I grew up in a house filled with books, magazines and newspapers, but only one publication caused near-panic when it was misplaced -- TV Guide. After all, watching TV was hard work. You had to synchronize your schedule to the broadcasters' whims. Take your eye off the ball even briefly and -- whoosh -- no "Laverne and Shirley" for you this week.
When VCRs were introduced in 1975 (ah, Betamax, we hardly knew ye), the tyranny of the TV was loosened a notch. Now we could time-shift, recording programs while we were unavailable or unconscious and watching them at our leisure. Great concept, but lacking something in the ease-of-use department. Yes, you can learn to program a VCR by spending maybe 10 minutes with the manual, but that's 9.5 minutes more than most users will invest. Besides, you still have to figure out what you want to record, work your way through a set of complicated menus, and make sure there's a tape in the machine…it's just easier to watch whatever "Laverne and Shirley" rerun happens to be on Nick at Nite.
In 1999, a new product arrived: the personal video recorder (PVR), a device that offers all the promise of time shifting and unprecedented control over the TV viewing experience. If you're watching a show and the phone rings, just hit one button and the program pauses -- when you get back to the couch, hit that button again and the show picks up right where you left off. Couldn't understand a line of dialogue? Missed a key play? Just rewind the live show you're watching and pay more attention this time. You can even watch in slow motion, if you like.
As for recording, you get a neatly arrayed program guide right on your TV screen -- just point to the name of the show you want to record, press a button, and it's done. Or set the PVR to record your favorite show every time it's on - you'll never miss "The West Wing" again. You can even search for upcoming programs that interest you, based on the program name or description, and have the PVR compile a library of personalized TV for you, ready for playback whenever you choose.
Those are the basic functions -- we'll see even more bells and whistles momentarily. But given the panoply of wonderfulness I've already described, it's worth stopping right here to ask a key question: why don't more people own one of these magical devices already? Everybody you know has a VCR, and probably most have DVD players, too, at this point. But how many of your friends and neighbors have a TiVo, ReplayTV or Ultimate TV system? That's what I thought.
One barrier to mass-market acceptance is certainly price. With VCRs selling at grocery stores for under $100, the idea of spending $300 or more for a TV recorder is a tough sell. Worse, many demand additional monthly fees for the required program listing service. As a veteran PVR user, I'm convinced the more significant hurdle is simple confusion -- the guys who make these devices have done a terrible job of explaining what they do and how they do it. Remember those TiVo commercials where they threw a TV network executive out his office window -- what the heck was that all about?
But when my friends visit and see what my favorite TV toy can do, they quickly become converts, if not purchasers (it's a cheap crowd). So let me answer the questions my friends ask here, for you, and you'll know enough to make an informed decision one way or the other.
What's this thing called exactly?
Every manufacturer seems to have a different way to identify its particular box. I've seen personal video recorder, personal television, digital video recorder, digital network recorder and smart TV, to name a few. At this point I mostly hear people use the brand names TiVo, ReplayTV, UltimateTV or DishTV when referring to these systems.
Who are these guys?
TiVo, Replay and Microsoft (the creators of UltimateTV) set up the structure that makes PVRs work -- specifications for the digital guts of the boxes, the software for retrieving program listings and the listing services themselves. They don't build the boxes you buy off the shelf, though -- they license their designs to familiar consumer electronics companies, including Philips, RCA and Sony. As for DishTV, it's a satellite television provider offering one version of its decoder box that includes PVR functions.
What's the basic technology involved?
PVR systems record audio and video on big hard-disk drives, instead of tape. And they're always recording, though you'd never know it until you start using the system's special features. Ordinarily the PVR just stores video to the disk and plays it back immediately. It keeps a chunk in storage at all times, though -- that's how you can rewind live TV.
Storing TV shows on a hard drive has several advantages: you can quickly jump from place to place, rewind and fast forward at a variety of speeds, and use a built-in computer to control the whole process intelligently, using step-by-step onscreen instructions.
How does the PVR connect to my TV system?
It's just like a VCR -- it takes your video input (from antenna, cable, satellite, whatever), processes it and sends it along to the TV set.
Does this mean I can disconnect my VCR?
Not really. PVRs have limited storage capacity -- about 30 hours is the standard, though more is available at higher prices. Now, 30 hours seems like a heck of a lot of TV, but if you want to keep a program, or lend a copy to your friend, you'll want to tape it from the PVR to your VCR for long-term storage. Besides, a PVR won't play rental tapes.
