A digital video recorder -- which records television programs onto a hard drive instead of tape -- makes a great Christmas gift. I like them so much that I am buying two DVRs this year, one a Replay and the other a TiVO.
Why is a DVR a great gift? Because it can guarantee you'll never miss a favorite program. The software manages the hard drive so current episodes automatically record over older ones, or can optionally be saved for dubbing onto tape. There are other benefits, like being easier to use than a VCR, but not missing your shows and the units 20-to-60-hour capacities are the big wins. Expect to pay $499 to $699, depending on capacity and whether a satellite receiver is included.
Having now seen the latest-and-greatest from both TiVO and Replay, I want to share some last-minute comparative shopping tips:
The TiVO unit has the most impressive software, yet the least impressive user interface. TiVO's program schedule can be hard to navigate, but the software has features Replay lacks.
One of TiVO's features is that it tries to guess what programs you want to watch and automatically records them. This keeps the hard disk pretty full, sometimes with interesting shows, but it can make it hard to find the programs you actually wanted to record amongst those you didn't.
The Replay software doesn't do as much or handle recording conflicts as gracefully, but it uses a familiar program grid to select programs you want to watch or record. Once you learn it, the interface is efficient.
Replay has a button that makes it easy to skip commercials. TiVO doesn't. If you have never had this feature you won't notice, but not have it has made moving from the Replay to the TiVO a problem for me.
TiVO charges $199 for a "lifetime" subscription to its program schedules. Replay doesn't charge for this, but the Replay units are about $200 more expensive than equivalent TiVO boxes.
Philips and Sony make boxes that include both a DirecTV receiver and a TiVO DVR. Replay does not offer such a device. These boxes are cool.
Replay is getting out of the hardware business. This probably makes TiVO a safer choice, though Replay's CEO promises me their free program schedule will be continue to be available and Panasonic will still make machines. I would still buy a Replay box (and have), but you ought to know this.
TiVO boxes are sold with the Philips and Sony brand names. Replay is still selling its inventory, and you can also buy a Panasonic-branded unit. The TiVOs are by far the easiest to find in stores. Both can be ordered online.
The Replay and TiVO boxes both work well. Each has specific benefits and some minor drawbacks. Most people would be happy with either.
If you don't have a DirecTV dish and want one, or want to replace the one you already own, buy an integrated TiVO box. I bought a Philips model. The interface between the DirecTV features and the TiVO recorder isn't perfect but does make the TiVO easier to use.
If you are recording off broadcast, cable, or an existing DirecTV dish, I'd choose a Replay, but it's a personal and mostly subjective choice. I really don't like the user interface of the standalone (non-DirecTV) TiVO boxes. I also love the commercial skip button on my Replay.
If you are buying for someone less technically competent than yourself, I might tend toward the TiVO a bit, mostly based on feedback I have gotten from readers of previous columns.
Don't fret over the decision; either box should thrill a devoted viewer -- once they get the hang of it.
And a last thing: DVRs aren't just great presents for TV addicts. Really, people who only watch occasional-but-specific program are the best customers. These people can set the box to record all the shows they are interested in and then sit down at watch them all at once when it's convenient.
ZDNet News commentator David Coursey is based in Silicon Valley and has covered personal computers, software, and the Internet for more than 20 years. He is an industry analyst and creator of several industry conference events. His Web site is www.coursey.com.