Great devices, will get better

August 09, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

I've been playing with the first generation of digital video recorders, or DVRs, for a few weeks now. To their manufacturers, I want to say this: Please don't take them away from me!

They're that cool.

The machines I have at home are the TiVo, sold under the Philips brand name, and the Replay TV. These are the first of what promise to be many digital video recorders to come. (Last month, Dish Network, a direct satellite television service, announced a quirky but tempting hybrid product that combines satellite TV, Web TV and a limited-capability digital video recorder all for $199 plus monthly subscription fees.)

Setting up the TiVo and Replay was a little trickier than a traditional VCR. Fortunately, both machines come packed with poster-sized cheat sheets to guide you. I had both recording shows in less than an hour.

One big difference between DVR and VCR: You need to plug TiVo and Replay into a phone jack (a 25-foot phone chord is included with both) so each night it can dial a toll-free number to refresh its interactive TV listings.

The on-screen schedule was one of the features I enjoyed most. Replay and TiVo use different layouts; I preferred the aesthetics of TiVo's -- but both did the job. No more fumbling through a schedule booklet or resorting to that annoying cable TV channel where the listings crawl by. With the flick of a button, you can see what's on TV and what the show's about.

TiVo even goes one step further and allows you to sort the listings by name, time, channel, or theme. Pretty cool if you want to find all the science fiction or history shows on the air in the coming week.

Recording shows is a snap. Just highlight the one you want and hit record. Both machines give you the option of recording a show once or each time it airs -- a boon for soap opera addicts. To prevent the internal hard drive from running out of room, both machines automatically delete programs after a set number of days. If there's something you want to keep, you can always archive the show on your VCR.

Another cool TiVo feature: The machine learns what you like to watch so it can suggest shows you may not have found otherwise. You teach it by using a Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down button on the remote. For example, I gave a "NOVA" show on the secret life of cats and dogs two thumbs up (you can press each button up to three times). The next time I turned on the tube, TiVo threw up a list of eight shows with a science and nature bent -- a few of which I even wanted to watch.

One drawback: Since you can create only one profile of viewing preferences, the shows that TiVo suggests might be way off base if, say, your 10-year-old daughter has been the one voting.

And there are privacy issues to consider. TiVo eventually hopes to collect and sell this data. While it will be grouped by ZIP code and carry no identifying information -- such as your name, address or phone nuumber -- that might not be acceptable to everyone. TiVo does give customers a way to opt out using a mail-in form included in the instruction manual.

There are other important differences between the machines. The TiVo hums quietly; Replay emits an annoying whine. Replay tells you how much time you have left to the second; TiVo employs an imprecise green bar. TiVo's remote control is sleek and intuitive. Replay's is clunky and confusing.

And then there's price. The TiVo costs $499 to $999, depending on how many hours of TV it holds. Replay is priced from $699 to $1,499. In addition, TiVo buyers pay $9.95 a month for the interactive program guide or $199 for lifetime service. Replay provides its scheduling service free.

Should you get one? The question is not whether to buy one, but when. My advice would be to wait a year. By then new competitors will emerge, prices will have dropped and DVR makers will have borrowed the best of each other's features.

If you're a TV junkie who must have one now, go with TiVo. It's more elegantly designed and ultimately a better value.


Replay TV Replay Networks Inc. (800) 266-1301

Phillips Personal TV TiVo Inc. (877) 367-8486

DishPlayer EchoStar Communications (800)333-3474

Pub Date: 08/09/99

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