DVR = VCR++. Finally, somebody gets it!

by Matthew Gast

Related link: http://www.thomsonscenium.com




I read about RCA's DRS7000N box in a "gifts for geeks" article. The product combines a DVD player with a DVR (digital video recorder, also called a personal video recorder). I pulled down the instruction manual. The DVR looks pretty limited compared to some other products on the market. The only reason I noticed it is that there's no required subscription to a service run by the manufacturer.




The service is Gemstar's GUIDE Plus+ service. (See a demo at Gemstar's interactive program guide (IPG) page.) This is the technology that's bundled with the ATI Radeon All-in-Wonder cards, too, so you might already have some familiarity with it.




To make a long story short, in other words, unlike competitive DVRs, this one is actually a product. Once you buy it, you own it. It's not like the long-term rent/lease model used by the competition where you have to have an ongoing subscription that gives them the contractual right to change anything at any time.



Is it a coincidence that RCA, a well-known consumer electronics manufacturer, understands that selling a DVR is a lot like selling a souped-up VCR, but that other companies don't appear to have tickets on the clue train yet?



Do you own a DVR? If so, which one? If you're a holdout like me, why?


10 Comments

anonymous2
2002-12-18 22:14:26
uggg shortsighted review...
Give me a break. my tivo subscription is more than worthwhile value to me.


A built in DVD is dumb if you ask me.
a) they aren't going to put in the best dvd for the money
b) if the dvd or the dvr breaks you have to send both back and you can't use either while its being fixed.


Also, by your own admission the dvr features are limited. TiVO is anything but.


Not eveything in the world can be linux-free (which is only free if your time is.)


To each his own. But you usually get what you pay for.


P.S. i just checked the price of the rca dvr. Its $599! Double ugg. You can get a tivo with more capacity AND a lifetime (no fee per month) subscription for about the same if not less....



anonymous2
2002-12-18 22:19:12
p.s.
Can we all agree that the following words and phrases should never be used again?


clue train
jump the shark


;)

mgast
2002-12-19 12:47:53
The point: Why is a service required?
> A built in DVD is dumb if you ask me.


I agree with you. The DVR I want would replace my VCR and cost what a TiVo/ReplayTV currently costs. It would offer the ability to use a service for additional functionality, but wouldn't require the service to operate.


> You can get a tivo with more capacity AND a
> lifetime (no fee per month) subscription ...


Well, the life of TiVo anyway.


In their most recent (December 16) quarterly report, they note "We have recognized very limited revenue, have incurred significant net losses and may never achieve profitability." Companies that can't turn a profit cease to exist. No company = no service = no TiVo, at least according to my understanding of their product. I'd rather have TiVo charge $400 and sell me something that won't will retain some functionality if they go out of business.


This was not meant to be a product review. I was merely noting the existence of a product that acts more like a VCR (perpetual purchase rights) than a cell phone (device is a paperweight without service). It's a model that I would like to see catch on. If TiVo or SONICblue adopted it, I'd buy without hesitation. I certainly hope to see other manufacturers adopt it and bring cheaper DVR-only products to market in the coming year.

revdiablo
2002-12-19 13:13:14
uggg shortsighted review...
First, your subject seems to indicate you are going to criticize his review in terms of it's shortsightedness, yet your actual post simply criticizes his choice of not using TiVO. Personally, I'd argue that your post is far more shortsighted and shallow.


Also, you seem rather confused on what "linux-free" exactly means. Free of cost is one part, which your comment about free time addresses. There is another component to linux's freedom which is much more important to a lot of people. It is the freedom to use, distribute, and modify it as they see fit. This freedom is not dependent on 'having enough time'.

ernie_longmire
2002-12-19 18:24:51
Still shortsighted.
While some of the RCA's other features are pretty nifty, its PVR functionality is a weak second cousin to what's already on the market. By my reading of the manual you're still setting up recordings by channel, time slot and frequency, just like every VCR since the 1980s. You can use the interactive guide to pick which channel and time slot, but the recording system has no understanding of the actual content you're recording. If the time slot changes (think Fox Sunday nights or the shows on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim) you're going to record the wrong program. If there's a special two-hour episode of a one-hour show, you'll get half of it. If there's an extra episode on Tuesday in addition to Friday, you'll miss it.


You can't name a show and tell the box to record it every time it comes on. You can't automatically record all of Elijah Wood's talk show appearances. You can't tell it to watch for Douglas Sirk movies, or save a copy of 'Colossus: The Forbin Project' or 'Cold Turkey' if any channel you subscribe to happens to air them anytime between now and infinity. You can't silently skip repeats or make you always have five episodes of 'Cops' on tap. You can't tell it that when 'Enterprise' and 'Law & Order' overlap, Lenny always wins. Just like a tape, when the hard drive fills up, that's it -- it doesn't make room by removing older shows that are marked as deletable. Should I go on?


The RCA deck could definitely do some of this, maybe most of it, but it doesn't. My completely uneducated guess is that the "free" GUIDE Plus+ data just doesn't have the level of detail required (director? guest cast? original air date?). Maybe the licensing agreement prevents it. But that's the functionality that keeps people shelling out $12.95/month in subscription fees for their TiVos. Start providing *that* for free and you might be able to make a reasonable comparison.

anonymous2
2002-12-22 19:06:16
Um... been there, done that, got the T-shirt
Sounds like someone who hasn't been paying attention to the PVR market.


