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Digital Living Room

Two Tuners Included, but Only One Works

March 08, 2001|JON HEALEY |

Let's just say it does but it doesn't.

Contrary to what you may have read--including here in Tech Times last week--the DirecTV-TiVo boxes by Philips and Sony have two built-in satellite tuners. That means they're equipped to record programs on two channels simultaneously, much like the competing UltimateTV receiver by RCA and Microsoft.

There's a difference, however, between having the hardware and making it work. TiVo hasn't finished the software needed to operate both tuners, so only one of them has been turned on.

Some retailers have been telling shoppers about the two tuners in the TiVo boxes, but it's not a feature touted yet by TiVo, Philips or Sony.

The companies don't mention the twin tuners on their Web sites or in the promotional material for the products. A TiVo spokeswoman even suggested there wasn't a second tuner when first asked about it.

The dilemma for consumers is whether to judge the DirecTV-TiVo boxes by what they can do today or by what they might be able to do some time in the future. That issue, once rare for living-room devices, will crop up increasingly as audio-video gear converges with computers.

This is the double-edged sword of advancing technology. As devices become smarter--that is, as their functions are built from software, not pieces of metal and plastic--they become increasingly adaptable and upgradeable. That means consumers can't judge a box just by what it does. They also have to find out what it might be able to do somewhere down the road.

Meanwhile, each year brings more powerful microchips, which eventually open the door to new features that the previous box can't deliver without a major software retooling, if at all. At that point, chances are the manufacturer will simply bring out a new box and stop upgrading the old one.

That's the technological arms race that leaves your 3-year-old computer incapable of playing the latest games and turns your 6-year-old computer into a doorstop.

Plenty of home entertainment gear has become obsolete too, but that's usually because consumers rejected it in favor of something else, not because it simply got better. Eight-track tapes, for instance, lost their battle with cassettes, and Super8 film equipment was supplanted by video cams and VCRs.

The pace of change is quickening, however. And the products that change most rapidly might be the ones that sit on top of your TV set, such as TiVos and UltimateTVs.

Rebecca Baer, a spokeswoman for TiVo, said the company decided to include two tuners in the DirecTV units, which it wanted to have on the market in time for Christmas 2000. The hardware was ready to go last fall, but the two-tuner software was still months away from completion. So the manufacturers decided to let the products go out with only one tuner active.

New software to turn on the second tuner should be available late this summer, Baer said. TiVo has been downloading updates to users' receivers automatically, through either the satellite link or the units' built-in dial-up modems.

It's not so hard to write software activating the second tuner, Baer said. The trick has been making sure the boxes are as easy to use with two tuners as with one.

Jim Barton, TiVo's chief technical officer, said the company has nearly completed a preliminary version of the software.

"We would be starting to roll it out for our early testing people in the next month or two," he said.

"A Microsoft thing would be to just slam something together, push it out there and fix it later. We can't do that," Barton added.

Actually, Microsoft's UltimateTV software handles the two-tuner challenge without any apparent problems. It's in other areas that UltimateTV software leaves something to be desired, such as the agonizingly long time it takes for the box to respond to certain remote-control commands.

To its credit, the RCA UltimateTV box is designed not just to receive software upgrades but also to let consumers add new hardware easily.

It includes a Universal Serial Bus port that could connect to a high-speed modem, a home networking adapter, a game controller or a variety of other enhancements.

There's no guarantee that Microsoft will ever develop the software needed to support such upgrades, however, or that the other hardware in the box would be compatible with them. That's the gamble you take if you choose UltimateTV based on what it might do, not based on what it does today.

Consumers are used to making that kind of calculation when buying computers and other high-tech gear. As products such as the DirecTV-TiVo and UltimateTV units demonstrate, consumers will have to apply the same thinking to their home entertainment centers.


Times staff writer Jon Healey covers the digital living room.

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