There are a handful of DVRs available that donâ€™t require a subscription, most of which are DVD recorders or DVD+HDD recorders. As the most common subscription providers in the US are TiVo and Replay TV, the best way to start off looking is to make sure the TiVo and Replay TV logos are not on the product. Basically, the TiVo subscription based products show up a TV guide where you can select what shows or series to record and the PVR automatically schedules itself. With a non-subscription PVR, you set up timers in much the same way as with a VCR.
When choosing a digital video recorder, you have a choice of DVD and HDD+DVD recording. HDD-only recorders that are not subscription based are hard to come by. I'll give a quick summary here of the advantages and drawbacks of each:
DVD - With a DVD+RW or DVD-RW, you can use the recorder in much the same way as your VCR, i.e. just pop in a blank disc, wait 1 to 2 minutes to initialise, select the channel and press 'Record' or set up a timer. When you record further shows, these are appended on to the end. However, "taping over" a recording is a little more complicated unless you erase the disc. The big advantage with rewritable DVDs over VHS tapes is that you can store about 10 DVDs in paper sleaves in the space of 1 VHS tape.
HDD - Most HDD recorders are very straight forward to use. You can either select the channel and press record or set up a timer, just like your VCR. When it comes to playback, they show the recorded programmes in a list, either sorted by date & time or by program title. The big advantage here is that you don't need to have a VHS tape or blank DVD handy to make a recording. However, the drawback is that once the HDD fills up, you must delete old recordings. Most HDD based recorders also let you "pause" live TV. Unfortunately at this time, pretty much every HDD-only recorder I've come across on US websites are subscription based (either ReplayTV or TiVo).
HDD+DVD - These combine the features of the separate boxes. For example, you can transfer recordings from HDD to DVD later on to free up space or to keep these recordings. While these tend to be subscription free, the drawback with these recorders is that they are quite expensive to buy and most models I came across under $300 have poor user ratings.
This Philips HDD+DVD recorder on NewEgg gives an example of a non-subscription PVR. It appears to have built-in Digital TV reception also, however, at $350, it's quite expensive.
Plain DVD recorders start at around $120, e.g. this Toshiba DR410 is $115 on Amazon. It requires the TV converter to record from DTT, so it may be a problem if you need to schedule recordings from two separate channels. The DR560 is similar, but has a built-in digital TV tuner and is priced at $155 on Amazon.