Replay had the "no fee, get the service" policy up until the 40xx or 45xx series (which closely coincides with the SonicBLUE buyout). Unfortunately, it meant that the Replay boxes were about $100 more than a similar-sized TiVo, which made them much harder to sell. They had to charge something to provide for the dialup POPs and pay Tribune for the guide info.


At least for the Replay, once it's "activated" and you discontinue the service, you can still use it as a glorified VCR. No channel guide data, but you can manual record to your heart's content. (I don't know if it affects your ability to use other features like show sharing.)


You do have a point that I've debated with some of my friends that you should only have to pay for the guide data once, whether it's through a PVR, digital cable, satellite, or other means.


Jason Untulis

mgast
2002-12-23 15:58:10
"service included in base price" != "no service necessary"
> Replay had the "no fee, get the service" policy
> up until the 40xx or 45xx series (which closely
> coincides with the SonicBLUE buyout).


My point was not about the recurring service cost as much as the apparent requirement to use the manufacturer's bundled service. The device obviously has the technology to work like a VCR, and I should get that set of abilities forever for my $200-300. I am purchasing the box, not merely renting it from the manufacturer, after all.


The service component is a big innovation, and rightfully exists as an extra-cost premium option. The essence of my point is that the hardware business (making boxes) and the service business (channel listing and the "intelligence") should be separate. With separate businesses, you could choose to have a dumb DVR that acts like a VCR with a hard disk, or you might choose to trade up to a smart DVR by subscribing to a service for additional features.


A related point is that if the hardware and service are not separate, I don't think it's appropriate to use the verb "purchased" to refer to the initial outlay. You have handed over money for the right to subscribe to a service, which is a tenuous deal if the service can go bust or change its terms unilaterally at any time. Why spend $200 for a DVR if there's the possibility the service would change in a way you didn't like? If you can't revert to a "dumb VCR mode," when you quit subscribing, you're out the $200.


> At least for the Replay, once it's "activated"
> and you discontinue the service, you can still
> use it as a glorified VCR. No channel guide data,
> but you can manual record to your heart's
> content. (I don't know if it affects your ability
> to use other features like show sharing.)


Much of what I've read indicates that it doesn't work without a current paid-up subscription, and the ReplayTV manual doesn't address the subject. The closest thing I've read that seems to be on point is the ReplayTV 4500 activation FAQ:


"Question: Can I use any of the ReplayTV functionality like Manual recording without paying a monthly fee or the one-time activation/subscription fee?"
"Answer: No. In order to use any of the ReplayTV functionality, you must either choose to pay a monthly fee or the one-time activation/subscription fee. (But once you start to use your ReplayTV with the ReplayTV service, you'll wonder how you ever watched TV without it!)"


I've asked SONICblue to clarify, but they certainly appear to discourage the impression they sell "glorified VCRs." And my understanding of the sharing feature is that it's a centralized resource database, so both the sender and recipient need to have current subscriptions to make the connection.

mgast
2003-01-18 17:53:21
Value of guide data
> My completely uneducated guess is that the "free"
> GUIDE Plus+ data just doesn't have the level of
> detail required ... that's the functionality that
> keeps people shelling out $12.95/month in
> subscription fees for their TiVos.


It probably doesn't have the same level of detail. The RCA manual makes the product sound like a digital VCR with an ad-supported programming guide.


Your comment raises the question I keep coming back to: If the subscription is valuable, then why isn't it optional? Why can't the subscription stand on its own merits without being tied to a product? (It looks like shades of Microsoft and early versions of Internet Explorer, but without the market power of a de facto standard setter.)


How many more people might be comfortable buying a DVR if it were possible to try the subscription without of neutering the box if the service didn't live up to expectations. With a TiVo, if you don't like the subscription and discontinue it, you can't record anything. Why can't users retain the ability to use the dumb VCR interface without the guide data?

anonymous2
2003-03-17 19:22:26
The point: Why is a service required?
It's not as easy as you think.


Our company is developing an all-in-one home theater center that includes PVR functionality and no monthly subscription. You have a few choices:


1) Pay Tribune $12,000 a month + $0.03 per subscriber (how would you track your subscribers anyways???) to offer these listings, which would still have the customers reliant that your servers are fetching Tribune data daily and your company still exists.


2) Develop a software decoder for Guide+; unfortunately this would be useless for Dish Network/Digital Cable subscribers, which make up a large portion of the high-end home theater market. And there's the little trick of figuring out Guide+, if it's even legal to do so in the first place.


3) Scrape TV listings off tvguide.com or zap2it.com with an updating client that works with the latest version of their websites. Works until either company decides they don't like the load on their server and mangles the content somehow to be useless or takes it down altogether.


4) Tribune talked about offering listing data to personal users for a small monthly fee. A client could be written that would adapt to this and the user could (optionally) subscribe to the service for listing data. Seems like the best way, but I don't believe Tribune has that service ready yet; it's a work in progress.

anonymous2
2003-12-23 11:55:03
Um... been there, done that, got the T-shirt
Yeah, and the old ReplyTV PRVs that included service were over $400. This RCA unit, which includes a progressive scan DVD player, can be purchased at buy.com for $250 after rebate. If you compare that to today's entry level ReplayTV ($150 after rebate + $300 = $450) and TiVO ($200 after rebate + $300 = $500) the RCA is a bargain saving you at least $200.