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The Cutting Edge / Personal Technology | PC FOCUS

Rewind, Replay and Unwind With These New High-Tech TV Devices

May 10, 1999|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

There has been a lot of talk about the convergence of computer technology and home entertainment systems that center on the TV set. So far it has been mostly talk, but a few devices are starting to hit the market.

Two Silicon Valley companies, TiVo (http://www.tivo.com) and Replay Networks (http://www.replaytv.com) have come up with devices that are basically hard disks for your TV that include program guides, which may be downloaded, that make it easier to find shows that you want to record and watch.

Thanks to the built-in hard drive, you don't have to load in a tape when you want to record or play back a show. You can instantly get to any recorded show and quickly fast-forward or "rewind" a show you're watching. If the phone rings while you're watching live TV, you can press the pause button. TiVo lets you watch live TV in slow motion, and ReplayTV has an instant replay button and another button to skip forward 30 seconds.

These features work when you're watching live TV because both devices automatically record the shows, store them as digital video and play them back as you watch. Analog TV data from the video source is digitized and compressed using the MPEG-2 standard.

The devices, like PCs, store the programs as files on the hard drive and decompress them when you watch the program. Unlike a VCR, data can be accessed randomly.

Also, you don't have to study a manual to learn to program these devices. Just use the remote control to select the show you want to watch and press the select button. TiVo stores two weeks of programming data and ReplayTV stores one week. Each has a built-in modem that silently dials into a server in the middle of the night to get the latest programming information. Neither machine connects to a PC and, to their credit, both TiVo and Replay Networks resisted the temptation to create an overly complicated multipurpose device. They don't surf the Net, do Windows or make popcorn.

ReplayTV offers versions that record up to 10 hours ($699), 14 hours ($899) and 28 hours ($1,499). TiVo has a 14-hour ($499) and 30-hour ($999) version.

Replay Networks includes free access to its dial-up network that provides program information. TiVo charges $9.99 a month or you can pay $199 to get a lifetime subscription. When you do the math, you'll discover that the TiVo 14-hour system with a lifetime subscription is roughly the same price as the Replay 10-hour system with its free programming service.

Each device comes with a remote control that features VCR-like controls. ReplayTV's universal remote works with the Replay device as well as with your TV, VCR, cable or satellite box and DVD player. The TiVo remote operates only the device and the on/off switch and volume control of your TV.

TiVo's remote not only looks cooler, but it's much easier to use because the buttons are larger and contoured so that you can easily find them by feel, even when the lights are off.

ReplayTV's default method of finding programs is to locate them in the guide by time and date. Once you find a program you want to record, you click once to record a single episode or twice to record every episode. By default you get a guaranteed recording, which means that the machine blocks off enough disk space to record that program. If there isn't space on the disk, it won't accept your record request. You can also select an unguaranteed recording, which means that it will record the show only if there is room for it.

TiVo doesn't ask you to guarantee whether to record and, once you do record a show, it might record over it with another show after a day or two. There are ways to tell it to save the show for a longer period but, using the default method, it's pretty easy to accidentally erase a recorded show if you don't watch it within the allotted time.

ReplayTV also allows you to create a "replay channel" where you type in information about the shows you want to record, such as the name of a show, an actor, a director or any other information that shows up in the online program guide. If you want to see every upcoming movie featuring Humphrey Bogart, you'd use the remote to "type" his name in on a virtual keyboard that pops up on the screen. The system would then record them for you as they are broadcast. Replay's find system won't look forward in its database to tell you if the show is coming up.

TiVo doesn't let you type in the name of a show or person, but it does have a handy way of showing you what's coming up on TV. You can select upcoming shows by name, time or channel. If you search by name, you can further specify whether to find all programs, movies, news, sports, action, comedy, kids shows and several other genres to get a menu of programs that meet your criteria. This process helps you discover what's coming up on TV.

Both devices are ready for prime time, but neither is flawless.

When you delete a recording in TiVo, for example, the system doesn't ask you for a confirmation, so it's easy to accidentally delete a program. Also, you cannot yet program either machine by phone or via the Internet. Both companies say they are working on software updates, which will be made available for free downloading via their dial-up networks.

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Larry Magid can be heard at 1:48 p.m. weekdays on KNX 1070. He can be reached at larry.magid@latimes.com.

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