Next month will mark the tenth anniversary of the first Personal Video Recorder (PVR) in Canada. On August 8th, 2001, Bell ExpressVu (now called Bell TV) launched the Model 5100 PVR, a satellite receiver that featured the ability to pause real-time television programs and "tapelessly" record almost 30 hours of standard definition television programming on a 40-gigabyte hard drive.
South of the border, the Digital Video Recorders (DVR), as they are called in the U.S., were announced at the 1999 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas by several manufacturers including TiVo which began shipping its first units on March 31, 1999.
Since their introduction, PVRs have found their way into about one-in-four Canadian Households and about 38 per cent of American homes.
A decade later, the PVRs offered by Bell TV and the major cable companies haven't changed much. Today's devices possess larger hard drives and can record high definition signals. However, the basic functionality remains unchanged.
Thanks to some new competition from telephone companies with their IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) services, Canadians can now get their hands on a whole new generation of advanced PVRs called "whole-home" or "multi-room" PVRs.
First launched by MTS in Manitoba in October of 2009, a whole-home DVR is a network-enabled digital set-top box that connects to the television signal coming into your home and then acts as a server or central brain to the rest of the system.
In the MTS implementation, the set-top box functions as a standalone PVR and as a recording or storage device for other set-top boxes in the home. Perhaps the most popular feature of whole-home PVR is the ability to record or playback programs from any television in your home. For example, provided each television in your home is connected to a networked set-top box, you could schedule a recording from the TV in the basement, begin watching it in the living room and then half way through, pause the show and pick up where you left off on the TV in the bedroom.
With a whole-home PVR, the family fight over who gets control of the PVR can be avoided. If you've recorded a show on the PVR but know your son and daughter is watching the TV in the living room, then just go to another TV and watch it there. Better yet, commandeer the big screen and send the kids to watch their show in the basement.
In addition to offering a central repository for recorded programming, whole-home PVR's also provide other useful features. For example MTS' "My PVR" feature lets subscribers add, change or delete video recordings on their PVR from any Internet-connected computer or select mobile device in the world.
The systems also offers three or four video streams that allow the family to watch and/or record multiple programs simultaneously.
Who Offers Whole-home PVR
In the U.S., major satellite, cable and IPTV companies have been introducing whole-home systems for the last several years. In Canada every IPTV provider - Bell Aliant, Bell Fibe, MTS, Sasktel, and Telus Optik - are now offering such systems.
Bell Satellite, the company that introduced the first PVR in Canada, and Rogers Cable, which was the first major cable company to offer an HD PVR, have yet to announce plans to launch whole-home PVR systems.
The most aggressive seller of whole-home systems in Canada has been Telus with its Optik HD PVR system. Thanks in part to advanced technological offerings such as whole-home PVR, the number of Telus subscribers has increased rapidly in the past 15 months. The number of Western Canadians subscribing to Telus TV has more than doubled from 170,000 at the end of 2009 to 358,000 by the end March 2011.
With the Optik system, subscribers can purchase a HD PVR, where all their recordings are stored, for $250, after which they can buy up to five secondary digital boxes for $150 each. The cost of a whole-home system on four televisions would be around $700. Optionally, Telus lets Xbox 360 owners use their video game console as a digital set-top box as a way of reducing costs.
In early May, hoping to stem losses to Telus TV, Shaw Cable announced its first whole-home PVR system. The company launched the system in Calgary but has since rolled it out to Edmonton and promises it will be available to all Shaw customers by the end of the year.
More expensive but more robust than competing IPTV systems, the Gateway system, rather than sitting next to your television, is installed close to where cable comes into your home. Once it's connected, the Gateway connects and communicates to one or more diskless set-top boxes, called portals, using the cable wiring in your home. Each portal connects to your television in the same manner that existing cable set top boxes connect to your television, one for each TV in your home.
The aptly named Gateway is more than just a whole-home PVR. It's actually a multi-function device that includes the processing power hardware necessary to deliver and store high definition video signals plus a phone terminal for digital phone service, a DOCSIS 3 modem for internet service and a battery backup.
By combining all the functionality in one box, the Gateway means Shaw customers won't need to buy a separate modem for internet service or install a separate device for cable phone service.
The Gateway also has a significant bandwidth advantage over Telus's product, which could be a factor in homes with several televisions. While Telus can record 3 HD Video streams simultaneously, Shaw says the Gateway can connect up to 6 TVs and can support a total of nine HD video streams at once. For example, you could watch live TV on one set, record five HD shows and play three additional shows all at the same time.
The downside of the Shaw Gateway is price: It sells for $598 with additional portals each costing $178. Hardware for a four-television home would be $1,310 - close to double the cost for Telus Hardware.
While the price may seem high, consider this: A decade ago, I bought one of the original Bell ExpressVu 5100 PVRs, which only recorded standard definition signals on a puny 40 GB drive, for $699.