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Personal Video Recorders Get With the Program

March 01, 2001|JON HEALEY |

Microsoft has given up its quest to sell millions of set-top boxes that connect TVs to the Internet.

Its new goal is to sell millions of set-top boxes that can digitally record two channels simultaneously, pause and rewind a show as it's being broadcast, instantly replay any scene, provide an interactive program guide . . . and incidentally, connect a TV to the Internet.

Those are the features of UltimateTV, a new line of Microsoft products the company hopes will have the same primacy in home entertainment that its software enjoys in home computing. The first is shipping to retailers after several months' delay, taking the form of an RCA satellite TV receiver for DirecTV.

The product is better than Microsoft's previous effort at a combined satellite receiver and digital video recorder, the DishPlayer 500 for DishNetwork. But it faces strong competition from the Philips and Sony DirecTV receivers with the TiVo service, which offers far more help in finding and recording shows than the RCA box does.

All three devices sell for about $400, not including the satellite dish. And in either case, users have to pay $10 per month to activate the recording features, in addition to the $22 to $88 per month they pay for programming.

A side-by-side comparison between the RCA UltimateTV receiver (model DWD490RE) and the Philips DirecTV-TiVo unit (model DSR6000) found the two models indistinguishable on such basic issues as picture quality and recording capacity. But the differences in other key areas gave each receiver a distinct and significant advantage over the other.

For UltimateTV, the killer feature is two built-in satellite tuners that make it possible to watch one live broadcast while recording another. TiVo counters with a far superior programming service, better remote control and a more user-friendly approach.

In other words, the RCA unit has better hardware, the Philips receiver better software. That's not surprising, given TiVo's long head start over Microsoft in the TV-recording business.

Consumers can expect Microsoft and TiVo to improve their software and deliver upgrades electronically, but the hardware won't change.

By summer, owners of the Philips box might be able to record one channel while watching a live broadcast on another, thanks to new software being developed by TiVo. But those consumers won't be able to watch two channels simultaneously or do other picture-in-picture functions. That would require new hardware.

Basics and Setup

UltimateTV and TiVo are two of the three leading brands in the emerging field of personal video recorders, which store programs on built-in hard disk drives instead of removable video cassettes. The other is Replay, which was excluded from this comparison because it's not available yet in a satellite or cable TV receiver.

Their ability to record and play back simultaneously make these devices an improvement on VCRs in several important ways. You can pause a show in mid-broadcast, run off for as long as 30 minutes, then pick up where it left off. Can't make out a line of dialogue or disagree with an umpire's call? Instantly replay it.

Playing back a recorded program is much easier than with a VCR. For one thing, you don't have to wait for the recording to finish before watching a program from the beginning. For another, there's no rewinding or scanning through tapes to find the start of a show--an index makes each of the recordings available with a few taps on the remote.

Once the satellite dish is installed, both units set up easily with the help of on-screen guides. The main challenge is connecting the many wires needed to take full advantage of the receivers.

Aside from the time spent stringing the wires, the RCA receiver takes only a few minutes to get up and running. The Philips, however, has to go through a lengthy downloading ritual to prepare TiVo's program guide.

Watching TV

The RCA and Philips units each store about 35 hours of programming, recording shows digitally with no appreciable degradation of picture quality. Pictures can be sharp and rich in detail, but they also can be blotchy, depending on the amount of compression applied by DirecTV.

One difference between the two is that Philips is always recording whatever channel it's tuned to, while the RCA box records only when instructed. The Philips feature comes in handy when you turn on the TV and discover an interesting program already in progress. You can either skip back to the beginning and watch from there, or hit the record button and save the program in its entirety.

The RCA box, however, has a picture-in-picture feature that lets you see the video from one channel or recorded program while watching and listening to another. The PIP window is small and cannot be moved from its position in the lower right corner, but it's easy to make the programs in the two windows swap places.

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