Reflecting On 20 Years Of DVR

As TiVo reflects upon 20 years of DVR, and pitches it continued relevance, we too shall do the same.

While there’s some debate as to whether it was TiVo or Replay TV that “invented” DVR, they essentially launched at the same time in television history (and the underlying concept of a hard-drive recorder to advance the tape-based VCR seemed inevitable… as concluded by at least one patent court).

Both TiVo and Replay TiVo were released in 1999, although I didn’t get in until 2001 with a used RCA TiVo Series 1. I wasn’t particularly interested in recording shows at that point. Rather, I wanted a “cable box,” without actually having to rent one from the cable company, with a guide — including the months when I didn’t have cable, as back in those days, I’d often only subscribe to cable during college football season. Further, I was motivated by being able to pause a show at 8PM, begin playback like 15 minutes later, and then fast forward through all the commercials. Alas, I didn’t love TiVo and my next stop some months later was Replay TV.

Replay TV featured a traditional grid guide, which I found more accessible, composite output (to feed my 720p projector) well before TiVo, and… the ability to offload recordings. That was huge for me, given my subway commute — being able to load up a PDA, like a Dell Axim, with video was a great way to catch up while passing time. The more progressive Replay TV also introduced commercial skip and show sharing at some point (…which was a factor in their ultimate demise).

I obviously ended up back on TiVo, a Series 2… some months before TiVoToGo was to launch in 2005. In fact, this site morphed from a personal homepage into a TiVoToGo tutorial (and then the blog you’re reading). Because the functionality was obscenely restricted, we needed a safe space, outside the the TiVo-bankrolled forums (at the time), to discuss methods of freeing our content. The timelines are fuzzy at this point, but I ended up running two Toshiba SD-H400 TiVo units — beyond providing the traditional TiVo DVR experience, they also featured a progressive scan DVD player with TiVo’s interface. I also actually preferred Toshiba’s remote (above) to the iconic TiVo peanut.

Fast forward many years, beyond TiVo’s first, late HD model that I covered for Engadget, to 2011: ReplayTV founder Anthony Wood heads up Roku, the trailblazing streamer, and declares DVR is dead. It was a nutty comment at the time. Now, in 2019, twenty years after DVR’s debut, I wonder if it’s been a transitional technology… soon to be superseded, much as the VCR was.

It’s not exactly the DVR hardware and mechanics many of us love. It’s taking in the content we want on our terms. And many streaming services meet that need, for many, in various ways. I can’t stream TiVo recordings to my iPhone over cellular. Yet, Netflix and Prime feed me just fine – without commercial interruption, plus offline options as needed. Further, I often hear about shows after the fact, that I can binge as needed, without pre-planning, on something like Hulu or CBS All Access. Or purchase outright through Amazon. And what some online services, like YouTube TV, label “DVR” is more akin to digital bookmarking. Of course there are obvious content limitations, as not all shows/episodes are available at all times, and another major compromise is potential commercial interruption. But, as a television lover and the last TiVo blogger standing, I can’t remember the last time I watched a DVR-ed show.

27 thoughts on “Reflecting On 20 Years Of DVR”

  1. I bought a dual tuner DTivo (DirecTV) back in 2001. I used it for several years and then transitioned to various HTPC solutions, the first being a tuner card that also dealt with video output since most computers/video cards were not up to the task at that point, and culminating in an HDHomerun Cablecard solution. Finally I went back to Tivo with their Cablecard Bolt product.

    I have a love/hate relationship with Tivo. I view them sort of like Apple. Reliable but not a lot of user choices allowed. It drives me nuts.

  2. I’m still a diehard Tivo user and unlike you I think the Tivo Peanut is one of the greatest UX designs in the history of the universe! ;)

    I use all of the online services (Amazon Prime, iTUnes, Vudoo, Hulu, and Netflix) through either the Tivo or my Apple TV. But I still record a ton of shows and I do prefer (most of the time) watching Tivo recorded shows over streamed versions, even though I have to skip the commercials. I have always hated the Apple TV remote. And I still feel everything is so scattered around and disjointed. Hopefully the new stuff will make it seem more unified.

