If the performance of Sony's new SAT-T60 is a trustworthy indicator, the future of personal video recording (PVR) devices is in the marriage of hard-drive recording technology with multichannel digital TV decoders for digital television service providers.
The first generation of the TiVo stand-alone recorders-marketed by both Philips and Sony, with little differentiation between the two-brought convenience to time-shifters and the ability to pause and rewind live programming.
However, a recent run-through by TWICE of the next-generation Sony SAT-T60 ($399 street price, plus subscription of $199 lifetime or $9.95 monthly) verified that a combo PVR/ DirecTV integrated receiver decoder (IRD) brings a significantly enhanced value to the PVR category.
It also gives retailers an answer to curmudgeonly customers who complain of hundreds of channels and nothing to watch.
Using TiVo's intuitive programming software, the device will allow users to pick programs to record and automatically record programs it selects for them, based on viewing-pattern data it collects. Users then cache a number of programs to watch during dry spells in the program schedule.
This was true of both the old stand-alone TiVo boxes and new combination devices, but the new DirecTV models go further by expanding the ability to store more programs in higher picture quality with little or no additional cost (thanks to DirecTV's hardware subsidy program).
Instead of having to step down picture quality by removing picture data while compressing signal information (a frustrating exercise) the system collects the digital bitstreams coming off the DirecTV satellites directly onto TiVo's hard disk.
This eliminates the need to first decode the signal only to re-encode it to digital form for storage, a process that degrades picture quality and takes up more room on the disk.
The SAT-T60 comes with a hard-drive capable of storing up to 35 hours of programs at a time before having to automatically erase the oldest program to make room for additional content. Also, because that bitstream is cached as is without further compression, it can be played in full MPEG2 resolution that is virtually indistinguishable from the live program.
As with the first-generation stand-alone TiVo boxes, the integrated model will pause, forward and rewind live television programming. It will also allow viewers to advance through commercials or boring program segments at three speeds.
Viewers will have a visual reference to help determine when to return to normal speed. When high-speed advance is selected, the program automatically skips back 20 seconds when returning to "play" mode.
TiVo also used the introduction of the Sony SAT-T60 and equivalent Philips devices to issue a new version of software that simplifies the process of searching for a program from DirecTV's vast sea of options.
The new "Wish List" area, which TiVo said it will make available in a seamless download for owners of the first-generation stand-alone units early this year, enables users to find programs by actor, director, genre, etc
This can be used in tandem with the system's "Thumbs Up" or "Thumbs Down" buttons to train the recorder to automatically find and suggest for selection (or to automatically record) programs featuring any of those selected parameters-which makes the intuitive recording function more accurate in selecting compelling programs to store.
Also included are dual TiVo and DirecTV onscreen program guides that give users an option of choosing the guide look and feel they like best.
More significantly, TiVo said that like the forthcoming UltimateTV devices that will integrate WebTV and PVR capabilities into a DirecTV tuner, the new DirecTV combo boxes from both Sony and Philips are designed for dual-tuning capabilities.
However, to perform the function a new version of TiVo's software, which was not ready at launch time, is required and will be downloaded automatically early this year.
Users who are not already equipped with DirecTV capability for three or more rooms will also have to purchase a signal multiplexor connector to split the signal coming off the dish.
Beyond WebTV capability, the UltimateTV products will offer picture-in-picture, where DirecTV/TiVo devices will not.
The Sony model features a sleek silver metallic cabinet matched to the look of the popular Wega flat-tube televisions. Sony's TiVo models will also automatically program a Sony-branded VCR to begin recording when a user wants to collect a program on the hard drive or tape for archival purposes.
Also noteworthy is the remote control, which is lighter and longer. Added is a back-channel button that was not included in first-generation devices and one-digit channel tuning for local TV stations carried by the satellite service.
The continued drawback of TiVo recorders is a rather lengthy setup process. The channel-formatting process can take several hours (typically overnight) before the recorder functions can be used-a condition that can be frustrating and confusing to first-time users.
Overall, the SAT-T60 is very easy to use and offers a significant enhanced value when combined with a digital television service such as DirecTV. Now, Sony's mission, and that of retailers, will be to explain the somewhat complex advantage to users, who thus far have demonstrated a comprehension barrier to the PVR concept. n