Will a PVR work with any TV source?
Yes, but here we've reached a significant fork in the road. A stand-alone PVR works just like a VCR -- it will accept signals from your cable or satellite TV system, or even over-the-air broadcasting. But with the other significant PVR category -- satellite TV/PVR combo boxes - the decoder box required for satellite TV and the PVR box are merged into one unit, which delivers a noticeably clearer picture than using two separate boxes. TiVo systems are available in both stand-alone and satellite TV combo form. ReplayTV is stand-alone only. Ultimate TV is satellite/PVR combo only, as is the DishPVR from Dish Network.
So, if you're a cable subscriber or watch TV via antenna and want a PVR, you'll go with a stand-alone TiVo or ReplayTV system, at least for now (set-top boxes combining cable decoders with PVRs are in the works). If you're a DirecTV or Dish Network subscriber, you can also use a freestanding PVR. Or, if you want to cut down on the number of obnoxious black boxes cluttering the shelves, enjoy a better audio/video experience, and record two channels simultaneously (more on that one later), you can trade up to an all-in-one combo unit.
What's the difference between the systems?
The key differences lie in ease of use, special features and economics. I find TiVo the easiest system to use, whether you want to explore the width and breadth of available TV programming or just gain more control over your casual viewing. One unique feature is TiVo's Suggestions. The system tries to figure out what kind of shows you like, and records similar and/or related programs automatically. To teach the machine your preferences, the remote has thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons, which you press to indicate whether you like or dislike a program you're watching. This feature can unearth some unexpected treasures. For example, when I turned on the set one evening, I discovered TiVo had recorded a documentary called Wild Man Blues about Woody Allen that ran at 3 in the morning on one of the arts channels -- I would never have discovered this movie without a system that knew I liked Woody's movies. In addition to this AI-based searching, you can manually search for titles of upcoming programs by entering a letter at a time or dig deeper, searching for your favorite actor, team or topic using WishLists. TiVo systems are available from Philips and Sony, in both stand-alone and DirecTV/PVR combo systems.
Assuming you already own a television, you've undoubtedly seen ads for UltimateTV, Microsoft's attempt to compete with TiVo et al. The most highly touted UltimateTV feature is the ability to receive two channels at once. The system provides picture-in-picture capability (regardless of whether your TV has this feature), so you can watch a second channel in a small onscreen window, hopping back and forth between them instantly with a single button press -- if this doesn't send your wife or girlfriend screaming out of the room, nothing ever will. You can also record one or both channels simultaneously, and even record two channels while watching a third program you recorded earlier. Sports fans, they're calling your name here. The TiVo/UltimateTV decision is getting tricky because TiVo-equipped combo boxes can now also receive two satellite channels simultaneously. The UltimateTV feature that TiVo doesn't re-create is picture-in-picture.
A second UltimateTV feature will continue to be a unique offering for the foreseeable future -- built-in Internet connectivity. The box includes a modem that lets you connect to Microsoft's WebTV service, a system that offers e-mail, Web browsing and chat on your TV screen. You can use the WebTV system with the UltimateTV remote, but entering text is time-consuming and awkward -- better to spring for another $50 and get the handy wireless keyboard, if you care about WebTV. And should you care? Well, that depends on your Internet attitude.
If you're not a computer user yet and think this e-mail thing might be fun to fiddle with, WebTV isn't a bad solution -- you can add a printer, the onscreen display is readable enough, and it works just fine for bidding on eBay and performing other basic Web tasks. Seasoned computer users who expect to point and click with a mouse, though, will find it maddening to scroll around the WebTV screen using arrow keys. Still, even Web-savvy computer guys will enjoy some of the ways that built-in Internet complements TV viewing. For example, you can watch the "X-Files" in a picture-in-picture window while typing back and forth with live folks in an interactive chat. Or, if you're watching sports, you can zoom the TV picture down to window size and search the Net to find some obscure stat without leaving the game. There are also a few programs on the schedule that let you interact via the Web -- for example, you can play along with "Jeopardy."