  3. Oh, I grew to love the peanut. Especially when they went premium with the original Glo remote. And I’ve used it as a universal remote at times. For example, the TiVo Slide remote has a power button that can control three things. Agree with you on Apple TV remote and app clutter – Alexa and Siri voice control is a frequent “interface” for me these days to reduce reliance on the graphical mess.

  4. I think DVR is necessary as long as linear TV is here – and I don’t think linear TV is going away anytime soon. I don’t like all of the limitations that networks place on their VOD content (having to wait until the next day, can’t FF through commercials, and it disappears at their whim). I tend to look forward to when I know a new episode of one of my shows is on and coming home to watch that night and not have to wait until the next day.

    Also I like being able to record my teams’ games and watch them while they’re still in progress which you can’t really do with VOD.

  5. I like the transition from mp3 to streaming as an analogy comparing DVR’s and online services.

    Tivo = mp3 files
    Netflix, Hulu, etc. = Spotify

    However, unlike music, I think there will be a much longer co-existence period between DVR & streaming since many shows still aren’t easily streamable… yet.

    Once I realized Apple Music had every one of the CD’s and mp3’s I owned, I don’t give those physical forms a second thought any longer. Although I do have them stored away and backed up in case of some kind of Internet apocalypse. ;)

  6. George, yeah probably not going away any time soon. But how many DVR early adopters are now adopting other things? I like Dolf’s analogies, but sports is a good exception example.

    Commercial skip days are probably numbered with cable company hardware and online streaming services – we’ve already seen some of that. I’d like to think TiVo operates outside that world, but they are beholden to big cable for their survival. We shall see. Whereas Tablo and Channels DVR operate by different parameters and both are bringing automated commercial skip this year.

  7. I’ve owned a total of seven TiVos: 3 standalone Series 2s, 1 Pioneer Series 2 with DVD recorder, a Premiere, a Roamio, and a Bolt. We use the TiVo all the time and rarely watch anything real time. My kids used to be confused when we went somewhere else and you couldn’t pause the show, look at the show details, or bring up a program guide. All of our TVs also have a Roku which we use for Plex, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, but cable is still our main source of video.

    All of the TiVos work to this day EXCEPT the Bolt. I’ve already returned one with a bad tuner and its replacement has developed tuner problems too (but I haven’t contacted them about it yet). Maybe third time is the charm.

    Given the experience with the Bolt, it will probably be my last TiVo. And I can see a time where streaming becomes the primary way of time and place shifting. But given the mix of shows we watch, it still is no cheaper than cable to go to an over-the-top provider. If it ever does get significantly cheaper, cable and TiVo will be at the end of the road.

  8. Egad! I had Tivo before you! That’s hard to imagine.

    We got a TiVo Series 1 in Q3-2001. My wife thought it a present to myself. A gadget she would never find useful. When some years later it was near failure, and she might miss an episode of Survivor, she picked me up from that airport (I had been on a business trip) specifically so we could stop at Best Buy and get a new Tivo.

    We tinkered with TiVoToGo but never found it useful.

    When we bought our first HDTV, a Sharp Aquos, the first 42″ set that resolved 1080p, we tried Comcast’s HD-DVR. It was dismal. After about 90 days we ditched it in favor of the brand new TiVo HD. We added a second TiVo HD. We eventually migrated to Roamio Pro with two TiVo Mini.

    We might eventually consider Bolt, or whatever might come next, when 4K content is more commonplace. We watch Netflix, Amazon and Hulu via TiVo. CBS All Access using the app built into our Vizio TV.

    TiVo has been utterly reliable. I wish their business practices were more sensible. For example, if a device is offline for months and not receiving schedule, they should not charge for that device. They should only charge for a service delivered.

  9. I miss my over the air Romio’s picture quality on a final generation 60” Samsung plasma. I’m aghast at the picture quality of Verizon Fios and Comcast digital cable.

