Toshiba DR570 DVD Recorder

I bought a Toshiba DR570 DVD Recorder to be my poor man’s DVR.  After theorizing about saving money by giving up cable TV, I quickly learned that I missed having a DVR after living without cable.  I love  having fewer channels, but I do miss the on-screen guide and being able to record one show while I watch another, or to record a show when I’m not home. 

DVD Recorders aren’t popular like the old VCRs once were, but they function in the same way – the media you record on, the DVD, is just different, but the setup and operation is the same.  You have to program the timer to record a future show, or go to the show and hit record to snag what’s showing on screen now.  It’s no where near as convenient as a DVR – but if the DR570 had an electronic programming guide, it would be close.

A DVD recorder works just like the old VHS machines, and the switch to digital TV has affected them too.  You can no longer use old VHS or DVD recorders with analog tuners.  I had a perfectly good Samsung DVD recorder that worked with analog signals and my Comcast DVR, but doesn’t work with over-the-air digital TV – and that’s why I had to buy the DR570 – it has a tuner to receive over the air digital signals.

Because the DR570 has a digital tuner and my Samsung DLP TV has a digital tuner, I can record one show and watch another.  One antenna works for both.  The indoor HDTV antenna plugs into the DR570 DVD Recorder, and then a second coax cable goes from the DR570 to the Samsung TV.  This pass-through arrangement doesn’t interfere with the reception on the TV when the DR570 is off or while recording.  The DVD Recorder has a HDMI output, so switching to it just means pressing the Source button on my TV remote.

There is a picture quality difference between the two tuners which makes me think there might be a lot of variation in the electronics to digital tuning of over-the-air signals.  The DR570 picture seems softer than what I get from the Samsung TV, but quite nice.  The recorded quality varies greatly between the 5 recording modes (1, 2, 4, 6 and 8 hours).  Two hour mode is OK, but one hour mode is so impressive that I try to use it exclusively.  I can accept two hour mode, but four, six and eight hour modes are unacceptable by my picky standards.  Now my wife wouldn’t complain about four hour mode, but at the four hour mode I see  artifacts from fast moving elements of the picture – even people’s lips moving when they are talking, I find this annoying. 

I’ve also learned that turning on progressive mode within the DR570 settings menu greatly improves the recorded results.  One hour mode is as good as a DVD on a high definition TV, but not Blu-Ray quality, about equal to HD DVR output.  The output fills the wide screen HDTV and looks like high definition TV. 

Neither of my two digital TV tuners comes with the over-the-air TV Guide.  My friend Mike just got a new digital HDTV with a TV Guide brand on-screen guide built in.  I wonder why neither of my digital tuners has this feature because it would make living with over-the-air TV so more of a luxury.  It would also make recording a show on a DVD Recorder a snap, like using a DVR.  The David Pogue article I link to above suggests that manufacturers don’t want to compete with the cable TV industry, and this might be true.  The broadcast of a electronic program guide is required by the FCC, but the display of the guide by TV makers is not.  Bummer. 

If free over the air TV came with an electronic program guide that worked with a cheap hard-disk recorder I wouldn’t miss cable TV at all.  A TiVo would be the perfect over-the-air DVR solution, except TiVo wants $12.95 a month for their program guide, which jinxes the deal for me.   Many people make their own TiVo by building a Home Theater PC and using one of the many Internet program guides.  I might do this in the future, but for now want to avoid complexity and cost.  My goal is to stay on the path to simplicity – if you can call our high tech world simple.

The DR570 has turned out to be a good solution as my poor man’s DVR, but if it had come with the TV Guide On Screen feature it would have been fantastic.  DVD disks clutter my TV stand and are annoying to keep up with, but they do the job – I don’t miss my TV shows, and I can record now and watch latter (and skip commercials).   The TV purist in me wishes I’d only watched TV in real time and just let go of the anguish of missing TV shows.  My Zen mind tells me to let go, and let time flow naturally, but I’m still a grasshopper.

