Charles Engelke's Blog

July 5, 2003


Filed under: Gadgets — Charles Engelke @ 6:24 pm

I’ve thought that digital video recording was clearly the way to go
for the future, and I’ve been thinking about TiVo and ReplayTV since they
came out. I fought off the temptation for years because:

  • They’re too expensive. Way too expensive. This is just TV, after all!
  • They’d make my audio/video system too complicated.
  • They don’t have enough recording capacity.
  • The technology isn’t mature.

But they’re cool gadgets, and they kept calling to me. Last
Christmas my wife and I succumbed and bought a ReplayTV model 5160.

It’s wonderful.

It’s infuriating.

And it really is way too expensive, though not for the reason I first

How has the ReplayTV unit measured up against my worries? Mostly
pretty well.

Too expensive
Well, the prices have come way down, to about $250 for an “80 hour”
unit. But that’s not the real price: you have to pay more, supposedly
for the information service that drives them. That adds about $300 to the
price (or a monthly fee that adds up to more than that). And that’s
not the real capacity: an “80 hour” unit really records about 40 hours
at what I consider a reasonable quality (and I’m not picky). And see
below for other costs I ended up incurring.
Too complicated
The units themselves aren’t too bad. Apparently TiVo is easier
to use than ReplayTV, but even that unit isn’t bad. Except that it
may be the last straw in my audio/video system. I’ve got a satellite
receiver because I like the price and variety available. I’ve got
basic cable because no satellite service is ever going to offer local
channels in Macon (I don’t want local channels, I just want network
feeds, but the regulatory structure is very restrictive). I’ve got a
DVD player. A VCR. An old laserdisc player. An audio/video receiver.
And an audio tape deck and turntable that I finally unhooked. Oh, and
a PC to provide MP3 audio to the whole system. And now a ReplayTV. It’s
kind of a pain to watch TV now. My wife has a Ph.D. in computer
science, and even she gets lost sometimes.
Recording capacity
Most of the product lines start with 40 hour units (that are really
20 hour units). Traditionally, price varied almost linearly with
capacity, so larger units were outrageously expensive. That’s started
to change. We have a 160 hour (really 80 hour) unit, and that seems
about right for us. I’m out of town a lot, and it can take several
weeks for me to get to a show I like; this way, it’s still there.
Immature technology
Bingo! At least ReplayTV isn’t mature. I can’t recommend it
for anyone who doesn’t like working with electronics that break a lot.
The first unit we got had a broken infrared receiver. Since the only
non-remote control on the unit is the power button, it wasn’t very
useful this way (I was able to control it over the network via web
browser commands, but that’s no way to function). The next unit refused
to watch cable channel 6 (it was happy to watch local channel 6, which is
the exact same signal definition, but then it didn’t have a channel
guide). That’s ABC, so we didn’t notice it was gone for about a month,
and then we didn’t mind much. One day it started working, though it
sometimes still decided that there was nothing on channel 6. Then one
day the unit was just dead. We could do a hard reset by unplugging it
for a while, but then it just booted, crashed, booted, crashed, and so
on, forever. We had to send it back for repair. The repair was
quick, but we didn’t have the unit for a while, and we had to pay
shipping. And last week the unit started freezing until we did a hard
reset, missing recordings.

The unit seems to be working again. It downloads software upgrades
automatically over our high-speed Internet connection. Those upgrades fixed
some of the problems, but they also caused many of them. In particular,
the time we had to ship it off for repair was right after a new upgrade
was downloaded. I don’t have a lot of confidence that ReplayTV won’t break
the unit again. There’s no way to stop the software upgrades short of
disconnecting it from the network, and I’d lose the program guide if I
did that.

I got ReplayTV because I liked the idea of its openness and network
connectivity. There are free programs that let you download the MPEG
files to a PC, which I really like. I’ve got two old episodes of Law and Order,
one of CSI, and one movie (Panic Room) on my laptop waiting for me to have
some time on the road to watch them. But these features came at the cost
of a fairly hard to use unit that’s not stable.

By the way, what were the other expenses I alluded to above? Well, when
the ReplayTV had to be shipped off, I went into digital recorder withdrawl.
I tried to use the VCR, but I missed getting the show I wanted recorded. So
I did the obvious thing: I went to Best Buy and bought a $200 ATI Radeon
7500DV video card for the PC connected to the entertainment system. This
card has a video input and comes with software (and free program
guide service) to make the PC a digital recorder. It works pretty well,
though it’s not convenient to use. The ReplayTV is much better, though not
as stable.

Oh, and it made sense to spend just $150 to replace my Dish Network
receiver with a Dishplayer 508 receiver, which includes an 80 hour digital
recorder. This recorder is a dream to use! It’s very well integrated with
the receiver, so it’s not any harder to use than the receiver itself, and
when it says “80 hour” it means it. That’s also with great quality, because
the unit just records the exact digital feed that it would use to display
live programming. However, it doesn’t have its own MPEG encoder, so it can
only record satellite programming, nothing from cable or an antenna.

So I spent an additional $350 and now have three digital video recorders.
I don’t have a problem dealing with recording multiple shows at the same
time. But my TV system now require a six foot tall set of wire shelves
to hold it (and the TV itself doesn’t fit on the shelf).

My recommendation is to avoid ReplayTV unless you really want its unique
features (and TiVo is catching up on most of them, except for the wonderful
Commercial Advance ReplayTV has that’s priceless to viewers). If you have
a Dish Network receiver, you’ll really like the 508, but you might want a
TiVo or similar unit for non-satellite programming.


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