December 19, 2007

DVD & Hard Drive Recorder Shopping:

Recording television programs has never been easier, thanks to a new crop of DVD and hard disk recorders with capacities of two to 400 hours. But some carry only 90-day warranties, which makes service contracts even more appealing.

Decades ago, the video cassette recorder was the thing to have. Plug it into the cable television network or connect it to a roof antenna and you could tape all your favorite programs and watch them at a more convenient time. Time shifting of TV programs became such a big issue that it even found its way into the caseload of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The VCR has now given way to the DVD, but the question of how to record television programming for later viewing has become somewhat complicated. Recordable DVD discs may sell at a price of two for a dollar, but they hold only two hours of recording. So a DVD recorder could turn into a rather messy way to time-shift lots of shows per week. One could cut the recording quality to fit more onto each disc, but why lower the river when you can raise the bridge?

Cable companies have begun selling and renting digital video recorders that contain computer-like hard disk drives with capacities up to 400 hours. Most of those units also involve some sort of subscription to a channel guide that helps to simplify the scheduling of recordings to a few clicks. This makes it extremely easy to time-shift lots of material, but it also means there will be an ongoing cost for doing so. Surely there must be some hard disk-driven units for sale that aren't tied into either a cable TV company rental plan or a monthly subscription fee?

Most Are Tied to a Subscription

It turns out the independent offerings are few and far between, at least in the United States during this holiday shopping season. To complement and complete our recent round of digital camera and camcorder shopping, Warranty Week went in search of units that 1) contained a built-in TV tuner and 2) could record TV programming onto a blank DVD and/or a hard disk drive. All had to be available for sale, though some units were primarily rentals that were closely coupled to subscriber agreements.

We found 15 manufacturers offering some 47 different units that contained both a tuner and a disc/disk recorder. We found three variants on product warranty:

  • 90 days parts and labor;
  • one year parts and 90 days labor; and
  • one year for both parts and labor.

By far, the most common warranty was one year parts and 90 days labor, but there were a surprising number of full one year parts and labor warranties as well. Normally, we run just a representative sampling of the offerings of each manufacturer, but in Table 1 we're listing the warranty durations for every tuner-and-disc/disk unit we could find for sale.

Table 1
DVD & Hard Disk Recorder Warranties

  Brand, Make & Model  Parts  Warranty  (years)  Labor  Warranty  (years)

  Califone International DVD-400 1 1
  Digital Networks ReplayTV Series 2000 0.25 0.25
  Digital Networks ReplayTV Series 3000 0.25 0.25
  Digital Networks ReplayTV Series 4000 0.25 0.25
  Digital Networks ReplayTV Series 4500 0.25 0.25
  Digital Networks ReplayTV Series 5000 0.25 0.25
  Digital Networks ReplayTV Series 5500 0.25 0.25
  DirecTV HD-DVR250 0.25 0.25
  DirecTV HR20 0.25 0.25
  DirecTV R15 0.25 0.25
  EchoStar Dish Network DVR 625 1 1
  EchoStar Dish Network ViP622 1 1
  Humax Co. Ltd. T800 1 0.25
  JVC DR-MV99B 1 0.25
  LG Electronics DR787T 1 0.25
  LG Electronics RC797T 1 0.25
  Lite-On IT DD-A110G 1 0.25
  Lite-On IT DD-A500GX 1 0.25
  Lite-On IT HD-A740GX 1 0.25
  Lite-On IT HD-A760GX 1 0.25
  Lite-On IT LVC-9016G 1 0.25
  Lite-On IT LVW-1105HC 1 0.25
  Lite-On IT LVW-1107HC1 1 0.25
  Lite-On IT LVW-5045 1 0.25
  Lite-On IT LVW-5115GHC+ 1 0.25
  Lite-On IT LVW-5116GHC+ 1 0.25
  Panasonic DMR-EH75VS 1 1
  Panasonic DMR-EZ17S 1 1
  Panasonic DMR-EZ27K 1 1
  Panasonic DMR-EZ37VS 1 1
  Panasonic DMR-EZ47VK 1 1
  Philips DVDR3475/37 1 1
  Philips DVDR3505/37 1 1
  Philips DVDR3545V/37 1 1
  Philips DVDR3575H/37 1 1
  RCA DRC8335 1 1
  Samsung DVD-AR650 1 0.25
  Sony DHG-HDD250 1 0.25
  Sony DHG-HDD500 1 0.25
  Sony RDR-GXD455 1 1
  Sony RDR-VXD655 1 1
  TiVo Series 2 DT DVR 1 0.25
  TiVo HD DVR 1 0.25
  TiVo Series 3 HD DVR 1 0.25
  Toshiba D-VR650 1 0.25
  Toshiba RD-XS35 1 0.25
  Toshiba RD-XS55 1 0.25