  10. Incidentally, we still DVR stuff all the time. My wife has gone off The Walking Dead ever since they killed off Rick Grimes. The only way I can see the show is when she’s not around. Guess I could stream it, but I usually watch it via a Mini from another room.

  11. Michael, sounds like we got onboard about the same time. Although I had left the fold and then returned. We could probably figure out exactly when as I’m pretty sure I found the TiVo for sale on Usenet. I met the woman in a community rec center parking lot to do the deal. She had worked for the Bureau of Prisons, which I had never heard of.

    Regarding Season Passes, I just reviewed – the only ones I’ve added in like the last three years are This Is Us, The Good Place, and Sinner. All of which we ended up watching in apps, because we started too late – I think a combo of NBC and Amazon. I do have quite a few kids shows queued up in the TiVo. But, honestly, it’s usually more efficient to just jump into Prime for Daniel Tiger (PBS) or Netflix for Super Why (PBS) or Hulu for Doc Mcstuffins (Disney Jr), etc. There’s also enough Netflix and Amazon originals to keep my daughter busy like Treehouse Detectives, which my daughter calls the “Mystery Bears.” I know the kids (older-than-mine) of many of my peers don’t “watch TV” at all… it’s all YouTube and Netflix. And I do still pay for YouTube Red as my daughter likes some channels like Come Play With Me and Geneve’s Playhouse. Although YouTube requires constant supervision as it’s too easy for her to get into inappropriate stuff.

  12. Former TiVo ‘hacker’ here. I lived at the dealdatabase forums, where there was so much being done to extend the capabilities of those early units. It always felt to me that the wind went out of the sails when they locked the Premiere down so hard that everyone gave up and moved on. Even though many of those early hacks were (eventually) added to the OS, there’s no telling what other ideas the community could have contributed.
    Speaking as a cord-cutter, however, my Bolt is still vital. Between the universal search, and commercial-skipping for live sporting events, it gets a LOT of use.

  13. I can’t believe they hit 20 this week, as I was talking about finally retiring my last TiVo after 19 years. Very nearly everything I want to watch is on my AppleTV now, and cable TV costs me $90 a month to keep around. It’s long past time to finally cut the cord.

  14. Good thing I lost the pvrblog.com auction in 2009, Matt? Would have had to shut it down today. ;)

    (Just went through all my old emails. Looks like I bid up to $6k on ebay. Alexa Raiano and Megazone and I also talked about partnering in some way to manage it. Ohs well!)

  15. Started with Replay to record analog cable (only had the broadcast package)

    Switched to Tivo when I won a Tivo HDXL w/ lifetime & upgraded to a HDTV w/ OTA antenna.

    Main Tivo now is a base Roamio w/ Cablecard & TA, but I’ll be dropping cable soon in favor of OTA antenna again.

  16. I had a replay tv for as long as it worked. It was life changing. When hd came along I went to the wretched TW Scientific Atlantic dvr, no deals for Tivo for a long time. Eventually I came to my senses and got a 1tb Premier, followed by 4 minis as I found deals. It worked great until last year when Spectrum did something that started messing up my channels and recordings. I get a lot of v52/v53 errors that is sometimes fixed by rebooting the TA and sometimes the Tivo, a real pita. They’ve been out 7 times trying to get it stable. I’m leaning toward YoutubeTV as they don’t seem to be able to fix it.

    I had W7 media center for a while with a tuning adapter before the tivo but never really used it much, I think I had the SA dvr at the same time. The darn encrypted channels were really annoying since I had extenders and sometimes they wouldn’t work. Currently I have Plex recording some ota as a backup.

  17. I started with a Sony TiVo back in mid 2001, and bought my parents the same unit for Christmas that year.. I liked the shape of the Sony remote over the peanut because I never had a problem with grabbing it upside down. I broke the seal and added a network card to my original Sony so it didn’t have to use an analog telephone line for data..