DVR +R or –R discs are dirt cheap.  Recording isn’t as convenient as a DVR, but if you don’t do a lot of recording it’s no big deal.  Recording three or four shows from one evening on one disk in four hour mode is possible, but it’s work, and the quality of the results is poor.  An electronic programming guide would reduce the work, but not improve the video quality.  Four-hour quality is OK if you don’t want to miss your shows, but not to save them or show off high definition TV to your low definition TV friends.

The DR570 cost me $159.95, or ten months of DVR service on Comcast.  I selected this Toshiba unit at Amazon sight unseen because many customers gave it positive reviews.  However, I agree completely with all the complaints about the terrible remote.  The buttons are small, oddly arranged, with hard to see labels.  Engineers working on the next model should overhaul the remote and add TV Guide On Screen.  A killer device would be to add a DVR drive to the mix with a dual digital tuner.  That way you could record to disk for convenience, and burn to DVD when you want to save a show or make sure your friends didn’t miss something cool.  Content creators will be horrified at this idea.  A DVD Recorder/DVR combination designed to work with over-the-air broadcasts and over-the-air TV Guide would probably convince a lot of people they really don’t need  their cable/satellite services.  I have no desire to see these businesses go under, but there’s a lot of people out there that don’t want or need the fire hose blast of hundreds of TV channels.

One nice side-effect of the DVD Recorder is if I record a show and want someone else to watch it, I can just give them the disc.  That’s better than a DVR.  Or I can save it to watch again in the future.  I keep a Sharpie by the TV and mark my discs as I record them and store them on an empty DVD spindle.  The DVD Recorder can use DVD-RW discs if you want to watch, erase and record again, and I have some of those, but I’ve found in my quest for watch less TV, to also try and record less.  The DVR made TV watch too easy, encouraging the bad habit of cramming huge amounts of TV into my life.  Moderation is now my goal.  I like to think before I record any show:  Is it DVD worthy.


JWH – 9/26/9

Saving Money on Cable TV and Internet

We pay $163 for cable TV and high speed internet service.  That bothers me, because, for every month we pay $163 now, it means one month we won’t have $163 after we retire.  When my wife and I get too old to work and only have a fixed income, we will probably wish for all those frivolous dollars we once spent.

I know quite a number of young people earning little and older people, either retired, or near retirement age, earning little, that have given up cable and/or Internet access.  I’ve also read it’s one of the first bills to cut when families are downsizing because of the economy.  A lot of young people I know never seemed to develop the cable addition that folks my age have acquired.  So they will spend big dollars on cell phones and Internet, but scrimp on TV.  I also know a number of people now that have no cable TV at all.  Others have given up house phones and Internet too.

If you combine the house phone bill, cell phones bills, Internet access and the cable/satellite TV bill, telecommunication becomes a huge piece of the monthly budget pie.  In our household, it’s bigger than the utility bill or car notes we had in the past, second only to the mortgage.  Last night I watch ABC World News, three episodes of Weeds from a Netflix disc, and recorded an old black and white movie off of TCM.   We pay $4 a day for our cable.  Much of what I watch could be had from over-the-air TV or Netflix.

Free TV

I have helped a number of women in their fifties set up digital TV boxes so they could watch free TV.  This is the absolute cheapest way to have TV, but you only get a handful of channels.  Depending on signal, indoor antennas can be easy to use or annoying.  So far I haven’t met anyone wanting to spend the money on an outdoor antenna.  If you’re lucky, you can get ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, FOX and several other digital stations in HD.  This free option does make life much simpler.  And when the antenna works well, I’m very impressed with the quality of the picture.

Free TV + Netflix

Upping the budget to $8.99 a month, you can get a Netflix subscription and see nearly all movies and a good selection of premium cable shows like Big Love, Mad Men and True Blood, but just delayed by several months.  Most cable TV shows now come out on DVD, so if can wait for your favorite shows, you can watch them in order and without commercials.  This offers the best selection for the least money.

