The New Digital Living Room

I am an early adopter of electronic gadgets and gizmos, which I think is closely related to the people who continually burn the roof of their mouth. I see the hot food and I want to taste it immediately without waiting, and sometimes it’s delicious and perfect and I want more, and sometimes it chars my soft palette and leaves pus-filled blisters that I keep touching with my tongue.
When digital cameras came out, I spent enormous sums of money on what would now be laughably thrown out of nursery school windows. I bought a first-generation top-loading Yamaha CD player and had exactly three CDs I could play on it, all imported from Japan, all costing more than what you can buy a CD player for today. I have been through about five DVD players, currently using a Denon 5-disc progressive scan edition with an awkward interface and the noisiest platter around (it scares my cat) and I own a wide screen 34″ tube-type TV so heavy that I am afraid I shall never be able to move it and it will remain exactly where it is until Jesus comes back.
Some people probably think I’m an idiot, but I believe those people spend way too much money on going to Arizona to look at a big whole in the ground or entertain themselves on Christmas by seeing how many strings of twinkle lights they can hot-glue on their houses until it resembles a casino on the Vegas strip. In other words, we all have our own odd proclivities which we justify to ourselves and really just shut up and let me waste my money as I see fit.

I got a TiVo in May of 2000. I didn’t understand the process or attraction until I went over to Jeff Veen’s place and he showed me the wonder and dreamlike perfection that controlling your television viewing offers. I had a Series 1 until recently when I upgraded to a Series 2 and was just starting to enjoy the idea of home networking and media services when, lo and behold, my cable operator, Comcast, announced that they had finally figured out how to put everything one might possibly want into one slim silver box, so I could finally have HDTV via cable, a digital video recorder that could capture HD signals for under $900, two tuners so I could record one thing and watch another, and ditch one more box from my entertainment console.
I’d been looking around for a solution to the myriad problems presented by being an HDTV watcher in these days before HDTV practically exists. When I bought my wide screen TV, I did so primarily (or, at the time, solely) to watch my DVD collection in the manner in which it should be seen — in its original dimensions and as crisp, clean and bright as possible. But with the advent of broadcast HD, albeit limited and somewhat kludgey, I wanted to be able to also record the HBO wide screen movies and The West Wing without those annoying black bands and the occasional Discovery Channel documentary on Mt. Everest with every single digital pixel showing.
I could have switched to DirecTV and put a dish on the roof of my apartment building, but the TiVo for that service was, well, of a frustratingly insane price. Comparatively speaking, it wasn’t worth it. Early Adopters aren’t supposed to think like that, but having experienced the pain of price drops and watching the accelerating pace of same in nearly everything digital, I wasn’t prepared to make the sacrifice. Plus, in my building, the idea of trying to coordinate the installation with the guy who has to let the installer on the roof, plus tugging cables all over the place on a 100-year-old San Francisco multi-family dwelling sandwiched between two other houses just did not put a smile on my face.
If there was a solution that meant A) no installation hassles and B) cheaper that $1,000 with no additional hardware and C) nominal additional monthly fee for a service I already pay for (i.e. cable) then it all sounded good to me.
I should also add that I recently moved my entire digital lifestyle onto cable. I ditched SBC and its really poor customer service and unreliable connectivity and not always fast DSL service, signed up for cable internet and moved my voice line to Vonage VoIP, reducing my monthly bill for services by about $50. TiVo’s monthly service fee is $15, and with Comcast’s PVR I would get two tuners, HDTV recording and one less remote for $10 a month. All in all, financially, it was a no-brainer.
But I was also a died-in-the-wool TiVo fan. I love my TiVo. The Series 2 I had purchase from was not living up to my expectations, however. The Humax box was cheap, and I was beginning to understand why. The interface had a lag time in it whenever I wanted to delete something. My Series 1 from Philips never did that. I wasn’t using the media services (that’s where you set up a TiVo Server on your computer and move audio or video files into a space that can be played on TiVo) because I live in a studio apartment and my computer and my TV are within viewing distance of each other and I was already plugging my iPod into the stereo so there seemed little reason for that. And although the TiVo had a larger recording capacity than the Comcast PVR (80 hours vs. 60 hours) the TiVo could not now nor would it ever record HD signals.
As a TiVo owner, I already knew more or less what to expect from my Comcast box:

