There's a range of options for recording digital TV beyond the video casette recorder (VCR). Unlike a VCR, you won't need any tapes with a digital TV recorder. Plus, you'll be able to do things you never could with a VCR. For instance, if you need to pop away in the middle of a live programme, you can have it 'pause' things for you, so that when you return you can carry on watching where you left off.
If you want to use an older, pre-digital TV, you'll need to buy either a set-top box or a digital TV recorder. A set-top box is the cheapest solution, but a digital TV recorder will do the same job, plus give you good recording options.
Depending on how you plan to get your digital TV signal - through an aerial, by satellite, cable or broadband phone line - you'll need a different digital TV recorder. You can't, for example, use a Freeview digital TV recorder to record Sky programmes from a Sky satellite service. See Digital TV options for information on these choices.
The majority of digital TV recorders in the shops are Freeview recorders, which deliver digital TV via an aerial. Also available from retailers are freesat digital TV recorders that connect to a satellite dish. For subscription satellite, cable and broadband, the companies supply and install their own digital TV recorders as part of the service.
High-definition (HD) recorders available from Freeview, freesat, Sky and Virgin deliver and record the HD channels available on these services. For any of these recorders, you'll also need an HD or HD ready TV, with a screen capable of showing all the detail of HD broadcasts.
Types of digital TV recorders
There are two main types of digital TV recorder:
- A hard drive digital TV recorder that records onto a hard disc drive - sometimes called a PVR (personal video recorder).
- A DVD digital recorder that records on to a DVD disc. Most of these also contain a hard drive, so work in a similar way to a PVR but are more complex to use. There are also DVD + Blu-ray recorder versions available.
Hard drive digital TV recorders record on to their hard disc drive (HDD) and give a good quality picture - in fact, it should be identical to the original broadcast. They are usually the easiest type of recorder to use. They have the advantage over VCRs in that each recording is automatically indexed on the disc, saving you all that trial and error of fast-forwarding through tapes. In addition, it's easy to book timed recordings by simply selecting them from the electronic programme guide (EPG) - much easier than setting a timer.
A recorder with twin tuners can be used to record one digital programme while you watch another. One with a single tuner can do this only if used in conjunction with a set-top box or digital TV, which brings its own second tuner to the mix.
A hard drive digital TV recorder does have a limited capacity - although a large one - and is really intended as a temporary store. The largest capacity versions on the market can store about 400 hours of standard definition (or 125 hours of high definition). This is OK if all or most of your recording requirements are to view later and then wipe. If you occasionally want to keep a recording, you could copy it from the hard drive digital TV recorder on to a VCR tape or a DVD recorder disc.
Also, on basic hard drive digital TV recorders, you can only record TV broadcasts - you can't record from other equipment, such as a camcorder or DVD player, as digital TV recorders have no external inputs.
If you buy a high-definition digital TV recorder it will record HD programmes in full HD quality.
A second option is to buy a new DVD recorder - with a built-in digital TV tuner. This will record one digital channel while you are watching another on your digital TV - not possible if the recorder does not have its own digital tuner. DVD recorders record on to DVD discs and will give good picture quality. As with a hard drive digital TV recorder, the recordings are automatically indexed and it is easy to go straight to the one you want.
A DVD recorder is also versatile, just like a VCR. You can use re-writable discs to record for later viewing, erase and record some more. Use cheaper write-once discs for recording and archiving classics. And of course you can play store-bought DVDs of films and TV programmes.
Most DVD recorders have an external link feature. This means you can select a programme from compatible TV guides for recording on a DVD.
DVD recorders are usually relatively complicated to use. They have a lot of features, disc formats and recording options - look over the lengthy instructions before you buy.
However, straightforward DVD recorders are not very common and you are more likely to find combination hard drive plus DVD recorders with single or twin digital TV tuners. These would appear to offer the best of both worlds but unfortunately we have found that combining the two functions into one box ends up in a very complicated product.
With more and more digital TVs, you can connect an external USB hard drive (or large memory stick) directly to the TV. This typically acts as a single-tuner PVR for recording and 'pause live TV' features, but check out the features before you buy as some are less versatile than others. This set-up is typically less convenient than a dedicated PVR but is fine if you only occasionally want to record TV programmes for viewing later.
What to look for in a digital TV recorder
- Make sure you're buying a true digital TV recorder and not a simple hard disc drive video recorder without a digital tuner. A digital TV recorder allows recordings to be set using the on-screen TV guide and lets you pause live TV.
- A recorder with two tuners lets you record one digital channel while watching another. It's only worth going for a single-tuner digital TV recorder if you have a digital TV or already have a set-top box, either of which will also includes a tuner.
- Check the hard disc drive capacity. It's pretty standard now to get at least 320GB, which will give you around 150 hours of standard-definition recording but for family use you may want to consider a bigger one.
- Buy one with Freeview+ features. This makes your recordings more reliable.
Pros and cons of digital TV recorders
Freeview+ sets a standard for digital TV recorders. For recorders to carry the Freeview+ logo, they must have passed Freeview quality testing and have certain features.
The features must include an 8-day on-screen TV guide and improved versatility for recording. This means Freeview+ digital TV recorders - with no monthly subscription - will do things that only the Sky+ satellite recorder offered subscribers in the past.
Other features that must be included:
- automatically adjusted recording times - really useful if the programme is running late or has been re-scheduled; Freeview+ will recognize this and start recording when the programme actually starts
- series recording - lets you set the recorder to record all episodes of a TV series
- resolving conflicts - if you have booked clashing programmes to record, it will automatically locate a scheduled repeat and record that instead.
The Freeview website has more information on Freeview+.
Last updated: July 2013