Digital video recorders (DVR) are consumer electronics devices that are able to record video and save it in a digital format to storage devices such as disk drives, USB flash drives, SD memory cards or other local or networked mass storage devices.
The technology behind the DVR is rather simple. It is a hard drive driven by a customized operating system. In the case of TiVo, for example, its machines run on a highly modified Linux installation that resides on the hard disk.
The DVR marks a vast improvement in the way the consumer records television. A major improvement the DVR has over VCRs or DVD recorders, is that the DVR is tapless. Television is recorded directly onto the hard drive, so no additional expenses are required like purchasing blank media, such as tapes or DVDs.
Another improvement the DVR offers, which is heavily marketed in product advertisements, is the ability to "pause live television". Though it may puzzle some in wondering how it is accomplished, it is quite easily understood once explained. The DVR has a live television buffer that is constantly recording the channel that the television is on. Generally, the DVR will keep about an hour of the past programming on that channel, so for example, if the television was on a channel and you began watching twenty minutes into a movie, you could "rewind" the movie to the beginning to watch the whole film. The caveat to this is that the buffer is emptied every time you change the channel, so you would not be able to rewind the movie if you were not already on that channel. So pausing live television is not actually occurring, when the DVR is un-paused, the recorded program in the buffer is what is being viewed.
The first DVRs were launched at the 1999 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas by ReplayTV and TiVo. Though ReplayTV won the "Best of Show" award in the video category that year, TiVo went on to be more commercially successful. ReplayTV still exists and is currently focusing on targeting PC users to turn their PC into a DVR. TiVo shipped their first units on March 31, 1999 and is still plays a major rule in the DVR market today.
The above, slightly-outdated, chart above demonstrates the ever expanding and growing DVR market. As can be seen, the DVR market has yet to reach its apex. The chart shows that in 2010, approximately 34.8% of households in the United States will have DVR service. It is also known that as of April 2012, more than 40% of the viewers in the United States have a DVR service for their televisions. This further shows that not only are DVRs not peaking, they have yet to even show signs of starting to level off or slow down.
This is a multi-billion dollar market, in fact, as of April 2013, the set-top box DVR market is a $4.6 billion industry and it appears to be only increasing.
The DVR market is spread out over stand-alone products like TiVo, products provided by a third party, like cable and satellite service providers, and software that can turn your PC into a DVR, like Windows Media Center and SageTV.
Because of this diversity, it is difficult to pin the top players, but the same three DVRs keep coming up when searching the top rated or best reviewed. The first two are provided by third parties, DirecTV and Dish Network.
By far the most widely associated and known company when it comes to the DVR marketplace is TiVo. Though, as of 2012, TiVo is running at about half of its 2006 peak of more than four million subscribers, it is still a force to be reckoned with. In fact, TiVo holds the patent regarding its DVR technology and relies heavily on its patents to create licensing deals to earn revenue. There have been many lawsuits resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars for TiVo.
Examples of settled lawsuits awarded to TiVo:
The future of the digital video recorder looks brights. We are already seeing the development and incorporation of multiple tuners to allow multiple programs to be recorded simultaneously. According to toptenreviews.com the DirecTV HMC HD model has one terabyte of storage and can record up to 5 shows simultaneously. The TiVo Premiere XL4 has two terabytes of storage and can record up to 4 shows simultaneously. With the continually dropping prices for hard disk space, there does not appear to be much in limiting the storage capacity which can allow for as much tuners that the consumer would ever want or need.
Even with the largest hard drive you could imagine or want, it still would not be available to you if you were out of town, for example. Or, let's say something happens to your physical DVR unit, like it breaks or falls victim to fire or water damage. Then, all of your saved programming is gone! Well, a company new to the DVR marketplace, Boxee, launched its new $99 set-top box that supports unlimited cloud DVR storage. Unfortuately, it only works in the eight largest television markets and only works with over-the-air broadcasts. By the end of the year, Boxee says it will roll out service to 26 markets. Whether or not Boxee itself will be relevant in the future, you can only speculate, however this product could serve to be the beginning of the next big innovation in DVR technology. Imagine having all of your programming stored in a cloud that you could access anywhere and would be safe from hardware damage or failure. This could very well be the future of the DVR, only time will tell, and hopefully it tells a good story.