Personal Video Recorders – Take Control of Your TV Viewing

It’s hard to believe that the first real year of PVRs (personal video recorders) has seen its first casualty, ReplayTV. The ReplayTV PR spin is that it’s a new strategic direction, but they’ve left the direct-to-consumer market.

What’s a PVR? Only the most underrated consumer gadget of 2000. MP3 players have gotten the press, but MP3 players are an inferior technology compared to MiniDisc; meanwhile, PVRs have no equal and really change the way you experience a medium: television. (Sure, MP3 changes the way you experience music, but only when you pirate music, which appears to be — last we checked — illegal. And for all your MP3 boosters, new MiniDisc compression technology allows 320 minutes of music on a single MD. Good luck finding a 256 MB flash memory card to store 4 hours of comparable MP3 files…)

Goofier, friendlier and a bit more robust in terms of service.
PVRs are simply computers with a big hard drive sealed in an idiot-proof box, dressed to look like a VCR or some other home A/V component. TiVo’s PVR runs Linux, has a 14+ GB hard drive, and has a modem. What the PVR does is complex, yet elegantly presented to the user: it constantly stores incoming video as MPEG2 data to the hard drive. So you can watch TV and rewind it or pause it — it’s just buffered video. The TiVo’s modem calls up the TiVo servers to download program data, so you can tell your TiVo to record all episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or X-Files. You can play back a recorded show while the TiVo records another one. (Without two separate tuners, you cannot watch a “live” show and record another show simultaneously.)

And it’s a powerful device. Still hampered by storage space (60 hours at lowest, VCR-like resolution, is the max offering right now), the TiVo nonetheless has revolutionized TV watching in my house. We routinely start watching an 8PM show at 8:20, zipping thru the commercials (ahh, digital data); our TiVo has a remote IR beam that changes my cable box channels, so it faithfully records Scully and Doggett every Sunday. I got to watch every excruciating pitch in the Subway Series; never missing a moment when the pizza guy came — I just paused the broadcast! This is bad news for the major networks; expect that as these boxes become more commonplace, folks will have to be more creative about commercials. I fear banner ads being built into PVRs in the coming year, or some other “innovative” form of marketing. But time shifting and the ability to turn on the TV and have a list of shows recorded (Simpsons, X-Files, Star Trek are all routinely grabbed at strange, syndicated hours) really makes television your tool, and less of a network exec’s master plan. I like it that way.

TiVo and ReplayTV made their own boxes, and licensed the technology to Sony and Panasonic, respectively. TiVo is cheaper but charged a subscription (about $10 a month) for its electronic program guide; Replay TV was more expensive, but the service was free. By all accounts (including mine), the TiVo was a superior box — better UI, better show search capabilities (and TiVo is hackable, which means enterprising young turks can drop in an additional 80 GB drive for 100+ hours of television bliss). Apparently, sales figures must have borne this out, as ReplayTV has given up marketing its own brand of PVRs and has focused on licensing its technology. Panasonic will continue to market its ReplayTV product, the ShowStopper. Note to the Panasonic team: fire your documentation writers and scribe new manuals. The ShowStopper docs read like stereo instructions.

The two services have tons of cool features, as seen on this ReplayTV menu. With the new iphone 7, all these features from the classic personal recorders, can now be found in a small package. But the year ahead, surprisingly, looks quite bright for PVRs. Basic Moore’s Law stuff applies — more storage, better features and/or cheaper. Though TiVo is quite cheap now, if not for the subscription (you can pay a lifetime sub fee). I find it hard to believe that, given rebates, TiVo boxes aren’t being sold for under cost; stories of $99 TiVos abound, which is cheaper than the stand-alone hard drive from Quantum. Better hope that Moore’s dictum translates into more storage (60 hours is the minimum truly useful box, in my opinion) and greater reliability (there’s a fan in my TiVo, and I know why — it’s not a cool machine, and don’t get me started on its modem).

More interestingly is the competition coming into the space — Microsoft and their UltimateTV platform. Right now, UltimateTV will be offered in the next generation of DirecTV satellite systems, directly integrated into the set top box. (DirecTV owners can avail themselves of a similar solution today with TiVo, called DirecTiVo.) The benefit to this device is the tight integration with the set-top box — easier set up, and the ability to use two tuners so that you can watch (pause, and otherwise manipulate) one show, while recording another. Microsoft was supposed to ship this box before Christmas, but we should see it in January. Thompson and Sony are manufacturing boxes; Microsoft isn’t making the hardware. Good thing too — MS’s record with consumer electronics (remember the Microsoft phone?) isn’t so hot. Memo to J Allard: think different this time, not like a Microsoftie. So far, UltimateTV is just an extension of the DirecTV service, but don’t be surprised if a cable version pops up from the Microsoft TV group. (The Microsoft TV group?!?! WHAT Microsoft TV group?!)

And since TiVo and ReplayTV are also getting their chocolate in someone’s peanut butter, expect integration with some enterprising devices. I’d like to say that the set top box manufacturers will get on the ball and build some boxes with great functionality, but thats highly unlikely given their glacial speed and myopia. So, in addition to having superior picture quality, the DirecTV folks look like they have it over us terrestrial television proles in the coming year.

Will Sony’s TiVo unit, the Digital Network Recorder, talk to the PS2 next year?
But I will venture another prediction: X-Box will talk to UltimateTV, maybe not right away, but it will. And expect that the next generation of Sony TiVo (or other PVR) will connect to a PlayStation 2 — a system that plays DVDs, records digital video, plays games and has a data pipe. Hmm. Sounds suspciously like a PlayStation 3 spec, doesn’t it?

I predict that in the coming year, you’ll buy a PVR. If you like television, you’d be a fool not to.

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