Television – DVRs

This is the first in a series of posts on television and watching of TV shows, movies, and sports.

In episode 48 of his podcast, Build and Analyze, and on a post on his site, Marco Arment describes his TV watching habits and gives some opinions on Apple’s rumored entry into the TV market. He describes DVRs as being a “bad hack” and describes his method of watching TV shows and movies without subscribing to a television service.

Many people have a DVR (39.7% of TV households according to Nielson). In my opinion, they’re nowhere near as bad as Marco makes out.

One of the problems he mentions is missing the end of shows because of late-running sports or breaking news. This used to be a much bigger problem (perhaps back when Marco used a DVR?), but nowadays, with multiple tuners, it’s easy to setup recordings to last longer than necessary and still not miss recording the next show. I’ve been using a DVR provided by Comcast (but am switching over to FiOS early next week due to much lower cost and faster Internet… we’ll see how that works out). It’s very far from being a joy to use, but at the same time, it’s better to me than the alternatives. I’ve had this DVR for just over 3 years now. I can count on one hand the number of recordings that have cut off before the end (and in almost every one of those cases, I’ve been able to easily catch the ending through other means – On-Demand, Hulu, or network web sites). The other feature that helps out here is the ability to program your DVR remotely over the web or with a mobile app.

John Siracusa did a great podcast on TVs and TiVo. After listening to this, you might wonder how anyone could possibly use a DVR. Yet, it hasn’t driven him to abandon his TiVo.

I do like Marco’s setup, but until I can still watch sports live, it won’t work for me. I’ll talk more on the sports topic in a future post.


In the past, before digital cable and HDTVs were prevalent, I had a DVR system that consisted of a Linux desktop computer with a TV capture card that ran MythTV. It was not something that was easy to setup, but once I did, it was a nice solution for me. Other than my time1, the only cost was purchasing the video capture card (about $130?). This setup had a number of great features that I don’t get with my Comcast-provided DVR:

  • Commercials were auto-removed from the recordings (this worked very well, and I don’t recall ever having any part of the show accidentally removed; very rarely a bit of the commercials stayed in, but probably only 2 or 3% of the time).

  • I could watch stream live TV to my Powerbook, view a digital cable-like channel guide, and pause, rewind, and fast-forward this live feed.

  • I could also stream or download recordings to my Powerbook.

It’s sad to me that these features that I had 8 years ago are no longer available via my current setup. I finally gave up on MythTV when cable boxes (or CableCARDs, which seem like “a bag of hurt”) became required to capture video from most channels.