It happened one Saturday two months ago--
a sad day in the Carnoy household, indeed. No prayers were read, no speeches made, but on that day, I somberly pulled my TiVo out of its slot in my A/V rack, lifetime subscription and all, and put it out pasture--or, to be more precise, dumped it on the floor of my bedroom closet right next to where I keep my dirty laundry. As TiVos go, it was something of a classic: a first-generation Philips-made Series 1 box that I had upgraded with a second hard drive to give me 110 hours of storage. But its time had come; I'd traded up for a "free" HD set-top box/digital video recorder combo unit, a newer, sexier model from my cable company that added only another $8.95 a month to my cable bill.
Even though the move seemed like a no-brainer--and a space saver--I was a bit apprehensive about the switch. After all, I was trading my real TiVo
for a fake TiVo. I have nothing against knockoffs when it comes to overpriced Italian handbags, but technology can be a little dicey, particularly when it comes to user interfaces. TiVo is the Mac OS of the DVR world. I loved it like any TiVo evangelist does, selling it to friends and
strangers. But no one was offering me a TiVo-powered HD digital video recorder for free. Heck, I couldn't even buy one if I wanted to because no cable-compatible, TiVo-powered HD recorders are currently available. (Satellite, yes
, cable, no.) So Windows--er, I mean, some generic DVR interface courtesy of Scientific Atlanta and Time Warner Cable--was it.
My "free" HD DVR: the Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HD
The HD set-top box/DVR combo unit I got is the Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HD. About eight months ago, Time Warner started offering the 8300's predecessor, the 8000HD. That model sported some impressive basic specs, not the least of which were dual HD tuners so that you could watch one program (high-def or standard) while recording another. Unfortunately, the 8000HD was also notoriously buggy, and it was housed in a case the size of an aircraft carrier. Senior Associate Editor John Falcone, our in-house DVR guru, was holding out for the rumored upgrade model, which promised newer software, improved features, and better overall performance. The rumors proved correct, and after he made the jump--and put it through its paces for a couple of weeks--I followed suit, trading in my standard high-def cable box for the 8300HD. "Fake" TiVo: good enough?
Sadly, after just a few days of getting used to the new interface, I began to forget about TiVo. Yes, I did have a faint longing for the little blip noise that accompanies each button press, the slick TiVo icons, and the company's animated mascot. But the 8300HD does about 75 percent of what my old TiVo did--namely, allow me to sign up to record a show every week (Season Pass), search by keywords such as actor and director, and pause live TV. There's even a sister model of the 8300 that supports video networking within the household between multiple boxes, similar to multiroom streaming features available on TiVo and ReplayTV
boxes. The 8300HD even has an HDMI output
, so with an inexpensive adapter
, it sends a crisp, all-digital picture to my DVI
-equipped HDTV. It's also worth mentioning that, unlike with TiVo, recording via the 8300HD doesn't affect image quality at all. That's because it records the cable provider's digital signal directly to the hard drive rather than relying on an analog connection from another external box.
Got any thoughts on free HD TiVo knockoffs or the business models of cable and satellite companies?
What the 8300HD can't do is go out and find me programs based on my tastes. It also doesn't list out upcoming programs as nicely as a TiVo-powered DVR would, making searches for movies more cumbersome. And my one pet peeve is that it loads only a few days worth of programming into its EPG (electronic programming guide) at a time. You can actually access to as much as 10 days' worth of data, but you have to manually scroll forward through the guide to get the extra 8 days to load into memory and, thus, become searchable. TiVo, on the other hand, always has two weeks' worth of programming loaded into its EPG. Another small downside to the 8300HD is that it's a little finicky. I've had to reboot the thing a couple of times because it wouldn't play back the shows I'd recorded. It was fine after the reboot, however.
The long and short of it is, the 8300HD isn't quite up to TiVo standards. But it does a decent job and offers significant feature upgrades over its predecessor, the 8000HD. The strides Scientific Atlanta has made in just eight months is impressive and should be of serious concern to TiVo. Yes, TiVo has cut a deal with Comcast to provide that cable giant with its boxes, and it's also announced plans for a CableCard HD DVR
. But with those products not due until late this year and early next year, respectively, the company's left HD-enabled cable customers such as me no alternative but to look elsewhere. The price of "free"
To call the 8300HD "free" is not really accurate, of course, because you're essentially leasing the box and paying a service fee on top of it. Total monthly cost: just shy of $17. As I said, Time Warner in New York City charges an $8.95-per-month leasing fee for a standard HD box. If none of that sounds like a bargain, it isn't, but the beauty of having the cable company "give" you a box is that you can turn it in whenever a newer, better model comes out that has improved software and features--and that seems to happening about every six to eight months.
In the fall, a few months before cable-giant Comcast will allegedly begin offering its first TiVo-powered DVRs to its customers (pricing has yet to be determined), Scientific Atlanta is scheduled to come out with an HD DVR with a built-in DVD burner. That product is called the MCP-100 Media Center
, and I'll probably be among the first in the line to pick it up. Time Warner hasn't announced yet whether the company will offer it, but it's a good bet that it will because the MCP-100 has some additional revenue opportunities attached to it. What the DVD burner will allow you to do, besides play back DVDs and CDs, is make hard copies of shows you've recorded with a touch of button. However, you won't be able to make high-def DVDs--the machine downconverts the video to standard definition before any copying goes on. Just as importantly, with the advent of broadcast or "content protection" flags, there's some question about what shows you'll be able to burn to disc for free and which ones you'll have to pay to burn. In any case, the MCP-100 Media Center is designed to be broadcast-flag compliant. It will also allow you to save even more real estate in your A/V rack; the goal for some minimalists will be to get down to an A/V receiver, a game console, and a single do-it-all box from the cable or satellite company.
DirecTV's HD TiVo: $1,000, and already obsolete
The bottom line is that the landscape for digital home entertainment is quickly changing. Sure, Sony and Microsoft are after a spot below your TV with their gaming consoles. But more and more, your local cable companies--as well as satellite providers--are carving out a big chunk of living-room real estate with "free" hardware that's essentially future-proof. Satellite providers aren't quite there yet in terms of heavy subsidies on HD DVRs, but they, too, will be forced to essentially give stuff away as the competition heats up. Consider, for instance, Digeo: once thought to be approaching vaporware status after a much-ballyhooed debut at the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show, the company has announced plans
to incorporate its Moxi-powered, Samsung-built set-top boxes to Adelphia and Charter cable subscribers later this year.
The major problem with this business model is that one would assume that it costs companies a lot of money to continually swap new boxes into the channel every six months. Inevitably, as with any good conglomerate, Time Warner passes the cost on to its customers, something I get to experience firsthand every month. My cable bill is pretty obscene--I pay $150 a month for three cable boxes and broadband service--and I expect it to continue to rise (it somehow seems tied to oil prices).
The big question is whether that kind of dough is a fair price to pay for "free" hardware that doesn't become obsolete. For now, with technology moving as quickly as it is, I've come to the conclusion I can live with it; it's a better deal than something such as Sony's $800 to $1,000 CableCard DVRs
or DirecTV's $1,000 TiVo-powered HD DVR
, especially when you find out that the latter won't be able
to pull in DirecTV's upcoming expanded HD channel lineup
because the satellite service is switching to new MPEG-4 AVC compression technology later this year. Of course, you may have a different opinion. Feel free to voice it