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Television remote controls with a very long reach

Now, you don't even have to be at home to tell your TiVo or ReplayTV machine to record favorite shows.

August 14, 2003|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

You're at the office when someone tells you about a great television show that's on tonight. Problem is, you won't be home in time to see it.

But if you have the latest setup from TiVo, which makes digital recorders that store TV programs for later viewing, you don't need to be home to program the machine.

You go on the Internet from your office -- or, for that matter, anywhere in the world with online access -- to tell your TiVo to record the show.

This feature, called remote scheduling, marks another step in allowing TV watchers to take control of their viewing schedules. It's also available on the latest personal video recorder (PVR) model by the other big name in the field, ReplayTV, but its machines can't handle impulse scheduling; the remote requests need to be made about 24 hours ahead.

Remote scheduling is the first practical application of what has been long promised for households in the digital age: a way to control appliances, via the Internet, from far-flung locales.

For years, researchers have been working on a variety of such projects, most famously at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. That lab's Counter Intelligence project, begun in 1998, strives to create Internet-connected kitchen appliances such as a refrigerator that keeps track of the food inside.

It is interesting work, but is a fancy online setup needed to tell you that you're low on milk?

Remote control via the Internet has found a more congenial home with PVRs, which have gained hugely devoted followings because of the ease with which they allow what has come to be known as "time-shift viewing."

Devotees have even started to use the leading company's name as a verb, as in "I TiVoed that show last night so I could watch it on Sunday."

Videocassette recorders, which have been around much longer, also can be used to time shift. But anyone who has tried to configure a VCR to reliably record a show in the future can appreciate the straightforwardness and reliability of digital personal video recorders.

In normal operation, the TiVo and ReplayTV machines get daily updates, via built-in telephone modems, of your television schedule geared to your cable or satellite service.

If you're at home and want to schedule the machine to record a show, you scroll through lists of upcoming programs on your TV screen and make your selections.

You can even record a whole season of a particular show. The machine does so by title, not time slot, so that if your favorite program is on at a different time one week, the recorder still will catch it.

The most magical-seeming functions of the recorders concern how they handle live TV. Because they always are recording when you are watching the tube, you can pause and then resume at the point you stopped. Similarly, you can do your own instant replay and then catch up with the live broadcast.

Remote scheduling on TiVo is available on only the company's latest model, Series2, which retails for about $225 and up, plus a programming subscription for $12.95 a month, or $299 for the life of the machine.

You also need TiVo's home media option package, which includes a host of features; it goes for a one-time fee of $99. (AOL subscribers don't need to buy this package for remote scheduling. It's offered to TiVo owners on the service at keyword "television.")

To do remote scheduling, you register at TiVo's Web site to localize your service. You'll get a directory of all your available channels and what is on them for the next 10 days or so.

You can browse through a channel's schedule or do a search based on the name of a show, an actor or a director. You click on the program to add it to your "to do" list of shows to be recorded, and TiVo sends you an e-mail to confirm the request.

The order reaches your home TiVo fairly quickly -- usually within an hour in our tests and sometimes in minutes -- if your TiVo uses a broadband Internet line at home.

Normally, TiVo is connected to a regular telephone line and makes a daily call -- usually in the dead of night to avoid your own calls -- to receive schedule updates.

But connecting it to broadband Internet allows changes, including your remotely placed orders, to come through far more often.

This kind of hookup takes a bit of doing and expense, especially if you don't have some a home network that allows your broadband DSL or cable modem line to be used for more than one computer.

To make a network you'll need a router, which can be bought for about $40, to split the incoming cable or DSL broadband line. You plug the Internet line into the router, then run Ethernet cable from it to your computer and video recorder.

Because the recorder and computer are often in different rooms, you might want to save all that fuss by getting a wireless router and a small wireless receiver (called a wireless USB adaptor) for the machine. Each costs about $60.

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