IS THE VCR an endangered species?

Some amazing video display devices have been coming into my office lately, thanks to the digital signal revolution. Ultralight projectors and digital
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IS THE VCR an endangered species?

Feb 1, 2000 12:00 PM, Peter H. Putman

Some amazing video display devices have been coming into my office lately,thanks to the digital signal revolution. Ultralight projectors and digitalimage scalars are just two of the products I tested in the past year thatare turning both the consumer and professional A-V business upside-down.Now, a new product has come along that may have an even bigger impact - thepersonal video recorder (PVR). Although this product is aimed at theconsumer market, you are sure to see plenty of them in high-endinstallations.

For those of you who have not yet heard about PVRs, here is the scoop. APVR is essentially a computer hard drive working as a digital VCR. Itcombines an RF tuner and several hours of storage with such functions astime-shifted viewing, program searching by name, date and program type, andautomatic program schedule updates via a remote server.

The amount of storage depends upon the size of the hard drive, but atypical PVR will be able to record from 2 hours of programming at highestresolution to 14 hours at lowest resolution. The quality inlower-resolution modes is superior to that of VHS tapes running atsuper-long play speed. More importantly, PVRs support Y/C component videooutputs, which enhances video quality.

As of this writing, two companies are offering PVRs. The first is ReplayNetworks, Palo Alto, CA, and it also announced a version to be sold byPanasonic. The second model, the one I have tested for about a month now,was designed by TiVo, Sunnyvale, CA, and is manufactured and marketed byPhilips Electronics.

The TiVo system does not look like much out of the box. It is about thesize of a multi-CD changer and has a full complement of A-V in and outjacks on the rear and a standard RJ-111 telephone jack. The remote controldoubles as a TV or VCR remote and has a large "TiVo" button on it forinstant access to the various menus.

In theory, you install TiVo ahead of all other video components so that itbecomes the brains of a system. TiVo's receiver has a full cable-readytuner built-in, but you can also use it as an off-air receiver. TiVo wasthoughtfully designed with serial and IR interfaces on the control box,which allows operation with and control of a satellite receiver.

Oddly enough, even though there are RF in and out jacks on the rear panel,the owner's manual tells you to use an RF splitter ahead of TiVo. In mytests, the RF out jack was inactive in all operating modes.

The TiVo configuration menu prompts the user for information about thelocal cable company, determined by inputting your zip code. TiVo dials aremote server via an 800 number to do this initial setup, which also asksto which level of cable service you are currently subscribed (basic,enhanced basic or premium).

At this point, TiVo finishes the rest of the initialization, a process thatcan take as long as two hours. I ran this configuration late one nightafter the news, leaving TiVo to chug merrily along until almost 2:00 a.m.as I retired for the evening.

Once the initialization is complete, TiVo requires no further attention. Itmerely dials out each day to the remote server to load and update theprogram schedule for the next several days. It is a good idea to connectTiVo to a second line for this process; I use an Internet access telephoneline for updates.

When you press the "TiVo" button on the remote, a series of menus appearsthat lets you record programs, search for your favorite shows by genre,date or channel, or even hunt-and-peck through the schedule to see what youwant to record. Each time you select a program, a full-screen descriptionof that show appears along with the program duration and time of broadcast.

In fact, you can use TiVo to record any show you want on the fly bypressing the "record" button. In addition, TiVo always writes and storesdata on any active channel, so you can come into a show as much as 40minutes late and still be able to watch the entire program with full freezeframe, reverse and fast forward control. Of course, TiVo must be set to thedesired channel when the program begins for this feature to work.

TiVo comes in two different flavors. The basic version can record up to 14hours of video at lowest quality. Step up to the next quality level(medium), and that drops to 8 hours, while high quality level provides 6hours of recording time. The highest quality, best, will store 4 hours ofvideo and audio. Another model is available for a higher price that willstore 30, 18, 14 or 9 hours of video in basic, medium, high and bestquality modes, respectively.

Although TiVo's director of product marketing, Bob Poniatowski, could notgive me specific bit rate figures, he did indicate that data flows at about2 Mb/s in the lowest quality mode and about 6 Mb/s in best mode. Unlike theMPEG-2 encoding on DVDs, TiVo uses constant bit rate encoding in all modes.One drawback to TiVo is the lack of any data port to download storedprogramming to a removable storage device. This feature would essentiallyrender VCRs obsolete if and when it becomes available, although there willprobably be the usual copyright issues raised by lawyers for mediaconglomerates.

Aside from these minor details, the next hurdle for PVRs will becompatibility with HDTV broadcasts. That will mean a larger hard drive plusa DTV receiver/decoder in the same box, and these two features would pushthe price up somewhat. Hard drive space would have to increase by a factorof four to five to store an equivalent amount of HDTV programming at thesame bit rate.

Unlike other consumer electronics appliances, the TiVo receiver is designedto be upgradable. Software upgrades are downloaded every time the box dialsin to get program listings, and there is enough space inside the chassisfor extra hard drives. Incidentally, TiVo uses IDE drives for recording andserving video, which is a departure from the digital media acquisition,production and editing formula of multiple SCSI drives.

After a month of testing, I can tell you that TiVo works well enough topose a real threat to VCRs. You can be sure that other companies willshortly come to market with hard drive virtual VCRs, and that the prices ofall models will plummet as a result. Right now, the 14 hour TiVo systemcosts $499 (30 hour is $999), and the daily dial-up program service willset you back $9.95 per month or a one-time fee of $199.

That dial-up service alone makes TiVo a worthwhile investment, and you evenget a daily e-magazine called TiVolution as part of the package. Thisprogram guide is best described as TV Guide with a hip edge, and itincludes listings for top 20 actors and top 20 directors appearing on cableand broadcast channels any given week.

Although sales of PVRs are moving along slowly, it is a safe bet that moreand more consumers will want these units as they become aware of theoperating features and benefits. PVRs present a more elegant choice forday-to-day viewing in a home theater installation, although a VCR is stillhandy if you want to archive a program that you have recorded on TiVo.

Depending on the success of PVRs, the technology will be adapted to otheruses. Custom video networks that carry narrow-cast programming could createtheir own program guides for TiVo servers. Financial institutions might usea bank of TiVo units to record satellite feeds from around the globe, whilehospitals and medical schools could download CME (continuing medicaleducation) programs.

PVR technology is still in its infancy, but the significance oftime-shifted video recording cannot be underestimated. If this conceptturns out to be popular, which is pretty likely given the increasingtime-shifting nature of society, the ultimate step for networks would be toprovide programming directly from servers, allowing individual viewers tochoose what they watch and when they watch it.

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