Demand for external hard drives is expected to accelerate as HD DVR set-top boxes (STBs) continue to proliferate, and consumers look for inexpensive ways to store and access all their digital data — including TV shows, digital music, digital photos and home movies — from their A/V systems or TV.
“[HD] consumers find their storage capacity is getting stretched,” observed Pat O'Malley, consumer electronics senior VP for Seagate, “and they're living with erasing content to add more. But instead of trading in for a new higher-capacity cable box, it'll be easier for the consumer to just add external storage.”
Nevertheless, HD DVRs haven't reached a critical mass for consumer electronics manufacturers to consider entering the external hard drive market — yet.
“In the future, when more HD content becomes available and HD DVRs become more available, that's something CE companies would look to do,” said Maria Gonzalez, marketing manager for Samsung's video product group, “but not right now.”
While CE vendors watch and wait, Maxtor and Seagate, primary hard disk drive suppliers for cable set-top DVRs, have struck out on their own. Both companies have introduced stand-alone external hard drives designed to be connected to the Motorola DCT64xx Phase III-series and Scientific-Atlanta 8300HD Explorer cable HD DVR STBs via the SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) connection jack to expand high-definition recording storage space.
Maxtor is now selling two QVX (Quick View eXpander) drives compatible with Scientific-Atlanta 8300HD Explorer STBs — a 160GB (23.5 hours HD, 100 hours SD, $299) and a 300GB (43 hours HD, 185 hours SD, $399) — on its Web site, although the SATA jack on a consumer's HD DVR STB must first be activated by the consumer's cable MSO.
QVX drives will be made compatible with Motorola DCT64xx Phase III STBs via software downloads sometime late in the first quarter of 2006, depending on the specific cable MSO, according to Lenny Sharp, consumer electronics products marketing director for Maxtor. Seagate has yet to announce specific availability for its DB35 extension DVR HDDs, which could come in capacities as high as 500GB. Cable STB DVRs offer boxes with hard disc storage space ranging from 80GB to 320GB.
Retailers, however, will not receive these new extension hard drives to sell, at least not this year. The SATA external hard drives will be rolled out initially in select markets by cable MSOs, starting this fall by Time Warner Cable. CableVision plans market-by-market test rollouts early next year, and other cable MSOs reportedly are looking at the market as well.
While all the technology is in place to make external drives viable, security, interface and business models are all being tested by cable MSOs.
SATA, and the eSATA (external SATA) offshoot, is a protocol overseen by the Serial ATA International Organization ( www.serialata.org) and provides transfer speeds of 1.5Gbps in the current generation of products and up to 3Gbps in next-generation drives, far faster than competing data interconnect technologies such as FireWire and USB.
But just because PCs and cable boxes each have a SATA jack does not mean that consumers will be able to connect a DB35 or QVX filled with HD material to a PC and disseminate the content over the net.
“The system software that Scientific-Atlanta has implemented on the 8300HD expands the encryption and content protection through the port creating a secure environment,” explains Maxtor's Sharp.
Cable MSO-controlled software recognizes only recorded HD content on the drives, which limits the amount of additional capabilities that Maxtor and Seagate can add to the drives for importing other digital media. But according to Sharp, Maxtor is considering adding wireless technology for transferring other content to the QVX, and both companies are considering the addition of flash-memory slots in next-generation product.
Once compatible HD DVR STBs with activated SATA jacks become more ubiquitous, both Maxtor and Seagate plan to sell their drives at retail.