When it comes to the whole
digital video recorder revolution, I'm actually old school--vintage, even. As I mentioned in a previous column
, I have the very first TiVo model, the original 10-hour version, built circa 1999, which I upgraded with a second 80GB hard drive a few years ago. I haven't felt the need to step up to a Series2
for a couple of reasons. For starters, I wanted to get the most out of my "lifetime" TiVo subscription, which is good only for the box it's assigned to. And secondly, the product I really want--at the price I want--hasn't hit stores yet.
It is getting closer, though.
What I want is a modestly priced 80-hour TiVo (or ReplayTV) unit with a built-in DVD recorder that allows you to easily make hard copies of shows you've recorded on the hard drive. Now that prices for recordable DVD media have plummeted, you can make your own DVDs for less than 50 cents apiece--an appealing concept, especially for parents looking to save some bucks by not buying those Nickelodeon and Disney-type DVDs for their young kids.
To me, this combo unit is the real deal, the true VCR replacement we've all been waiting for. But the devil is in the details; a plastic box with a hard drive and a DVD burner grafted together doesn't cut it. Consider the early combo units from the likes of Panasonic and Philips. Yes, you could record dozens of hours of programming to the hard drive and archive programs to DVD for keeps. But they lacked two key elements that have made TiVo so user-friendly: an easy-to-use electronic programming guide (EPG) and the ability to control just about all cable and satellite boxes.
This combo is the real deal, the true VCR replacement we've all been waiting for.
More recent models, the Panasonic DMR-E95H and the Philips HDRW720, have addressed both concerns with the addition of the TV Guide On Screen EPG (for choosing which programs you want to record) and IR blasters (for controlling external cables boxes). But based on our hands-on tests, the otherwise serviceable TV Guide On Screen system falls short in the area of compatibility: the guide draws a blank when connected to satellite systems or digital cable boxes. As broadcasters continue to convert to fully digital signals, future versions of the TV Guide EPG should fare better, but the current drawbacks leave a large swath of the TV-viewing population in the cold.
So using the real TiVo operating system in this idyllic combo recorder is crucial. Those of you who follow this space closely are probably saying about now, hey, Pioneer came out last year with exactly the product I'm describing: the DVR-810H. Yeah, it did, and we liked it so much, we gave it an Editors' Choice award. But that model, which listed for $1,200 initially and now sells for less than $500 online, costs a bit more than I'd like. True, it does include TiVo Basic, which means you can save on the extra $12.95 a month or $299 for a lifetime subscription if you're willing to go with just the bare-bones TiVo EPG (3-day vs. 14-day program listings, no Wish List, no Season Pass, and no home networking features). But the TiVo/DVD recorder combo I'm looking for should cost closer to $500 with full-blown TiVo service.
The good news is that the competition is about to intensify. Toshiba is shortly entering the fray with a moderately priced TiVo DVD recorder, the RS-TX20, and I and our resident DVR guru, associate editor John Falcone, have our eye on a company called Humax, which this month is releasing a TiVo DVD recorder that promises to lower the price bar even further. Like the Toshiba, the Humax DRT800 includes a feature that the Pioneer doesn't--a FireWire connection for attaching a DV camcorder so that you can easily burn your home movies to a disc.
The Humax, which retails for just less than $500 without TiVo service, also costs a few hundred bucks more than I'd like it to. While TiVo is currently offering a $100 rebate when you activate its service, you'll still need to pony up the aforementioned service fees (if you expect to keep your TiVo for longer than two years, the $299 lifetime fee is the better deal). Seven hundred dollars is still pretty pricey for a VCR replacement, even if it is really smart.
In lieu of new DirecTV-style partnerships with cable and satellite companies, TiVo's best hope for survival is pairing up with manufacturers such as Humax.
Before I forget, it is worth noting that TiVo isn't leaving existing subscribers who aren't quite ready to shell out for a new combo unit totally in the cold. It's about to offer something called TiVo To Go, a PC software solution (rumored to cost only $40 to $50) that allows users to view recorded programs on their networked computers and burn them to disc so long as they have a DVD burner. It's not as elegant a solution as the all-in-one combo recorders, but it does give current tech-savvy owners of Series2 units, as well as prospective ones, an affordable alternative.
It'll be interesting to see how the whole TiVo saga plays out. While TiVo has surpassed the impressive 2-million-subscriber mark, much of its growth has come from its deal with DirecTV--a company with which its relations have become increasingly murky. Meanwhile, TiVo continues to face fierce competition from cable and satellite companies giving away their own no-name DVRs to customers in exchange for adding a small fee to their monthly bill. And Microsoft has its own big plans for its Media Center PCs. So in lieu of new DirecTV-style partnerships with cable and satellite companies, TiVo's best hope for survival is pairing up with manufacturers such as Humax to create these types of user-friendly, lower-cost hard drive DVD recorders that truly meet the criteria for an idiot-proof VCR replacement.
Of course, some of you out there are wondering when a high-definition TiVo unit with burn-to-disc capabilities will arrive. With Blu-Ray recorders not due in the United States until next year--Sony has introduced one in Japan--optimistically, we're a good year to a year and half away from such a product. And even it does become available, it will be prohibitively expensive ($2,000 to $3,000)--and the media will be, too. So for now, I'm sticking with my real dream product: an affordable TiVo that burns DVDs.
What features would be in your perfect DVD recorder? Is a hard drive-based DVR a must? HDTV support? Dual tuners? Click the TalkBack Now button to get your two cents in.
David Carnoy is an executive editor for CNET Reviews.