GIMME MY DVR; VCRs Take Back Seat to Digital Recorders

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 26, 2003 | Go to article overview

GIMME MY DVR; VCRs Take Back Seat to Digital Recorders


Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Digital video recorders (DVRs) don't capture television programs on clunky videotape like VCRs do. They stockpile your favorite shows digitally, courtesy of the numbers 0 and 1.

That digital formatting has made such products as TiVo and ReplayTV a boon to television addicts, allowing them to record their favorite shows whenever they air and watch one recorded show while the machine records another, among other slick features.

Less obvious, except to those of a technological bent, is that such satellite television providers as Echostar have been delivering DVR-type services for nearly as long as TiVo and its ilk. Now, cable providers like Comcast are gearing up to include DVR features in its set-top boxes, offering the potential to move DVR use into the mainstream.

Tara Dunion, spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, says, at their core, DVRs are more like a personal computer than a VCR. The devices store television programming as digital data on a hard drive, not unlike how a computer captures information, Ms. Dunion says.

Picture quality on DVRs, also known as personal video recorders (PVRs), is a far cry from the fuzzy visuals to which VCR users have grown accustomed.

"It depends on your television, ... but it's going to be comparable to DVD quality," she says. What it won't look like is high definition television, or HDTV. The DVR technology won't allow for the devices to reproduce HDTV's sharp broadcasts.

Some DVRs allow programs to be recorded at a lesser quality, to squeeze more programming hours onto the hard drive. DVRs typically can store anywhere from 30 to 80 hours of programming before exceeding their storage capacity. Some cagey hackers have found ways to transfer recorded programs onto other media, like computers, but manufacturers like TiVo discourage that practice by encrypting video.

Do you like "The Sopranos"? The units, which rely on subscription programming services ranging from $5 to $12 a month, will keep tabs on when the show airs on HBO and record every airing, if need be.

DVRs are smarter than the average VCR. They can analyze which shows a viewer regularly records, and, on their own, record shows with similar descriptions. A television viewer who routinely programs his or her TiVo to tape Sportscenter might end up with another sports-themed show saved for a rainy afternoon.

A TiVo unit taps television programming information, supplied by Tribune Media Services, which has an arrangement with TiVo, by placing brief, daily phone calls to access the information. These automated calls are made when the phone line isn't in use and may incur local or long-distance phone charges.

Viewers watching TiVo-recorded shows can skim over boring programming - especially commercials - by hitting the fast-forward button to skip ahead at 3,18 or 60 times regular playback speed.

ReplayTV users have a few luxury features they can tap, including a commercial skip feature that automatically passes over the bulk of the ads in a program. ReplayTV users also can transmit shows they have recorded to fellow ReplayTV users via phone lines.

Mark Streger, director at the Rockville-based Tech Council of Maryland and a TiVo user, says DVRs are more versatile than VCRs.

VCRs don't allow viewers to skip instantly from one part of a recorded program to another like DVRs can, says Mr. Streger, whose group promotes technological business and development in the region. "It's the key difference."

One of the technology's more intriguing features is the illusion of bypassing commercials shown during live broadcasts.

"Typically, if me and my wife watch 'NYPD Blue' we'll come down at 10:15 [to watch it]," he says. Then, they can watch the show and breeze through the commercials.

Here is how it works. Mr. …

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