have a PVR function built-in. To make use of it you'll need a USB hard-drive or memory stick, which then plugs into one of the USB ports on the TV.

You'll only be able to record broadcasts that are received locally by the TV's built-in Freeview or Freesat - that means it won't be able to record anything off of an external device like a Sky set-top box or an Amazon Fire TV Stick.

£50The typical cost of a 1TB external hard-drive - far cheaper than a PVR of the same size.

You'll also be restricted by the number of tuners built in to the TV. If it has just one then you'll only be able to record the same show that you're watching. Two means you'll be able to watch one show whilst recording another. The upside, though, is that you're not confined to the hard-drive size imposed upon you like when you buy a standalone PVR - you can attach any sized drive you want, and they're much cheaper, too. 

Now that you're up to speed, take a look at all of our Best PVRs and set-top boxes.

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