It’s been said of the climate in at least one U.S. city that if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute. That is supposed to be a joke about how the weather changes from one extreme to another – then to another – very quickly. Today’s technology is a lot like that. Whether one likes or appreciates the latest, hottest thing in technology, just wait a minute and something will come along to dramatically change it, if not render it totally obsolete.

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Consider the evolution in home entertainment systems in a relatively short time. From watching live TV to taped programs to owning a Betamax to the VCR to DVDs to TiVo, the best and the brightest keeps getting better and brighter. TiVo, in only a few short years, achieved the status of Kleenex, Xerox and Coke, as its brand name has become the generic term for viewers recording and watching television programs at the times of their choice and on their own terms. It’s now common to hear someone talk about a program ad say “I TiVo’d it.”

But recently, the company has been struggling. Published report note that, despite adding 254,000 net subscribers, TiVo is in trouble. Some 214,000 of those subscriptions came about through its relationship with satellite provider DirecTV – a relationship that will soon end. By most accounts, the hot new venue is the DVR (Digital Video Recorder). While TiVo is itself a form of DVR, it can no longer claim the commercial supremacy in the category as it once did, as the market grows at a phenominal pace. Many satellite and cable companies are incorporating DVR functions into their set-top boxes.

But how far can it go? How much change will the public ultimately want or accept? Are the newer products serious improvements on the existing products or just more bells and whistles on a hot and trendy flavor-of-the-month?

A closer look at some of the digital video recorders and “personal video recorders” (DVR/PVR) systems now on the market provides some clues about the future of DVR. DishPlayer/DishDVR, Explorer 8xxx, Motorola 6xxx, Moxi Meia Center, and Sky+ are some of the satellite company offerings. There is no encoding necessary in the DVR (as with TiVo), as the satellite signal is already a digitally encoded MPEG stream. The DVR simply stores the digital stream directly to disk.

SnapStream, MythTV, and SageTV are among the alternative systems with benefits to users and a basic set-up that can be acquired at a reasonable price. They also don’t require the monthly service fee or comparatively high single-payment service fee in addition to the cost of the standalone equipment, as with TiVo.

With computer-based PVR software a home PC can record video from a television signal. Some systems allow users to set television shows to record on their PC from any computer in the world, using only an Internet connection or mobile phone. Recording space can be easily upgraded and some systems are equipped to burned recorded content to DVD.

SnapStream’s Beyond TV 4.4 functions much like TiVo, minus the monthly subscription fee. The software is available as a download or on CD-ROM if the user’s PC is already equipped with a TV tuner card. The card can be purchased as part of a kit that includes a TV tuner and remote control. SnapStream Beyond TV 4.4 can be a bit confusing to use, as it splits functions and settings awkwardly between the DVR portion of the program and a separate Web interface. Many features can be accessed or configured only through the IE interface.

MythTV for Linux allows any computer that meets the specified minimum requirements to function as a digital video recorder and multifunctional digital home entertainment center. Available add-on modules (plugins) include a player for watching video not recorded with MythTV, a jukebox-like music player and music collection manager, DVD management, online photograph gallery viewing and management, an RSS feed news reader, a network weather forecast weather, a small web browser for TV viewing, a remote control for MythTV from web browers on other computers, support for Internet phone calls from a TV via Session InitiationProtocol (SIP), a plugin for viewing a Netflix queue, and an archive for creating DVDs of your recordings. MythTV, Windows Media Center Edition for PCs, or Front Row for the Mac can create up a home theater PC by purchasing a new computer or perhaps setting up a Linux system in the living room.

SageTV Media Center Version 5, however, turns a PC into a full-featured integrated media center without having to upgrade the user’s operating system. SageTV is a DVR that can do pretty much everything TiVo can do, in addition to providing access to photos, music, and other multimedia files from within a single application. SageTV supports the Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-250 and PVR-350 cards and their hardware encoding functionality, and was designed around MPEG-2 based hardware encoding cards so that it could be a 24/7 application, like TiVo, and use minimal resources during recording. It’s also possible to play graphics-intensive games while recording TV programs, a feature not available with software encoding. SageTV also allows users to burn DVDs, creating a disc archive of favorite shows.

SageTV has many of the same features and capabilities of Microsoft’s Media Center Edition and can be installed on systems running any Window versions from 98 SE on up. In order to watch and record TV programs, the host system needs at least one supported TV tuner installed (more than 30 cards are supported). SageTV’s also offers “Media Center In-a-Box” bundles, with a choice of single or dual PCI tuner cards to install in the system. A dual-tuner configuration allows users to watch one channel while recording another or schedule two separate shows to be recorded at the same time.

Ease of set-up is a major selling point for SageTV. A series of wizards automatically detect hardware and existing media files, and then configures the software. During setup, users choose a cable or satellite TV service provider and SageTV downloads an Integrated Programming Guide, which enables viewing two weeks of TV listings and schedule recordings by clicking on a particular listing.

While TiVo was once appealing to users because installing and upgrading other systems required a high degree of technical knowledge, that is no longer the case.

In a recent survey, some 16 percent of TiVo’s customers complained that TiVo costs more than the competition, while 64 percent slammed TiVo for not offering standalone machines with either a dual tuner or one that is compatible with high-definition (HD) programming. So while TiVo looks to add upgrades, features and services, new, multi-featured, affordable competition promises changes in the months and years ahead.