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Stay Tuned for Cheaper, Better Video Recorders

May 04, 2000|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two companies, TiVo and ReplayTV, are out with similar but not identical products generically known as "personal video recorders." These are nifty devices that allow you to pause, rewind and fast-forward broadcast and cable shows as though you were watching a videotape.

They work by recording the TV signal onto a hard disk just like the one inside your computer and spooling it onto the screen with a couple of milliseconds' delay. In addition to pausing and replaying live TV, both also allow you to schedule recordings of upcoming programs, as with a VCR, and to download recorded content onto a conventional VCR tape for your video library.

There's no question that, as a concept, the personal video recorder is terrific. No one ever need miss a dramatic moment of "ER" to take a phone call, or stay awake wondering exactly what Moe said to Larry that had the kids in stitches (both machines have instant-replay functions, great for reviewing garbled dialogue or spectacular NBA dunks).

The concept is quickly spreading. Already Microsoft's WebTV set-top box can be ordered with an installed hard drive, and at least one company, San Francisco-based Ligos Technology, plans to offer software that allows similar functions to be executed on a PC's hard disk. But TiVo and ReplayTV are the most heavily promoted.

So are these devices ready for prime time? I found that both offer exceptionally easy VCR-style recording. But they also have disadvantages, including less-than-perfect video reproduction, complex features that may daunt the less techno-savvy, and the high prices of first-generation technologies.

I subjected each machine to about three weeks of heavy family use. We recorded movies (both color and black & white), archived favorite series and sitcoms, and paid off the pizza man at the door while pausing the screen precariously on the cusp of a contestant's final answer. (Useful hint: Fast-forwarding through the commercials and goofy banter from "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" yields a razor-sharp 20 minutes of questions and answers per night).

The test units were a TiVo model manufactured under the Philips brand name with 14 hours of rated capacity, and a ReplayTV box made by Panasonic with a 30-hour disk. Those figures apply only if you make recordings at the lowest picture quality settings, which few viewers will tolerate. At higher resolutions the capacity shrinks fast: The 30-hour TiVo box, for example, will hold only nine hours of programming if everything is recorded at the top setting.

We hooked the units to a VCR and a 28-inch Sony TV that we watch from an unhealthy six feet away, so no defects in image would go unnoticed.

In general, we found that both units make conventional time-shifting recording easier than with a VCR; in most cases it's a one-click procedure on the remote control. But the neatest new features are more complicated to navigate and take some getting used to.

Setup

Each box comes with several different spools of TV cable, with different odd-shaped plugs, to accommodate the varied inputs and outputs of your TV and VCR. (Isn't it time the TV industry standardized these things?) Each also provides an illustrated guide to hooking everything up. ReplayTV's guide was marginally more comprehensible than TiVo's, but in both cases there are more wrong ways than right to connect everything. The bottom line is that both units are even more complicated to wire up than the average desktop computer. Most users, I suspect, will spend an hour or more trying to get everything to work properly.

Each machine also needs to be plugged into a phone line for daily updates of its on-screen programming guide. The calls won't interfere with your personal calls, but you will have to factor in the location of the nearest phone jack when deciding where to place your TiVo or Replay box. Before the machines are fully functional they have to make a toll-free call to headquarters; TiVo's programming setup took several hours, much longer than ReplayTV's.

In each case the setup process yields an on-screen grid that displays your channel lineup and daily program schedules for up to a couple of weeks ahead. You can simply watch live TV or seek out the day, time or name of a program you want to record, hit a button on your remote, and presto! You've arranged to tape that show, or even all episodes of the same show on into the distant future.

Programming

The programming guides aren't perfect, however. Only TiVo's allows users to browse through any single channel's programming. If you want to see the movie listings for the AMC channel alone, for instance, with ReplayTV you're out of luck.

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