  1. Pause live TV? Check.
  2. Record as you watch? Check.
  3. Integrated programming guide? Check.

What I wouldn’t get — the trade-off for two tuners and HD recording — was a lack of TiVo’s Thumbs-Up/Thumbs-Down voting whereby TiVo decides what it is you like watching and automatically records stuff using the available space, and TiVo’s elegant, intuitive, simple interface.
Comcast’s box will only record what you tell it to record. It will record a single show or a series, no problem, but you can’t tell it that you like The Simpsons and Star Trek and Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law so it can figure out that you’re likely to also enjoy The X Files and Space Ghost Coast to Coast without specifically telling it that. It won’t surprise you on the weekend that it recorded The Ghost and Mrs. Muir starring Rex Harrison without you even telling it to because it figured it out on its own.
And the interface, well, intuitive it is not. It tries too hard to do everything all at once, and while TiVo’s guide shows you not only what is on now but also what is coming on in the near future for hours at a time, Comcast can only show you bands of channels and a couple or three hours of each one. Plus what TiVo somehow manages to accomplish with its magic remote using only two or three buttons, Comcast’s unwieldy fat-ended rubber-buttoned monster needs a different button for everything you want to do.
I think they meant that to make things faster, since you get one-button access to things that TiVo makes you go through a menu structure to access, but someone forgot that you often watch TV in a darkened room, and finding the right button every time for every action is a lot harder than hitting one button at the top and then navigating through some menus to get what you want. I’m sure in time I’ll learn where all the buttons are, but the immediate reaction is one of frustration and doubt.
For example, there’s a Guide button and a Menu button. The Guide is also on the Menu, and the Menu button is top-center (where I’m prone to go) while the Guide button is top-left. To exit the Menu or the Guide, you don’t press it again, you press the Exit button located top-right. Two buttons down from that is the Last button which works approximately like a Back button on a Web browser — that is, it takes you back one screen or channel in your viewing history endlessly each time you press it. There is no Next button, however, so you can step back but you can’t go forward again if you go back too far.
The PVR controls include the usual suspects: Pause, Play, Fast Forward, Rewind, Replay (show the last 10 seconds over again) and Restart. The Fast Forward and Rewind controls have 5 levels of speed and the replay through all those speeds is very clean. There’s a slight delay when you pause programming, but the buffer beats TiVo hands down. TiVo will only save up to 30 minutes of whatever you’re watching before it’ll unpause automatically. Comcast holds 45-60 minutes in the buffer. If you get stuck on a long phone conversation but you don’t want to miss your precious soap opera, that could be important.
If you press the OK button in the center of the menu navigation buttons, a mini Guide (showing just two channels) pops up on screen, or it doesn’t if the screen is showing anything other than just the program you’re watching. The full Guide fills the screen, moving your program into a small window upper-right, and includes about 8 channels of programming.
The main Menu has about 6 selections on it, including getting to your PVR Guide that shows what you have recorded, and what you’ve scheduled to be recorded. You can sort by channel, date, time or alphabetically for some reason that escapes me. On the Setup menu, you have about a dozen main categories including changing the menu color palette to suit your mood as long as you like black or shades of blue, purple and green.
The two tuners are always on and although the remote says you have Picture-In-Picture capability, you don’t really. What you have is Swap. So if you start recording what you’re watching because you want to save it for later but you also want to watch (or record) something else, you Swap one tuner for the other and then you’re channel surfing on the second tuner while the first records the other program. Actual PIP would be much handier. But having two tuners negates one disadvantage of a PVR — you are no longer at its mercy when it wants to record something.
As for the picture quality, it is pristine. On TiVo, you can manage the recording quality to squeeze more hours in less space by giving up some picture quality in exchange. There are no such controls with the Comcast PVR, but the quality is nearly always very good to absolutely perfect for HD programming. You can’t squeeze 60 hours of HD broadcasts onto the hard drive, though. The manual says to expect about 20 hours of HD, but that’s still plenty for me. I’m not the sort to archive programs very long and I’m rather anal about cleaning off the stuff I’ve seen or that I won’t be watching any time soon.
Another drawback as far as I’m concerned is that you cannot record on-demand programs, which makes no sense to me. I assume it has to do with how that channel works, since it has to send signals back to Comcast to them what I’m ordering and when I’m pausing or ditching a movie or show, but it’s still being delivered over the same box and I think I should still be able to record it if I want to. But whatever… half the time I forget Channel 1 is even there, anyway.
So, is it worth it? Yes, definitely, particularly if you’re an HDTV owner and subscribe to Comcast HD cable. Otherwise I think you might still be happier with a TiVo, if only for the ease of use and larger recording capacities available. You sure can’t hack a Comcast box to add another hard drive. But if you don’t want another box on your electronics shelf, you’re not sure whether a cleaner interface is worth the cost of buying a TiVo box and paying $5 more a month in subscription fees and you’d dearly love to be able to record what you’re watching (or not watching) on TV without the hassles of a VCR, I’d definitely recommend the Comcast box.
What strikes me about this, though, is the concept of control. Certainly I am paying a lot of money for my television now, but I am also afforded a greater deal of control over how I watch it, when I watch and what I’m watching. I can now easily time-shift so I don’t care about “prime time,” or “Must See TV” since my Must See TV is on whenever I choose to watch it. With on-demand programming, even if I didn’t record it with my built-in cable PVR, I can still elect to watch the movie on HBO according to my own desires, not HBO’s. Plus, I can pause it and resume watching it again up to 24 hours later.
It’s rather amazing how this is changing my concept of television, and how this concept should be integrated into everything we do. I still value my DVDs and I’ll still go rent movies on DVD mostly because the quality is still in many ways better. Not everything on HD uses the best audio source, and although HD approaches DVD in video quality in most cases, I still see a slight edge to my progressive scan DVDs over HD broadcasts. Others I know have even more control than I do, using home networking to send the programming they want to different monitors in their house, sometimes downloading programs and movies using BitTorrent and saving those on hard drive arrays or burning them to DVD to share.
Recently, I had the opportunity to delve into digital video production, and I think the next revolution is there. Prices for MiniDV cameras are dropping fast, HD cameras are only now making their debut for prosumers and the software available for editing and producing digital video can, with a little practice and experience, make anyone a movie director. It’s ridiculously simple and the monetary costs, though still comparitively steep, are not so high that it will remain in the hands of a select few for long.
I’ll continue to burn the roof of my mouth on the hottest toys and equipment, I simply cannot help myself. But if you’ve put off getting a personal video recorder for your own television habits, I’d suggest that there is no longer any reason to wait. Control is no longer remote, it’s here and it’s now.

December 22, 2004

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