No question, one of the most innovative technologies of the past decade came from a tiny company named TiVo (TIVO ). It put a big hard drive next to your TV so that you could record shows to watch later, or pause or rewind them while you were watching.
Now, the big consumer-electronics companies think they have figured out a better way. They've put the hard drive in the same box as a DVD recorder -- a neat, if expensive, way to replace your old VCR. Some products include on-screen program guides so that you can set shows to record with a click of the remote.
But it turns out that the best of this new breed of would-be TiVo-killers relies on TiVo technology itself. That's Toshiba's RS-TX20, a $470 DVD recorder with a 120-gigabyte hard drive that can store about 140 hours of TV programming. The TiVo software, in fact, is why Doug Curts, a security guard at Churchill Downs (CHDN ) in Louisville, bought the Toshiba. "They've got it down pat. They make everything easy," he says.
This recorder comes with the little-known TiVo Basic service, which allows easy TV recording but doesn't require a subscription. TiVo hopes you'll upgrade to full service, which costs $12.95 a month and includes extras, such as searching for programs by name or recording only first-run shows, not repeats. But the bare-bones service does the trick if all you're after is an easy way to record shows and copy them onto DVDs.
And it does it better than its competitors. Most of the recorders that provide a program guide use the free TV Guide On Screen service, a jumble of channels that may not include all the channels you receive. What's more, the guide doesn't work with satellite TV and some digital cable boxes. TV Guide bests TiVo Basic in only two ways: You get eight days of listings instead of three, and you don't need a phone jack by the TV to get its guide.
Among the recorders that don't use TiVo, perhaps the best is the $600 Philips (PHG ) HDRW720. It comes with a 120-gigabyte hard drive that, like the TiVo machines, continually records the program you're watching. That means you can pause the TV to answer the phone and later pick up the program right where you've left off. Then you can fast-forward through commercials to catch up to live television.
Panasonic's $700 DMR-E95H, which also uses the flawed TV Guide service, has a few glitches of its own. Its Direct Navigator function, for example, displays a screen with thumbnails of programs you've recorded, but from there it's not obvious how to burn them onto a DVD.
If you've learned to program your VCR, you might be happy with a low-end recorder without a program guide, such as Pioneer's DVR-520H. But don't expect the ease of one-click recording: You have to manually set record times, or punch in VCR Plus codes from the newspaper.
It turns out that, if you're looking for a would-be TiVo without the monthly fee, your best bet is to find one that runs TiVo Basic. Try as they can, other search-record-burn schemes just aren't quite ready for prime time.
By Jay Greene