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Is there a subscription-free DVR available?--Ask the Editors

Subscription-free DVRs seem to be an extinct species. Are there any options for antenna viewers in the post-VCR world?

CNET reader Mathias notes:

Just a quick note/observation of mine: I can't find any DVR out there that works without a subscription and has a tuner built in for analog and digital over-the-air television signals. This strikes me as absolutely incredible. I am actually considering buying a VCR, assuming I can find one with a digital tuner. What's going on here?

To paraphrase here, it appears that Mathias gets his TV from an antenna (not cable, satellite, or fiber), and simply wants to be able to record his favorite shows with the convenience offered by a DVR with an electronic programming guide. He's also on track by searching for one with a digital tuner, since over-the-air analog TV is scheduled to shut down in February 2009.

Mathias--and plenty of others--doesn't want to pay a monthly subscription fee, so that rules out the otherwise excellent TiVo HD. So what are the alternatives? The answer is: not much. Neither the Archos TV+ nor the forthcoming Hauppauge HD PVR even includes a tuner, relying instead on outputs from a cable or satellite box (and the Archos, at least, does charge a modest subscription fee for the programming guide after the first year, anyway).

How about DVD recorders with hard drives? Here again, the choices are slim. We noted that this category was all but extinct in October 2007, so much so that used models were fetching huge premiums. The only current model we found at the time was the Philips DVDR3575H--but that was pretty underwhelming once we got to review it. For 2008, Philips is keeping what looks like a nearly identical model, the DVDR3576H, in its lineup. But that's the only hard-drive enabled DVD recorder we see on the horizon for 2008. (Things are different in Japan, where Blu-ray recorders with hard drives, while expensive, at least appear to be widely available. Likewise, DVD recorders with hard drives still seem to be widely available in Canada and the U.K.)

So, will Mathias have to make good on his threat to get a VCR? Maybe. Indeed, plenty of DVD recorders now have built-in digital tuners, so they'll work fine--but recording time will be limited to the capacity of one disc at a time (usually 6 to 8 hours maximum). Alternately, he could use his DTV tuner voucher to pick up a nearly free DTV box, and connect that to any VCR or DVD recorder. One would just need to make sure the recorder was equipped with a compatible IR blaster to change channels for timer recordings, however, that could be a tall order.

But there is hope on the horizon. This summer, EchoStar is scheduled to roll out the TR-50. As announced at the January Consumer Electronics Show, the EchoStar TR-50 was designed from the ground up to be a DVR for the antenna crowd, with a built-in digital tuner and the ability to record and play back full HD video. (In fact, the TR-50 looks to be a sort of antenna-only version of the Dish ViP722, which is an excellent DVR in its own right). Unfortunately, final details on the TR-50 remain vague--we still don't know the final price or release date. In fact, there's still no confirmation that it'll be completely free of subscription fees. But for anyone who's not ready to pay TiVo's monthly fee, we think it's at least worth waiting a few more months to see how the final details on the EchoStar TR-50 will shake out.

What do you think? Are you at all interested in a subscription-free DVR? Will the EchoStar TR-50 be worth the wait? Or should folks like Mathias just bite the bullet and get a TiVo? Let us know in the comments.