    I upgraded to a TiVo HD Unit around 2007, and then replaced that with a Romio in 2014..

    I’d been running OTA since I got the TiVo HD, but then I moved in 2011 to a location that just couldn’t receive clear OTA because of hills and multi-path. I dropped cable again as soon as I moved to a location that I could get the primary networks OTA..

    I set up seasons passes whenever I hear about a new show I might be interested in watching, usually before the season starts.. I’ve upgraded the hard disk in my romio to something huge.

    I do watch various things streaming from Prime or Netflix, but most of what I watch is stuff that’s available over the air..

  18. I was Tivo early adopter (and investor). Tivo lost me as a customer after the Series 2, as I am a satellite customer and had no Tivo choices after the Series 2. I never understood them abandoning such a large base of potential customers. Yeah, I heard all of the technical reasons, but Series 2 worked for satellite customers, and they could have done a usable follow-up. One of the many bad choices the company made that led to their demise.

  19. I got my first TiVo (Sony Series 1) in December 2000, and went on to own many more over the years, including 3 Series 2 units, a Humax DVD Tivo (for a short time, until i realized it didn’t do what I wanted it to do, which was backup transferred content), an original Series 3, a rented Premiere, and now the Roamio Plus with 3 Minis. This is in addition to the Bolt (with Mini) that I bought my parents a few years ago, and the Stream that I only had briefly before I got the Roamio.

    For a short time, I was using a SA DVR from TWC (on one of 3 TVs, with the others using the aforementioned Series 2 units), as there was not yet an option for HD from TiVo, but that was short-lived. So while I wasn’t on the ground floor of TiVo, I feel like I more than paid my fair share in, and I still use it as my primary device.

    I don’t deal with physical media, so I also am an avid streamer (Netflix, with occasional forays into Prime and Hulu, and soon to be Disney+). I know TV is becoming more and more fractured, and may days of subscribing to a cable service provider are limited, but I do still love my TiVo! I just deal with the long Plex and Netflix load times, even though AppleTV is just a click away.

    My two younger kids are stuck on YouTube, but not the shows on Red, only random videos posted, mostly by other kids. My oldest had given up her TV shortly after outgrowing H2O: Just Add Water about 6 or 7 years ago (not long after I had bought her a Roku due to Netflix on the Series 3 in her room being in able to play that one show for some reason). Since then, she rarely watches TV at all, and refuses to have one in her room. She’s content with just Snapchat andother short video services, and only watches Netflix if there is a comedian special or something similar that just happens to catcher her in the right mood.

  20. I started first with Replay in late 1999, a 2020 model. Experimented with s cheap TiVo 14-hr Series 1 but preferred Replay’s UI for quite some time.

    I do miss Replay’s beta testing programs – they gave me a free 5000 series model to test and let me keep it! Used that baby for years with Poopli (R.I.P. Internet Show Sharing).

  21. I miss our ReplayTVs. Got my first one in 2001 just like you. The Panansonic one. It was a beast. Solid machinary.

    We got multiple Replay branded units after that. Multi-room DVR before its time. Commercial skip that worked! Good UI and lots of features.

    I’d still have them if they didn’t go under and had HD capable hardware. Luckily I sold all of them for some money before they went belly up. Sad I didn’t at least keep one. Such is life.

    I’ve been looking for a replacement ever since. We’ve had Verizon FIOS HD boxes and DVR since 2007 and it’s not the same. But it does the job.

    We never bothered with Tivo. Windows Media Center had promise, but never took off and is essentially dead. HDHomeRun has been good as a network TV tuner and the DVR is decent but not complete. I’m almost ready for our household to ditch the FiOS DVR and boxes and go HDHomeRun with streaming services instead. We ALMOST do not need the cable boxes anymore.

  22. I’ve owned Lifetime TiVos since the early Series 1 days. My current two non-Hydra TiVo DVRs (Roamio and Premiere and Mini) are *vital* in our OTA household. My 3TB Roamio drive is 95% full because we record way more than we can watch from our antenna! We generally use a FireTV for apps and Plex for those non-TiVo occasions. (The TiVo Plex app sucks.)

