Originally created 07/09/01

Assessing the new digital recording technologies



New digital recording technologies are trying to sell much more than recording off television minus videotape. What they're really selling is a way for people to live their lives without being interrupted by TV schedules or remembering to program the VCR.

Or, looking at it another way, they're selling a way to watch TV without being interrupted by life.

For example, you're watching your favorite series. Five minutes from the season finale, the phone rings, and it's a call you need to take. Simply hit pause on a remote, and pick up where you left off after the call.

Next, you're recording the ballgame and you get home early, somewhere in the middle of the third inning. You don't have to wait until the game is over to watch the tape: Just start watching on your own personal time-delay.

Too many commercials on what you've recorded? Blast through them at fast-forward warp speeds.

It's the new wave in video recording, but so far, consumers haven't really embraced it, even though it's relatively easy to use.

With digital video recording, a TV program is recorded and stored on a hard drive, like a computer file. But the viewer can also watch and manipulate programs in real time, as if they were on tape.

TiVo, which debuted in 1999, touted itself as the TV viewer's own personal TV network. It works with any TV or cable system.

A new competitor in digital recording technology is Microsoft's UltimateTV, which was launched in January at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. UltimateTV combines DirectTV satellite programming, live TV controls, digital recording, interactive television and Internet access.

With both systems, the key appeal is no tapes, no timers. For those who are baffled by their VCR controls, the new technology is much more user-friendly: Instead of programming to record something, you use a remote control to point and click at what you want to record on a program guide on the TV screen.

Both systems let the viewer control live TV in the same way they can use a tape. You can pause or replay or run in slow-motion what you're watching in real time.

You can do your own instant replay, view things frame by frame and rewind or fast forward at a higher speed. Both offer varying speeds of fast-forward.

UltimateTV stores 35 hours of programming; TiVo between 20 and 60 hours, depending on the configuration chosen. To archive a recording permanently, it can be transferred to videotape. We'll need to keep at least a couple of videocassettes on hand for that.

Both have unique features. TiVo has an automatic "conflict detection" system, so the user can't try to tape two programs that are on at the same time.

Its Season Pass feature automatically records episodes of a series, so the viewer doesn't have to program it weekly. It can bypass reruns and adjust for schedule changes.

A viewer can configure program listings to display only the channels and networks he watches.

It features an interactive service that lets the viewer see a preview of a show and automatically schedule a recording.

Users also can search for shows featuring a certain actor or director.

UltimateTV offers viewers the added capability of watching or recording two shows at once, plus Internet connections. Viewers can surf the Internet and watch TV at the same time or access e-mail while watching TV.

The company plans to enhance the service, adding elements like high-speed Internet access (the system currently utilizes a 56K modem connection).

Its trademarked Kid Friendly technology also lets parents monitor both TV and Web content.

But for all of their gee-whiz abilities, neither TiVo nor its early competitor RePlay has set the consumer world on fire. TiVo has cut back its work force by 25 percent, and Replay has been bought out.

Many consumers weren't clear on what they could do and how they were different from conventional VCRs, other than the cost: Prices ranged initially from $600 to $800, far exceeding the price most people would pay for a VCR today. Electronics industry analysts and retailers blamed poor marketing for the misperceptions.

Prices have since come down.

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