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The Definitive Build Your Own Guide: PVR vs DVR vs HTPC

Posted on 18 November 2012 by sam

Does it matter whether you call your personal media machine a PVR, DVR or HTPC? No, not at all, but knowing the slight, sometimes very subjective difference may help you in finding the right information and help.

So lets take a closer look.


Digital Video Recorder

Digital Video Recorder

Digital video recorders were first introduced before the turn of the century, and they immediately became popular. As high-tech VCRs, DVRs record TV programming for future viewing. A DVR allows you to watch shows and movies on your own schedule instead of watching programming as it airs.

The first models were clunky and could only record several hours of programming. Early models also used a single TV tuner, so users could either record or watch shows at the same time, but they couldn’t do both. Dual tuners solve that problem by allowing users to record two shows or to record one show and watch another simultaneously.

Newer TVs often feature DVR capabilities with limited hard drive capacity, but most TV viewers will want a standalone DVR model or HTPC to record more content. Hybrid DVR models also provide DVD or Blu-ray playback capabilities.


Home Theatre PC

The insides of an HTPC

Home theater PCs offer more flexibility than DVRs, but they typically cost significantly more. While HTPCs may include PVR capabilities, many HTPCs lack the ability to record TV programming.

HTPCs are essentially small form factor computers designed for home entertainment centers. Depending on their specifications, they can replace DVD and Blu-ray players, DVRs, audio and TV receivers, and gaming computers all on one device.

Necessary Parts

Every HTPC includes a few components. A stylish case houses all of the electronics. Power supplies distribute electricity to the motherboard and hard drives, and the CPU and RAM work together to run the operating system and open programs. To improve the movie and TV viewing experience, most HTPCs are designed to minimize any sound from internal fans, so HTPC components are typically slower and cooler than components found in desktop or notebook computers.

Optional Parts

While on-board graphics are sufficient for general computing tasks like e-mail or web browsing, they’re usually incapable of transmitting an HD video signal. An inexpensive discrete graphics card will produce superior picture quality at higher resolutions. For HTPCs, opt for video cards with passive cooling instead of conventional heat sink and fan coolers. HSF coolers generate noise and can distract movie viewers.

Similarly, on-board audio chipsets have come a long way in the past few years, but discrete sound cards from Asus, Creative, and HT Omega provide more options and clearer audio. Sound cards are a must for high-end speaker systems, but integrated TV speakers won’t take advantage of the extra audio quality.

A Bluray discWith a wireless adapter, HTPCs can access the Internet to play games, stream content, and browse the web. USB wireless adapters are simple to install and configure, but PCI or PCI-e adapters typically feature stronger signals and faster speeds. Alternatively, place the modem and router close to the HTPC, and connect to the Internet with an ethernet cable for an even faster connection.

Physical media like DVDs and Blu-ray discs have become less popular as consumers have turned to streaming content from Netflix and Hulu, but most people still prefer physical media because it doesn’t rely on an unstable Internet connection, and the quality remains consistent throughout. Optical drives cost next to nothing compared to a dedicated DVD or Blu-ray player.


The term Personal Video Recorder is another name for DVR, but it can also refer to a specialized HTPC with recording capabilities. DVR users constantly run out of hard drive space, and they have to delete old shows and movies to make room for new programming. As a PVR user, you can simply add more hard drives to continue recording content.

A PVR is simply an HTPC with an additional TV tuner that can receive analog and digital signals. If you already subscribe to a cable or satellite TV service, you’ll need to install a CableCARD to view digital programming, or you’ll need to run the signal through the TV company’s receiver.

If you want one device that can record shows and movies, play games, and browse the web, a PVR is far more economical than purchasing those game consoles, DVD players, and DVRs separately. When new technologies emerge, you can cheaply replace certain components instead of spending thousands to retrofit your entire home entertainment center.


When you are planning for your own media PC. Ask yourself this important question:

What’s the goal?

Record TV? Watch movies? Watch YouTube? Play games?

This will define what you need. In the next articles, we’ll go over the different choices and show practical examples to get you started.

Have additions? Spotted an error? A question? Find us in the forum.

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