What is a PVR?

Danny Rawles
Front view of the Humax DTR 1010 PVR

A Personal Video Recorder or PVR is a set-top box that plugs into your TV and allows you to record TV programmes at the touch of a button.

Imagine a VCR just a million times better!

PVRs are like your very own personal recording assistant ensuring you never miss your favourite programme, film or series again. Most are so simple to use you'll wonder how you ever lived without one.

So it's time to ditch that old Video Cassette Recorder and start watching and recording TV 21st Century style!

The set-top boxes you get with Sky, Virgin Media and BT Vision are all classed as PVRs as well, however for the purposes of this article we'll just be focusing on non-subscription Freeview+ PVRs as these are the most straight forward and cost effective way to jump into the digital recording revolution.

It's a TV revolution

If you've never experienced the wonders of a digital TV recorder before let me enlighten you.

These little set-top boxes have revolutionised how we as consumers watch and record TV. I don't say that lightly, but I really feel they're worthy of the term revolution because you are no longer at the mercy of the TV schedule (to a certain extent) and you can watch everything in your own time and at your own pace.

The other benefit of course is that you never need to sit through another advert again. That has got to be worth the price of admission alone!

PVRs shouldn't be confused with basic Freeview set-top boxes which only let you watch digital terrestrial TV. A PVR does of course provide this functionality as well and a whole lot more besides.

No clunky tapes

VHS Cassette Tape with a red cross through it

A PVR is sort of like a mini-computer. It contains a processor, some memory a hard drive and a basic operating system... but before you go running for the hills at the thought of having to learn how to use yet another computer, they're really not complicated at all. The key point is they use an internal hard drive.

The hard drive allows you to record and store TV programmes literally at the touch of a button and importantly without the need for clunky cassette tapes or even more modern recording media such as recordable DVDs or Blu-rays.

There's no fear of recording over your favourite film or scrambling around trying to find a blank tape. The PVR will take care of everything and will keep recording until the hard drive is full.

How much can I record?

Generally speaking, 1GB of storage equates to roughly 36 minutes of Standard Definition footage and 15 minutes of High Definition footage. So a 500GB hard drive can record and store roughly 300 hours of SD and 125 hours of HD.

That works out to about 75 (4-hour) VHS tapes for SD and 31 tapes for HD! So you have to record a hell of a lot before the hard drive gets full.

A recording is not for life

Something that may not be immediately obvious is you can't permanently keep or share anything you've recorded because the programme data is recorded directly onto the internal hard drive.

It's not like a VCR where everything is recorded on removable cassette tapes. With a VCR you could store, copy and share as much as you wanted safe in the knowledge that whatever you'd recorded would also work on any other VCR.

Yes you can obviously keep your programmes on the hard drive but should it fail (very rare but can happen) or the machine itself develops a fault, then it's likely your recordings will be lost forever.

Some PVRs do offer ways to copy programmes to an external source such as a USB drive but this only works for SD programmes. HD programmes are encrypted due to copyright laws.

Combo recorders

If you want to be able to archive your recordings you might want to consider a DVD/Hard Drive or a Blu-ray/Hard Drive combo recorder.

These PVRs are generally more expensive but they allow recording onto the hard drive as well as recording or archiving onto DVD or Blu-ray discs .

The other advantage of a combo PVR is you can also watch DVDs/Blu-rays so you don't need a separate PVR and DVD/Blu-ray player.

The Panasonic DMR-PWT530EB front view

Panasonic do a fantastic range of award winning Blu-ray/Hard Drive PVRs which are well worth a look.

Check out the Panasonic DMR-PWT530EB a fantastic 3D Blu-ray player with a 500GB HDD and twin Freeview+ HD tuners

Freeview TV guide built-in (EPG)

All PVRs have a built-in Electronic Programme Guide or EPG. The EPG shows you what's on over the next 8 days for every single channel and radio station.

(So while you're throwing out that old VCR it's time to cancel that subscription to the Radio Times as well!)

This is where the magic happens because if you spot a programme that you're interested in, you can simple select it to record.

No video+ codes, no looking up times and manually entering in the start and stop times, just highlight the programme you want to record and press OK.

All PVRs work slightly differently but the principle is usually the same, navigate to the programme in the EPG, then press Select, OK, Record etc. to automatically set the timer.

The Humax HDR-FOX T2 Electronic Programme Guide
The Humax HDR-FOX T2 Electronic Programme Guide

Watching, Pausing and Rewinding Live TV

You may not be aware but a PVR isn't just a recorder, it's a way to watch TV as well.

Don't be seduced by that nice new digital Freeview tuner sat inside your shiny new top-of-the-range TV because unless your TV has PVR functionality built-in, then you should be using your PVR to watch TV as well as record.

You can then enjoy the magic that is pausing and rewinding live TV!

Now if you've never heard of this before and never experienced it, it actually sounds like quite a crazy concept. How on earth can you pause and rewind live TV?

It's actually fairly straight forward. Whatever programme you are currently watching is automatically recorded (or buffered) to the internal hard drive in the background.


You can think of it like watching a live recording. When you pause a live programme the PVR automatically switches from the live stream to the recording and continues to record the live programme in the background so you won't miss anything.

When you resume play you are now basically watching the recording. The switch between the live stream and recording is all handled automatically by the PVR and is so seamless you'd probably never notice.


Rewinding follows the same principle as pausing, however you can only rewind to the point you started watching. For example if you've been watching something for 10 minutes, you can only rewind 10 minutes.

Most PVRs also have a maximum buffer which is basically a small amount of hard drive space set aside and usually works out to between 30 and 60 minutes.

Keep in mind that as soon as you switch channels, the buffer is cleared and reset for the new channel. So in other words you can't channel hop between different channels and expect rewind to work across previous channels.


Yes you can also fast forward! Of course this only works if you've rewound the programme or paused for a length of time.

Fast Forward will then catch-up to the live broadcast at which point, normal play will resume.

Design and features

PVRs come in all different shapes, sizes and prices. Of course not all PVRs are created equal and I wouldn't recommend basing your buying decision on price alone.

Here are a few things to consider:

Freeview or Freesat?
Freeview is your standard digital TV through an aerial. Freesat is very similar to Freeview but is accessed via a satellite dish.
How many tuners?
The more tuners the more channels you can record at the same time. Most PVRs have two tuners meaning you can record two programmes at the same time
How big is the hard drive?
The bigger the hard drive, the more you can record and keep before you have to start deleting stuff
Do you want just Standard Definition or High Definition as well?
Depending on your setup, SD might be OK but if you have an HDTV then I'd definitely recommend an HD PVR for improved picture and sound quality.
Do you want internet catch-up TV built-in?
If you do then I'd recommend a YouView PVR.
Do you want to be able to archive and keep recordings?
You'll need a combo PVR recorder for this that includes a writeable DVD or Blu-ray drive.


Product Features Best Price*
Panasonic DMR-PWT530EB
  • Freeview+ HD
  • 500 GB HDD
  • Two Tuners
  • Smart 3D Blu-ray Player
  • Blu-ray Recorder
Humax HDR-1000S Freesat+ HD
  • Freesat HD
  • 500 GB HDD
  • Two Tuners
Humax HDR-2000T - Freeview+ HD
  • Freeview+ HD
  • 500 GB HDD
  • Two Tuners
Humax DTR-T2000 - YouView HD
  • YouView HD
  • 500 GB HDD
  • Two Tuners

*Prices correct at the time of writing

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