There are two basic ways to enter the world of the Personal Video Recorder (PVR): through a dedicated hardware unit, like a TiVo or ReplayTV, or through a software-based PVR that runs on your home computer, like Windows: Media Center Edition (WMCE) or MythTV. In this article I will compare the most popular form of each platform, TiVo and WMCE, to help you figure out which one would be best for you.
Both TiVo and WMCE have the same basic functionality: after you tell them which programs to record, they find them, and automatically record them from your television source (antenna, analog or digital cable, or satellite feed). They both have the ability to create a “Season Pass” (TiVo’s terminology) for a show, which will record all episodes of a show, or just new ones if you prefer. These “Season Passes” are in kept in a prioritized list, which determines which program will record if more than one are on at the same time.
They both contain a program guide (similar to the TV Guide channel) which you can use to find and schedule programs, or simply to browse channels. They also have search capabilities based on categories and keywords. They both contain parental controls, allowing you to block certain types of content via a password. They both allow you to view scheduled recordings as well as a history of programs that weren’t recorded or future programs that won’t record.
However, in most areas of operation, WMCE has the advantage by offering some additional features, though with every iteration of TiVo hardware, it becomes more like a Media Center PC (MCPC). Here are a couple of the more notable feature differences: TiVo can only record a single program at a time (except for DirecTV TiVos’, and the yet-to-be-released Series 3, which can record two). WMCE can record up to five programs at a time, one for every tuner card you have in your computer. Also, WMCE responds much quicker than TiVo (at least the one I have does). If you have a long list of Season Passes, and you reorganize them, TiVo sometimes needs several minutes to “think” before it will let you do anything else. WMCE responds instantly.
In addition to all this, WMCE includes the ability to play radio stations through your computer (many TV tuner cards include radio tuners). With a special HDTV tuner, it can support HDTV recording. It also contains areas to organize and view your photos and videos (including downloaded TV shows), listen to your digital music, and create CDs or DVDs, all with your remote control. Plus it is an area for plug-ins (under “Other Programs”) which can contain anything from on-demand movies (via the internet) to MTV video spotlights. However, newer TiVo models (or OS upgrades) include some or all of these features (except radio, to my knowledge).
If you are comparing TiVo and WMCE on features alone, WMCE comes out ahead, though TiVo is working to level the playing field. But there are other things you should consider before you decide to get one or the other. The first is cost. You can buy a basic TiVo box (no DVD burner or multiple tuners) for a couple hundred dollars, or even free with some deals. However, there is a $12.95 monthly fee for the TiVo service, which you pay as long as you use the TiVo unless you buy the lifetime subscription, which is $299. A decent MCPC, on the other hand is going to run around $1000 (see future articles for putting together a great Media Center PC for a great price). However, once you buy it, there are no monthly fees for using it. In addition, you can also use it for other home-computer tasks.
The other main thing to consider is your level of technical ability. Buying and setting up a TiVo is about as simple as hooking up a DVD player to your entertainment system. By contrast, there is a lot more than can go wrong with WMCE. For example, most MCPC packages, for whatever reason, don’t include a video card with a TV output. This only gives you the option to watch the programs on your computer monitor. To use your TV, you need to buy and install the hardware and software for the video card, then re-configure WMCE to use your TV instead of your monitor. This requires some computer expertise, and many things can go wrong (as I have experienced first-hand). Your best bet is to order a custom machine off the internet from someone like Dell. They will have tested it and made sure all the components are working together properly.
To summarize, WMCE currently has more features than TiVo, though TiVo is catching up. WMCE requires a large cost up front, but no monthly fee, while TiVo is a lower (or no) cost up front (for basic models) but has a monthly service fee. MCPCs can also be used as home computers. Finally, TiVo is much easier to install. So based on this, if you need a home computer anyway, you might as well get an MCPC, that is, if you can put it near your entertainment center (else you need a Media Center Extender, which is about the price of a TiVo). If you have cash to spend up front, an MCPC is probably a better value. But if you are looking for something that is initially inexpensive and easy to set up, TiVo would be best for you.