Questions: where are the recorded shows located (locally and/or in the cloud)? And if I do switch my physical box, do I lose any? all? of my recordings?
As you guessed, the recordings are in two places. If you watch on an STB, you are watching the recording you made on your PVR. The Canadian Copyright Act gives individuals permission to make a recording for their own personal use and there's no limit on how long you can keep those recordings, as long as your PVR doesn't fail.
That doesn't apply to companies like Bell. Bell has to negotiate with the content owners for permission to record the programs on their servers. If you watch through the app, you are streaming the recording from Bell's servers, which they keep for 60 days. The restart feature also uses Bell's recording.
If you replace your PVR, you would lose all your recordings. Bell keeps a list of the recordings on your PVR and uses that to give you permission to stream their copy of the program. When you replace the PVR, the lists would be synchronized and you wouldn't be able to watch your old programs. Your new PVR would tell Bell you have no recordings.
There are several possible reasons for your blank recordings.
1. Failing hard drive.
2. Poor internet connection. (not likely the problem if you're able to record another program at the same time.)
3. You are no longer subscribed to the channel. I've seen his happen occasionally because the PVR checks with Bell's servers to see if you have permission to play that recording.
Watching the program while it's recording won't cause it to be blank. I do it all the time.
One additional point. If you plan to replace your PVR, you may be able to watch some previous programs through the On-Demand feature. Those recordings are provided by the channel owner and the length of time they are available depends on the series. Some series are available for the full season and some for only 3 or 4 episodes. You can verify how long an episode will be available by choosing the program from the On-Demand menu, going up to the Summary and then right to Details. So you can plan to watch the programs that will only be available on you PVR and watch the remainder On-Demand after you've replaced your PVR.