Last month we wrote about DVR's, PVRs, home media servers, etc., saying: "The idea is very simple. Take a big hard drive. Add a processor and lots of software. Stir in some great human interface design. Garnish with appropriate connectors and networking to audio/video components and a broadband connection. You've got a new, wonderful, money-making category!"
This month we write about the reality--at least as seen thru our experiences. Lance Ohara, Product Manager of the ReplayTV line at SONICblue, kindly loaned us one of their new ReplayTV 4000 units for an in-home trial. Dave did the set-up and connection of the unit into our audio/video center (see picture) and home network and Sandy was the "user", putting the unit into action.
The goal of our "lab" trials is to understand how products and services fit in the context of a broadband home. We want to see if new broadband gizmos are easy to set-up, learn and use for mere mortals, as opposed to geeks who are willing (and even happy) to spend hours fiddling with set up and "fiddling".
So how did it go? While we really enjoyed the simplicity that ReplayTV provides for capturing shows and removing the need for appointment viewing, we've so far used only one capability enabled by the 4000's broadband connection. Downloading digital photos from a PC to the 4000 so we could show a slide show on our media center big screen didn't sound like an important feature, but we were surprised by how much fun it was: the big screen experience is really different fom seeing the same pictures on a PC display (see picture). SONICblue hasn't provided many features which leverage the external broadband connection or internal networking, although there are potential adders which could provide real value.
Here's more on what we experienced and how we reached our judgments.
Setting it up
Hooking up the 4000 proved to be somewhat of a challenge. Our media center has a big tangle of wires, but we suspect we're pretty similar to the market SONICblue is addressing with the 4000. Getting all the connections right took several hours and a few phone calls to make sure we understood the functions of all the jacks.
We had an odd problem setting up the "IR blaster" between the 4000 and our cable box. The on-screen directions were very clear, but the 4000 kept insisting it couldn't control the box. We eventually decided to lie and say that it had successfully turned on the cable box, and found that it controlled the box perfectly!
In all fairness, we tested a pre-production unit. It came with pre-release software, and we didn't have a copy of the "Quick Start" guide; we might well have avoided both of these problems with a production version.
First a disclaimer: we're not really big into either movies or TV. Our only serious encounter with appointment viewing has been The Sopranos, which caused us to subscribe to HBO.
On the other hand, our married daughter in Silicon Valley has the perfect demographics (heavy TV/movie watcher, computer science degree, young baby at home) for ReplayTV and indeed has been a user almost since the beginning. We've heard her claims and seen how ReplayTV has changed the way she and her husband watch TV. "You don't really get it until you live with it" she says.
Setting up to record shows is really easy and playback is simple. We like the user interface. One new feature in the 4000 that has generated backlash from advertisers is its "commercial advance" which you can set to automatically skip ads. We really liked recording movies from TV and not having to fast forward thru commercials or even do 30 second skip forwards as in other units; it felt like watching a DVD or videotape instead of a program recorded from TV. Since we had just briefly used our daughter's earlier ReplayTV we weren't that sensitive to the improvements the 4000 has over the original versions. Those improvements include more storage, parental control and better conflict resolution when you instruct it to record something at a time it is already schduled to be busy recording.
But the real reason we were testing the ReplayTV 4000 had to do with its external broadband connection and its ability to connect with PCs over your home network. Here's our assessment of the things the 4000 allows you to do because it is broadband enabled:
1. You can send recordings over the Internet to friends with a 4000. However, without knowing/finding other people who have units you don't have anyone to exchange recordings with. (While it's still on loan to us, we'd be delighted to hear from readers who have a ReplayTV 4000 unit and want to exchange recordings with us).
2. You can share video recordings between multiple rooms in the home. Since this requires two 4000s in a home and they are not cheap, this is a limited high-end market. (Other vendors promise to share video recordings using one main unit and cheaper auxiliary devices for additional TVs. However, devices with these capabilities are just future promises--the 4000 is real and available today.)
3. The ability to create digital slide shows by transfering photos from your PC to your 4000 is a really nice feature. It was very easy to set up a PC to network with the 4000. We took our digital photos from CES, did a bit of editing on a PC, transferred the pictures to a folder on the 4000 and showed them on our media center large screen. Intellectually it doesn't sound like a big deal, but the emotional impact of seeing the slide show on a large screen was huge. We would expect that this is just the start of features from SONICblue that allow media to be accessed on the TV screen from the PC.
4. The Web site and literature talk about something called IChannels, which is intended to let you receive programs you can't get elsewhere. At the current time this is not yet implemented. However, because of the 4000s broadband connection, automatic downloads of future software releases for such capabilities should be very easy.
In markets like DVRs, once a company makes significant advances, you can expect that competitors will announce something that has "all that and more". TiVo has done so for their new Series2 digital video recorder. Their Web site says it is "Enabled for future services in home entertainment, including digital music, digital photos, party games, broadband video on demand, and more!" They plan to integrate RealNetworks' RealOne Player in all of the Series2s, letting users make and manage music collections on the hard disk. There is a big "but" in this however: the capabilities like RealNetworks music collections will not be available until the 2002 holiday season and by then we would expect SONICblue to have played its next chips in the leapfrogging game.
Meanwhile, congratulations to SONICblue for receiving numerous awards, including being named in Fortune Magazine's "Products of the Year" list. And thanks again to SONICblue for letting us borrow the 4000.