Avi Greengart is the Research Director for Consumer Devices at Current Analysis (Mobile Phones, Connected Devices, and Digital Home). He also regularly writes for Slashgear, sporadically blogs at Home Theater View and Tweets far too often as @greengartAvi's expertise lies in understanding consumer electronics marketing, consumer behavior, and technology adoption patterns: where new technologies meet the mass market. 



Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment. Avi understands TV, video, audio, computing, and wireless, how all these are coming together, and which technologies are likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life. In his weekly column, Avi answers your questions, does your product research, and provides free advice.

Column 6

Choosing a DVR

Question: Let's say I (hypothetically) just came into a bit of a nest egg and think I would like to blow it on a Digital Video Recorder. 1) Which DVR should I buy? 2) If I chose TiVO, do I want lifetime service (which seems a better deal) or the monthly subscription (which seems to protect me from a fried modem)?

AskAvi responds: (October, 2001)

I'll be covering DVR basics and marketing issues in a separate column. For now we'll compare the different DVR systems (also known as PVRs - Personal Video Recorders) and discuss features, pricing, and a bit of future-telling. DVR systems are available from Microsoft (Ultimate TV), TiVo, RePlay, and a do-it-yourself version for powerful personal computers.

The do-it-yourself version simply can't be recommended at this time unless you need the PC for other home theater purposes (for example, scaling a DVD player for a front projector). Even then, there are user interface limitations that make it more of a "hey, isn't this neat!" than a "and we use it every day!"

Microsoft Ultimate TV won't meet your needs unless you plan on getting a new satellite receiver - there are no stand-alone models that I know of. The big plus that Microsoft offers is two tuners - you can watch one live program and tape another at the same time, or tape two programs at the same time.* The downside is that the user interface and feature content is not up to par when compared with RePlay or TiVo. Like any Microsoft product, give them enough time, and they'll probably get it right. In the meantime, I don't recommend it.

There are two basic differences between today’s Replay and TiVo models: features and pricing. Replay is also announcing some incredible future models (see sidebar).

Features: Both let you tape shows by topic, name, or actor. Both let you tape specific shows. Both let you pause live TV, or jump back a few seconds for an instant replay (or to catch dialogue you missed). Both have well designed user interfaces that any couch potato can use. But by pressing a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" button on your remote, TiVo can learn what shows you like, and, based on those preferences, tape shows for you that you never specifically asked for. Replay does not offer this feature. Replay, however, has a 30 second jump ahead button that they claim was developed so that you can watch football without breaks in the action. This does actually work quite well for football, but we all know what it's really for - zapping commercials. Hit this button four times, and a two minute commercial break is gone. With TiVo, you have to fast forward through commercials, like a VCR. I own a Replay, and the 30 second skip button is the most useful button on our remote.

The Replay company was purchased by SonicBlue, a well known manufacturer of computer gizmos (they can’t seem to decide what they want to call themselves – their other names/brands include Diamond, and Rio). They have just announced the Replay 4000 series, which, if they deliver on their promises, will be a major step up from any other DVR. Entry requirements are stiff – you must have broadband Internet access and a home network. However, if you qualify, oh, the goodies you get:

bulletautomatic commercial-free mode (just what it sounds like!)
bulletnetwork multiple models – watch programs taped in the living room on your model in the bedroom
bulletaccess models across the Internet (miss something? Find a friend with a model who taped it, and watch it off their machine over the Internet)
bulletspecial Internet channel content
bulletdigital photo slideshow mode
bulletone button two-tuner functionality (using your TV’s tuner – cable or over the air only)
bulletbetter conflict resolution (when you want to tape two shows at the same time)
bulletdigital audio out
bullet480p out (useful for some DTVs if the scaler in the DTV is inferior to the one in the Replay)
bulletand enormous capacity – up to 320 hours!

Shipping in November 2001, available direct from Replay only – no cobranded Panasonic models have been announced. Costs $700 – 2000. No monthly fee.

Replay offers another unique feature - a web site where you can remotely change your settings (for example, to tape a show you otherwise would miss). The site will download the changes to your machine the next time your machine connects for a TV schedule update. I personally have never used this site, but if you're single and away on business a lot, I imagine it could be quite useful.

Pricing: both Replay and TiVo partner with consumer electronics companies to market their systems. Replay has Panasonic, TiVo has everyone else (with Sony doing the most advertising). However, the box is only part of the equation. As you've discovered, you also need to pay for the program guide that lets the box know what's on TV. Replay includes the cost of the service in the box purchase price; TiVo charges you $10 a month or a $250 one time fee for life. If you can find a Replay for the same price as a TiVo, the Replay becomes a no brainer. Otherwise, for a TiVo, paying up front should be cheaper unless you plan to upgrade your system within two years.

There is one remaining issue to consider: capacity. Today's DVRs come in two basic sizes: 30 hours and 60 hours. Like a VCR, those numbers represent the number of hours you can record at the lowest quality. And like a VCR, the lowest quality is pretty lousy. The highest quality is usually indistinguishable from the original broadcast, but your hard drive fills up much more quickly with this setting. So do you need the biggest hard drive you can get? Maybe. We have a 20 hour model, and it's a bit tight. A 30 hour model would suit our needs better, but we don't need more than that. However, if you want to stockpile four episodes each from twelve different series and still have room to pause a live show for a four hour bathroom break, maybe you should consider a 60 hour model.

Conclusion: If you have a broadband Internet connection AND a home network AND a lot of money, you must consider holding off until November, when Replay begins shipping it’s 4000 series. Otherwise, Microsoft systems aren’t competitive yet, and while Replay and TiVo are extremely close in functionality, the commercial-skip button tilts my recommendation (and my personal buying decision) to Replay. I've also found that Replay can be less expensive than TiVo. You can buy a 30 hour Panasonic Showstopper (Replay) for $350 from J&R (after a $100 rebate) - with no additional fees for the programming guide.


*All the commercial DVRs let you watch a program on the hard drive and tape another one at the same time. You can even watch live TV through your VCR's tuner while taping something else on the DVR. Both Replay and TiVo have said that they may provide dual tuner models in the future. But right now, only Ultimate TV systems have them.

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© 2001, 2002 Avi Greengart