We've come a long way from the days of the humble VHS recorder, and we've come to rely on features like remote record scheduling and media streaming — things that were unheard of even five years ago.
However, given the sheer volume of products available it's hard to know where to start. So, in order to simplify things, we've written this quick guide on what to look for when buying a new set-top box.
Set-top boxes are so advanced that now you can not only record television, but stream YouTube videos, listen to MP3s wirelessly, and order movies on demand. IPTV is coming, and pretty soon you won't even need an antenna.
But until that day, there are two main types of recorder on the market: optical disc recorders and hard drive-only recorders. We've covered DVD recorders before, but now we're going to expand the scope to include hard drive-only models, such as TiVo, and Blu-ray recorders.
One obvious advantage of a hard-drive recorder over a bare-bones DVD recorder — which can only record straight to a DVD — is the ability to pause and rewind live TV. It does this by automatically recording what you're watching straight onto the hard drive, and will usually keep up to half an hour at a time.
Many recorders on the market feature two tuners, which means you can watch one channel while recording another, but be sure to double check this before you hand over your cash.
1. Do you want free-to-air or pay TV?
The first decision you'll need to make is whether you want to be able to record the freely available Freeview service or pay for subscription TV.
There are several different devices capable of recording free-to-air (FTA), but be aware that some of them may attract a small subscription fee if they use a service like the IceTV guide.
While not all houses can access HD FTA (see below) most people in Australia should be able to access satellite services like Foxtel and Austar. At present, the pay TV boxes capable of recording content are the Foxtel iQ, Foxtel iQ2 and Austar's MyStar. While the hundreds of channels on offer are impressive, the services obviously attract installation and monthly service charges, and plans can cost in excess of AU$100 a month.
But things are looking up for Freeview, as services like Ten's "ONE" sports channel and Nine's Go! now offer "Foxtel-like" programming for free. All of the stations, public and commercial, offer up to three channels each with unique content so the choice is getting better.
Austar is the provider of cable TV for regional and rural areas and it has two new offerings for customers. Launched on 15 November 2009 is the MyStar HD recorder, based on the Foxtel iQ2, which is a HD set-top box offering 13 HD channels. The company has another SD version of MyStar, which is quite unique in that it has both a satellite receiver and a digital TV tuner on-board. This means you can record free-to-air as well as Austar programs on the one box. This makes it akin to the TiVo set available in the United States, whereas the TiVo sold here doesn't record pay TV.
The TiVo HD is a Freeview recorder, which can also transfer files to a PC for an extra charge. (Credit: TiVo)
2. Get a high-definition recorder
Given that the number of houses with access to high-definition television broadcasts is approaching that of mobile phone coverage, there's no reason why you shouldn't invest in a recorder able to record HD. Though there are some recorders on the market that can record SD, buying a HD recorder will give you more flexibility.
This year, digital television was renamed and recorders now come with Freeview badging. Compatible devices are able to receive HD broadcasts as well as provide future-proofing in the form of MPEG-4 support. By contrast, all current broadcasts are provided in the older MPEG-2 format.
At present, the only subscription service that offers HD programming is Foxtel HD+, which now offers 15 exclusive HD channels to many coverage areas (cable and satellite) — in addition to the relevant FTA stations for your area. Austar is due to release its MyStar HD unit soon.
3. Get lots of storage space
While some units offer the option of adding external storage, most PVRs are constrained by the amount of space on-board. Look for the biggest drive you can get (500GB is a good amount), but even then you'll find it fills up really quickly.
High-definition recordings take up a lot of space, you see, and unless you want to find your favourite recordings suddenly disappear to make space for new ones you should think big. There is a way to "keep" recordings on most systems, but the best solution is to buy a recorder that lets you take files off it.
4. Take your recordings with you
Recording TV takes up a lot of space, and since many recorders come with between 200 and 300GB drives you'll find that you chew up your storage very quickly. The easiest thing to do if you want to keep your recordings is to buy a recorder with a DVD drive on-board. If you want to transfer recordings to disc in high definition the only machines that will let you do this are the Panasonic Blu-ray recorders.
If you don't want your lounge piling up with DVDs, the other option is to buy a recorder that lets you keep and play files back on a computer. At present, the two main contenders are Topfield and TiVo.
TiVo offers software called the Home Networking Package, which enables users to move their recordings around their home network, but it costs an additional AU$200.
Topfield offers this service straight out of the box on devices like the Masterpiece HD, and because the files are unprotected it means you can pretty much use them how you like.
Foxtel has had a product in the pipeline for several years that it calls iQ2Go, which started out as a portable media player (PMP), but then was going to be a USB stick. At the moment it looks like it is more likely to be a DRM video file based on Foxtel Download technology, and is due sometime next year.
Austar's new MyStar HD features 13 HD channels via satellite. (Credit: Austar)
5. What sort of EPG support and features does it have?
There are currently two types of electronic program guides (EPG) offered in Australia: those offered by the stations themselves in the form of the Free EPG (soon to be Freeview), and those from the device manufacturers.
While devices by Topfield give you the choice of free or subscription guide data (such as Ice), the type of guide will usually depend on the device you buy.
Most EPG guide information is free, and is either included in the cost of the device — as is the case with TiVo — or provided by the FreeTV EPG. However, there are some devices that require a subscription cost for free-to-air program information. This is due to TV broadcasters being very reluctant to give out their guide info.
It's only very recently that the broadcasters have decided to be caring and sharing with their data, and so in the meantime IceTV started up to cover for the lack of available guide information. IceTV has had an ongoing dispute with Channel Nine over the source of its guide data.
The dispute appears to be over, and there are PVRs on the market that still rely on their guides. Topfield, Beyonwiz and Windows Media Centers usually need an IceTV subscription, and this currently costs AU$13 a month.
To support the EPG, look for recorders that are wireless or with a built-in Ethernet port. Recorders can use this connectivity to update its EPG data, provide access to YouTube and Picasa, stream content from your network, and order movies. Video-on-demand is destined to become a huge feature in the future, and services like ABC's iView could eventually negate the need for an on-board tuner.
Unlike VCRs of old, modern machines are able to be upgraded as new features are added and bugs fixed. In some cases it can be like getting a new machine for free! Some models add USB slots for this purpose, but are usually not as user friendly. Uploading EPG data onto a USB stick and then plugging it into your PVR is a pain if you have to do it every few weeks.