Free TV + Netflix + Internet

If you’re willing to budget another $25-50 for DSL or cable Internet, you can expand your options even more.  If you must have the Internet, then this option is a no-brainer.  Trying to find low-cost Internet access is hard.  There are $10 monthly modem services, but they require a house phone, and many people have ditched landlines to save dough.  I have heard it’s possible to get low-cost DSL without local phone service but it’s a difficult option to arrange since AT&T and Baby Bells push bundled services.  And if you crave the Internet, then you usually crave fast Internet, and that’s about $50 a month.

Now, if you have fast Internet, and you’re willing to be a Do-It-Yourselfer, you can buy or build a Home Theater PC.  This gives you a DVR plus access to streaming TV and downloadable video, including high definition videos.  Think of this as free, on-demand, Internet TV.  Hundreds of thousands of people are experimenting with this now, and cable companies are getting worried.  Internet video quality is constantly improving, with HD becoming common.

With free services like Boxee, Miro and Vuze and a HDMI or DVI cable from your laptop or computer to your HD TV, you can develop your own free on-demand TV library or select from a large lineup of streaming network shows. 

Video is quickly becoming the new medium for communicating over the web.  People have been watching video on their computer screens for years, but now people are finding ways to make their computers into set-top boxes connected to their TVs and controlled by remotes, so they can watch TV as God intended, from the comforts of their La-Z-Boy.  

Cable and satellite TV providers are worried that the Internet will soon provide people with all the TV they want and they will be out of business.  You’d think they’d want to offer a better service for less money to compete.  Follow this link to a Google search for many articles about living without cable TV.  A lot of people are doing it.  I like the concept of cable TV, so I won’t be abandoning it just yet, at least not until season 2 of True Blood is finished.  I just want to find ways to bring down the cost of cable, but if I can’t, I’ll consider abandoning it completely.

Cable/Satellite TV “a la carte”

People often wonder why they can’t lower their cable bill by just buying the channels they love to watch.  Most people watch a handful of favorite channels but have to wade through hundreds of TV and other cable services they just don’t want.  I get 200+ channels but probably watch less than 12.

There’s two obstacles to this problem.  One, if people bought only what they wanted, many cable networks would go out of business, so cable providers fight this option.  Second, as long as cable companies must provide analog channels, those stations you get when you plug your cable wire directly into your cable-ready TV and scan the channels, then they can’t sell channels separately.   When cable companies go to 100% digital, a la carte buying will be technically possible.

Right now, a la carte channel buying is not possible, so it’s only a dream option to save money.

My Dream TV and Cable Internet Service

I don’t mind paying for what I want.  I think my current $163 cable/internet bill is too high!  It should be closer to $75.  What I would love is a perfect convergence of TV and Internet.  I want to buy a la carte just the exact TV networks I want, and I want to own my own equipment so I can customize it.  I’d like a Home Theater PC that played and burned DVDs/Blu-Ray discs, was a DVR recorder for 2 terabytes of shows, played all my own digital media, including MP3 songs, JPG photographs and any collected videos I made or bought, plus streamed music and videos from the Internet.  That means my entertainment system would consist of a TV, home theater PC and speakers, all controlled by one remote.  That would simplify my setup greatly, and save electricity.  Right now I have:

  • HDTV, with remote
  • DVR/cable box with remote
  • Receiver with remote
  • Media player with remote
  • Blu-ray player with remote
  • CD/SACD player with remote

My wife bought me a very nice Logitech programmable universal remote, but I never liked it.  Life was so much easier back when I was growing up.  We had one TV, three channels and no remotes.  Life has gotten too complicated.  I dream of living with one remote and no more than 12 fantastic high-definition TV channels with no damn commercials.  Infinite variety could come from Internet TV.  With fewer TV networks, the quality of TV production should go up.  I would get better shows for my time and money.

JWH – 8/14/9

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