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PVRs Merge With Satellite And Cable Boxes

Las Vegas -- Anyone interested in seeing the future of the burgeoning personal video recorder (PVR) category needed to go no farther than last month's Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Show, where a legion of the new devices appeared disguised as satellite receivers.

The move to merge the hard-drive-based digital recording technology into digital satellite receiver/decoders is the most practical adaptation of the concept to date, although all such devices lack the ability to record programs that are not delivered via satellite.

Industry executives expect the PVR category to move 400,000-500,000 units by year's end, with combination products representing about half of that total.

These new devices -- pioneered by EchoStar's similarly featured DishPlayer system last year -- record the bitstream signals just as they were received from the dish, without the need to decode, re-encode and decode again as is required when separate dedicated PVRs and integrated receiver/decoders (IRDs) are used.

This increases the storage capacity of the hard drive, eliminates the need for multiple compression formats in favor of one top-quality compression format, and prevents picture artifacts introduced in the encode/decode process.

EchoStar's DishPlayer, which was introduced last year, incorporates a hard-drive digital recorder, Dish Network IRD and WebTV terminal.

Microsoft, which is the parent of WebTV, took the concept a step further when it corralled Thomson and DirecTV to produce a DirecTV-based version of the unit, called UltimateTV.

Sony also unveiled its own version of the UltimateTV recorder, which was first launched by Thomson in June.

Thomson said its RCA DS4290RE UltimateTV unit will be priced at a $399 suggested retail or $449 with dish, while Sony announced its SAT-W60 will sell for $450, including wireless keyboard but omitting the dish.

Both units are expected by the holiday selling season. The primary difference between the two models is cosmetic. Key features include two tuners for use with picture-in-picture TVs, 300x fast forward, and 30 hours or recording capacity.

In addition to video recording, UltimateTV units include Internet access via Microsoft's WebTV service. Microsoft would not reveal service pricing for UltimateTV except to say service would be offered in various tiers - with a basic tier including video recording functions, an Advanced Program Guide, and "a limited number" of Internet hours per month.

A complete service option would add unlimited Internet access via the WebTV browser. Microsoft representatives said the company is exploring the possibility of combining an UltimateTV Web account with a Microsoft Network user's desktop PC account.

Sony revealed that it would compete head-to-head with Philips by offering a DirecTV/TiVo combination box this year. Philips' DSR6000 and Sony's SAT-T60 are both expected to sell for about $400 (without dish) when they arrive in the fall.

Both DirecTV/TiVo models will store up to 30 hours of programming at a time (depending on the bit rate used to transmit the program), and will be capable of receiving signals from DirecTV's multiple satellite locations using an appropriate dish.

Sony also stated that its box - like the previously announced DirecTV/WebTV/Thomson UltimateTV system - would be capable of tuning and recording two different DirecTV channels simultaneously, following a future software download.

A similar option is being offered on the new AOL-TV service, which will be marketed by Hughes Network Systems (HNS) and Philips. The HNS unit combines the AOL-TV terminal with a DirecTV receiver/decoder, while the Philips unit will not include DirecTV reception.

Philips executives have discussed the possibility of combining their AOL-TV system with a TiVo recorder in future combination products, but that variation will not arrive this year. Philips' AOL-TV set-top box will sell for $250 and is rolling out now to select markets.

Hughes left the door open to the possibility that its AOL-TV/DirecTV receiver could be upgraded to allow video recording using a software download. The product is scheduled to ship early next year, and early models will enable 20-minute video pausing of live programming.

Philips also offers products for the rival EchoStar platform, and executives at SBCA said they will add the DishPlayer combination WebTV/PVR/DirecTV IRD to their Dish Network product line.

Both TiVo and rival ReplayTV revealed that they will take the PVR concept to cable providers shortly. Comcast said it is beginning separate market trials using both the TiVo and Replay devices.

Starting around Aug. 1, 220,000 Comcast cable subscribers in the Cherry Hill, N.J., area would be able to lease a TiVo recorder with 30 hours of capacity for an $18.95 flat monthly fee, which will cover both the hardware and TiVo's fee for its personal television service.

At the same time, Comcast will offer a ReplayTV device and free ReplayTV service in its Burlington County, N.J., market for a flat $11.95 monthly fee.

ReplayTV had earlier announced plans for a similar trial with Time Warner Cable, using one of that MSO's Southern California markets. The Replay recorder will be integrated into a modified Motorola set-top decoder.

The setup will use merged onscreen guides, parental controls, pay-per-view ordering and other features, and will cache digital bitstream signals to the hard disk.

The six-month trial, starting in August, will include a special ReplayZone, giving Time Warner Cable customers new and powerful ways to find and record the feature programming they want to view, ReplayTV said.

The Time Warner Cable ReplayZone will categorize movies into 10 genres. Customers will be able to select "Comedy," for example, and get a listing of all the comedy programming scheduled to appear on pay-per-view in the next seven days. The viewer can select the programs to be recorded.

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