The satellite/PVR combo systems from TiVo and Ultimate TV receive their programming from DirecTV. Their major satellite competitor, Dish Networks, now offers its own receiver with built-in PVR capabilities. In many ways it's comparable to the DirecTV-based offerings -- similar programming lineup, similar PVR features -- with three key exceptions. You can download only three days of program listings at a time (versus 7 to 14 days with competing systems) -- a significant problem if you want to record upcoming shows. Second, there's no program search capability. Yes, you can scroll through the upcoming listings and browse through them manually, but you can't tell the machine to look for programs by name, or look for favorite actors or sports teams or whatever. And third, it's only equipped to handle one channel at a time. The only major advantage I see with the DishTV product is price -- you can get the equipment free if you commit to a programming package. The next-generation DishTV PVR model should address these concerns, but it wasn't available for review.
Only two PVR systems are available in stand-alone boxes today -- TiVo and ReplayTV. After losing the initial marketing battle badly, ReplayTV is on the ropes now, with only Panasonic making Replay-enabled systems. The company isn't down for the count yet, however -- it has entered into an agreement with Motorola to incorporate Replay capability into set-top boxes for digital cable television service.
The current ReplayTV system has several disadvantages when compared with TiVo. The control scheme is significantly more complex, with far too many choices to make and buttons to press (and they're little tiny, barely legible buttons at that). While the search capabilities were originally more powerful than TiVo's, recent software upgrades put the TiVo system at least on a par. That leaves one significant leg up for ReplayTV: there's no monthly service charge to receive the required program listings. Instinctively that just sounds right to consumers -- after all, you don't pay a monthly fee to use your VCR, right? However, the ReplayTV hardware costs significantly more than TiVo units with similar capacity -- you can pay us now or you can pay us later, but one way or the other, you're going to pay. Speaking of which….
Who offers the most bang for the buck?
Pricing on these systems is in flux, and special offers come and go monthly, so the figures quoted here may have changed by the time you read them. For the latest information, here are the Web sites and toll-free numbers you'll need:
Dish Network: www.dishnetwork.com, 800-333-3474
ReplayTV: www.replaytv.com, 877-737-5298
TiVo: www.tivo.com, 877-367-8486
UltimateTV: www.ultimatetv.com, 877-858-4628
With that caveat out of the way, here's how the competition shapes up right now.
Standalone TiVo units from Philips are selling for $199 (20-hour capacity), $299 (30 hours) and $599 (60 hours). In practical terms, the sweet spot in PVR price and practicality is around 30 hours, though more is…well, more. Sony's 30-hour unit is also going for $299 with a mail-in rebate. Remember, you still have to pay for that programming guide -- it's $9.95 monthly or a one-time $249 for the life of the unit.
The standalone Replay models from Panasonic are $500 (20 hours), $600 (30 hours) and $800 (60 hours). There's also a 27-inch set with 30-hour ReplayTV built in for $800.
With the satellite/PVR combos, installation becomes an issue -- you don't really want to be climbing around on the roof, trying to point a dish at a distant satellite, do you? Some deals include free installation, some don't. Also special offers allow existing customers to upgrade to a PVR-equipped system. At this writing, the Philips combo system, with 35-hour capacity, is selling for $349 after rebate, the Sony for $299 after rebate. UltimateTV is currently running $350 for an RCA receiver with satellite dish (the optional keyboard's an extra $50), $350 for the Sony receiver with keyboard included. You'll pay at least $9.95 a month for the program guide service with three hours of Internet access, or you can get unlimited Internet access for $29.95 a month. Dish Network will provide a PVR-equipped receiver free of charge as long as you agree to a year's service with a programming package of at least $50 a month.
The bottom line
For most users, a TiVo system is the best way to transform yourself from a couch potato to a power viewer. The system is so easy to use, even my technophobe wife feels comfortable with it. TiVo's programming suggestions are off base about as often as they're right, but I do sometimes make real discoveries this way. Searching upcoming programs is a snap, as is setting up regular automatic recording of your favorite shows. And after recent price cuts, TiVo systems from Sony and Philips are much more affordable than ever before. As to which manufacturer you choose, it frankly doesn't matter much. My only real preference for Philips is the design of the remote control, but I'd probably go with the system that's the better buy at the time.
In its current incarnation, UltimateTV is a very good first effort, but with noticeable rough edges. The equipment sells for more than competitive TiVo systems. The dual-tuner function that UltimateTV first enabled should be available in TiVo combo systems by the time you read this (albeit without the slick picture-in-picture feature). The only significant factor that might lead you to UltimateTV over TiVo, then, is WebTV access. If the Net on your set intrigues you, spend a few minutes playing with it at the store before deciding. If you already have a computer connection to the Internet, though, I'm betting you'll pass on WebTV.
Steve Morgenstern writes on technology for Cigar Aficionado.