The Digital Networks North America Co. and the DirecTV satellite television company are the two with 90-day warranties on their units. Humax Co. Ltd., JVC, LG Electronics, Lite-On IT, Samsung, TiVo, and Toshiba provide one-year warranties on parts and 90-day warranties on labor. Califone International, EchoStar, Panasonic, Philips, and RCA provide one-year warranties on both parts and labor. And Sony provides the full one-year plan for its DVD-only recorders and the split one-year parts and 90-days labor plan for its combination DVD and hard disk recorders.

There were numerous additional units that could record onto DVD discs and VCR tapes, but they did not include a built-in tuner. Some could operate and control a cable TV company's set-top box through infra-red commands, but we excluded these for one very good reason: that wouldn't allow the customer to watch one show and tape another, unless they rented an additional set-top box just for their DVD recorder. Some required subscriptions to a program guide and/or a cable TV network, while others did not. Of course, if the unit is rented to end users, it ceases to be a warranty issue for those end users. But the box still has a warranty.

Which Units Include Tuners?

It was frustratingly difficult to separate the units with tuners from those without. One manufacturer, in fact, listed a product "with built-in tuner" when in fact it had none. But that was explained in a footnote to the specifications. What we ended up doing was searching the user manuals for not only the correct warranty information but also the mention of either an NTSC or ATSC tuner (the latter is for digital TV). If it had neither, we put it in the tuner-less category, which was well-covered in last year's DVD player roundup.

Of the 47 units listed above, we found 21 units from nine manufacturers that included at least one tuner and at least one hard disk drive. One unit included four tuners, which meant its owner could watch one show while recording three others. And with its 200-hour capacity, it would be a long time before that disk was full.

But here's where there was yet another parting of the ways. The great thing about the old tape VCRs was that when the tape was full, you could either rewind it and start filling it up again, or you could put in another blank tape and paste a label onto the full tape. With some of these digital video recorders, there's no way to burn a favorite program onto an optical disc and put it away for posterity.

It may be a small difference for some people, but for others it could be a deal-breaker. Combine the lack of permanence with the idea of monthly rentals and you get the impression that some of these DVR units are really designed to replace Blockbuster or Netflix subscriptions -- not the old analog VCR that allowed you to tape, erase, and archive at will. Also, although the jump from mini-tape camcorders to full-size VHS cassette players was neither smooth nor easy, it was at least possible. Some of these DVR units have no input but the TV network.

Six Hard Drive and DVD Recorders

So we screened out the units that had no other input or output mechanism except the TV, and were left with only six hard disk recorders that also had the capability to send output to a built-in DVD recorder and could also accept input from an external source such as a camcorder (or an old-fashioned VCR).

Those six units are: the Lite-On IT HD-A740GX and the HD-A760GX; the Panasonic DMR-EH75VS; the Philips DVDR3575H/37; and the Toshiba RD-XS35 and RD-XS55. We shopped around, and incredibly, none of the six were what we'd call widely available. But the one that we'd call the least unavailable was the Philips DVDR3575H/37, which we found for sale at some 14 different retailers.

Incredibly, only eight of those retailers sold extended warranties for the Philips unit. Most of the six who did not were known to sell extended warranties for other product lines. But the bigger story was all the retailers who chose to either not sell hard disk/DVD disc "combo" recorders, or who chose not to sell the Philips brand. Any of those lists would include many more than eight entries.