  23. Dave, as a matter of history, since you are the man with the blog with people coming here for the answers, I thought I would add of that there were actually three DVRs released about the same time that have to be considered the original DVRs, although clearly none of them were truly the originator of the technology considering how close those three DVRs were released from each other. The third DVR was the dishPlayer 7000 released just a few months after TiVo and replay TV. The dishPlayer was not on display at CES that year, so it is sometimes forgotten, but it shipped just a few months after TiVo and replay TV became available to consumers.

    While Dish manufactured the hardware for the dishPlayer 7000, it was Microsoft who provided the software, and therein lies an interesting story of how Microsoft stuck it to Dish by repeatedly, and seemingly intentionally, dragging their feet on bugs in the software that needed to be fixed. Within a short time later Microsoft releases its UlternateTV product. Hey, now it makes sense that Microsoft seemed to never answer the frantic phone calls from Dish pleading with them to fix the software on the dishPlayer so Dish customers could be satisfied. Back in 1999, my aunt almost bought a dishPlayer at Costco when she first became a Dish subscriber, but decided against the very high-tech DVR and it’s high price. Thankfully she avoided the pain and misery of Microsoft seeming to never support the product properly by never answering the Bat Phone from Dish headquarters. And by the way, I remember replay TV being stacked next to the Dish equipment at Costco back in 1999 and being really impressed with its abilities.

    Anyway, the DishPlayer 7000 was quite a fully featured product with all the similar bells and whistles on the TiVo and replay TV products. The dishPlayer, among other things, had attempted to make better use of accessing the internet for browsing through the DVR (using WebTV, I think, built-in). Also I seem to remember a keyboard that could be used with the dishPlayer. It also had a very good user interface, and I think it had a video of currently tuned content in the center or corner for some of its menus.

    Ironically those who did have the dishPlayer 7000 and subsequent 7200 models, actually loved the device and it’s advanced features when it worked, but of course Microsoft’s lack of proper support led some to give up on it, but sadly so. Once ties were severed between Dish and Microsoft, Dish attempted to support the device the most minimal way it could given that Dish did not have the source code from Microsoft, and Dish had reached the point where they were going to move people on to a different DVR product.

    I think it’s great that three entities came to market with three different DVR’s at about the same time and all with really good features. Ultimately Microsoft Ultimate TV died. Poetic Justice perhaps? TiVo and Dish continued to innovate, while poor replay tv is remembered with fondness because if it’s sharing and, if I remember correctly, its ability to edit out commercials? Since you were an owner of replay tv you’ll have to set us straight on how it handled the commercials.

    And the DVR is not dead, especially considering Amazon’s new entry into the DVR with its Fire Recast product with all the advantages of recordings stored locally in the home that will never be pulled from the lineup like several shows on Netflix have been that I wanted to watch but now can’t because Netflix doesn’t have them anymore due to losing the rights. Even my dear Aunt who has been a Netflix subscriber for years is now finding she’s running out of content to watch on Netflix and having to peruse Hulu, of all things, to find something to watch.

    I agree DVRs are fantastic still and it’s kind of fun to think of how far we’ve come in the last 20 years with DVRs. They still have their advantages over streaming services and Cloud DVR’s.

  24. Harry, the ReplayTV handled commercial skip very well in the later software updates. It usually was able to skip the ENTIRE commercial break in one button press.

    That plus the sharing between DVRs in the house (and via the internet) were killer features for me. I was sad when the company went away. I still have a T-shirt though.

  25. For me and my house, ReplayTV was way better than the rest. The grid was really good, the commercial skip was excellent, remote recording and viewing was available but the killer feature was sharing between units. Every TV in the house had a unit and they all could see and play what the other had (by ethernet). So sad it went away because Tivo took years to catch up. And, of course, the other “dvr”s from cable companies, etc., killed feature after feature. Hmmm, capitalism…..

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