In Table 2, we've listed the eight retailers who sold both the Philips unit and a two- or three-year extended warranty for it. In Table 3, we've listed the four retailers who also sold a four- or five-year extended warranty. Both tables are listed in order of the relative price of the extended warranty, from lowest to highest as a percentage of the product's price.

Table 2
Philips Model DVDR3575H/37 DVD Recorder
Product & Extended Warranty Price Comparisons
(for Two- and Three-Year Service Contracts)

  Retailer  DVD Recorder
Price in $ 
Extended Warranty
 Price in % 
Extended Warranty
 Price in $

  Wal-Mart $330 5% $18
  J&R Electronics $300 8% $25
  Target $330 9% $29
  Circuit City $290 19% $55
  Best Price Audio Video $306 19% $59 $300 20% $60
  CDW $325 22% $70 $299 31% $92

Readers will notice that because the product's price varied within a relatively narrow range ($290 to $330), there was no difference between the rankings of the extended warranties by percentage or by dollar amount. But if there were a fourth column that contained an addition of the product and the service contract price, one would see that J&R Electronics had the lowest-priced bundle at $325 for the recorder and a three-year extended warranty. That bundle's price was a few dollars less than, Target, or Wal-Mart wanted for the recorder alone.

In Table 3, we're looking at the few retailers who dared to insure the product for longer terms. We have nothing to say about the long-term reliability of these combination hard drive/DVD recorders, but just the fact that we could find only four offers of both the product and a four- or five-year service contract should serve as a warning. These combo products must be either too new for the market, too hard to sell, or too difficult to keep running over the long term as opposed to DVD-only or hard-disk-only recorders.

Table 3
Philips Model DVDR3575H/37 DVD Recorder
Product & Extended Warranty Price Comparisons
(for Four- and Five-Year Service Contracts)

  Retailer  DVD Recorder
Price in $ 
Extended Warranty
 Price in % 
Extended Warranty
 Price in $

  J&R Electronics $300 17% $50 $300 27% $80
  Circuit City $290 31% $90
  Best Price Audio Video $306 32% $99

Note that all four offers fall into what we'd call the "normal" range for products powered by hard drives or optical discs. For while there may not be many moving parts in today's flat screens or digital cameras, there are many spots in a DVD- or hard drive-based unit where heat and friction can do their work. So although they're digital, they're also mechanical, so they won't last forever. And 15% to 33% is a typical price range for a four- or five-year service contract on something like a hard drive-equipped laptop.

That's the problem: the categories are mixing. CDs were for music. Then along came the CD-ROM for software. DVDs were for movies, but then along came the recorders and the DVD drives for computers. Hard drives were always a species of the computer world. But then along came TiVo. In fact, that Panasonic DMR-EH75VS also contains a VCR recorder. Talk about crossing category boundaries!

Happy New Year to All!

This completes our fifth year of publishing Warranty Week, and marks the fifth opportunity for us to pass on our wish for a happy holiday season and a healthy and prosperous new year for all our readers and sponsors.

We began in November 2002 with 36 readers and one sponsor, and now we have well over 5,000 email subscribers in at least 60 countries, and close to a dozen major sponsors. An unknown number of additional readers are consuming content on the Web at a rate of more than 15,000 pages served per week.

Over the past several years we've tried to quantify both the warranty costs of manufacturers and the warranty durations of the products they sell. Early in the new year we'll revisit the manufacturer's costs, updating the mid-year claims and accruals report with first a nine-month snapshot and then in late March both a full year and a comprehensive five-year review.

Just in time for what will be the busiest shopping day of the year, our roundup of product warranty durations is nearing completion. While there are numerous additional product categories to add in the future, the list below hits upon most of the major subdivisions of the consumer electronics, computer, and automobile industries, which we believe account for well over half the world's warranty costs. Enjoy!

Table 4
Warranty Periods by
Brand, Make & Model

Consumer Electronics Warranties

Computer Warranties

Automotive Warranties

Mize Warranty Connect
Warranty Chain Management Conference
PCMI - Your technology partner
After Warranty Analytics
Sign up for a free subscription to Warranty Week:
     subscribe     change of address     unsubscribe