Trying to Buy a PVR (DVR)

By , April 21, 2002

April 21, 2002 — After many months hearing friends and colleagues boast about their “Personal Video Recorders” (TiVo or ReplayTV), I finally decided today that it was time to plunk down some cash on a new toy. My plan was to buy a ReplayTV device, or if for some reason that didn’t work out, I’d buy a TiVo.

This is not a story about my great experience with a personal video recorder. Indeed, it is not really a story about personal video recorders at all, because it turns out that nobody sells them any more.

Desparately Seeking PVRs (TiVo or ReplayTV): I first visited Best Buy, where I wandered the aisles for about 10 minutes before finally giving up and asking a clerk where the TiVo or ReplayTV units were. He pointed a few aisles away and said, “in the aisle with the satellite dishes.” And there, in the middle of the aisle (the worst placement in a retail store), was a single TiVo device, promising 60 hours of recording time for $399. The unit was not hooked up to anything, so I could not see how it worked. (Later, the store manager told me that there were no units in stock, other than a single “open box.”) The clerks knew nothing about the TiVo unit; instead they were pushing the UltimateTV unit, which works only with DirectTV satellite TV service.

My next stop was at Circuit City, where I immediately asked for help, and was told that both TiVo and ReplayTV had been discontinued. The clerk offered to sell me a “display unit” which was simply a single unit shrink-wrapped, apparently with no remote control, power cord, or manual.

My third and final stop was at The Good Guys, where I was pleased to see a large display sign promoting “TiVo and ReplayTV.”  But mysteriously, there were no TiVo or ReplayTV units near the display.  I had to wait a few minutes until a clerk was available.  The clerk immediately informed me that both TiVo and ReplayTV had been discontinued, except for a TiVo unit that worked only with DirectTV (satellite TV).  He could not explain why the display still featured units that weren’t available for purchase.

At this point, I drove home to do some research using the web and telephone.

First, I quickly learned that TiVo entered an agreement with Best Buy, making Best Buy the exclusive retailer for TiVo’s “series 2” products.  The store manager at my local Best Buy said that because TiVo is a “subscription” service, it cannot be set up or displayed “in use.” Instead, the store offers a “canned” video demonstration.

Second, I learned that ReplayTV is no longer offered through any retail channels: it is sold exclusively online, through the SonicBlue web site.  The company’s cheapest unit is $699, for a 40-hour storage capacity (compared to $399 for a TiVo unit with 60 hours of storage).

According to TiVo’s telephone support staff, the TiVo unit doesn’t offer any kind of “commercial skip” or even a “fast-fast-forward” mode, so it offers few benefits compared to a traditional VCR (in a later call, a TiVo supervisor claimed that TiVo has 15x, 30x, and 60x fast-forward speeds — a contradiction that made me wish I could see an actual working TiVo unit).  In contrast, ReplayTV provides three different “fast-forward” speeds, including modes that are much faster than TiVo’s, and also allows for a 30-second “skip-ahead” to jump through commercials.  That’s the reason I initially wanted ReplayTV instead of TiVo.

There is a $12.95 monthly fee for TiVo’s programming information, which must be downloaded nightly using a telephone-line connection.  TiVo offers a $249 “product lifetime” subscription, but the “lifetime” ends when the product fails or whenever TiVo decides to stop providing support. (The current trend for many technology companies is to announce that older products are no longer supported, and thus their “lifetime” has ended, even if the product would work if supported.)

ReplayTV promises no monthly fees, but makes no enforceable promise not to charge fees in the future (and the company could simply end its service at any time).  An additional trade-off is that telephone support for ReplayTV is only available during normal business hours (8:30am to 5pm Pacific time), meaning that support is not available at the times most people would use the unit.

It seems likely that either company, or both, might fail before the end of this year. If so, their products would instantly become worthless scrap iron.

UltimateTV: The third alternative, as I saw prominently featured in each store, is Microsoft’s UltimateTV, which works only with Hughes’ DirectTV satellite-TV service.  (TiVo also offers a version that works with DirectTV.)  UltimateTV also boasts of an added “picture-in-picture” feature.

UltimateTV boasts lower retail prices than either TiVo or ReplayTV, plus a lower monthly fee of $9.95 per month.  UltimateTV also doesn’t require a phone line, unless you want to use its internet-related features (the unit includes a 56K modem).

Alas, what UltimateTV also requires is DirectTV, which costs a minimum of $37.99 per month.  (I currently pay just $13.50 per month for my basic cable TV service.)  DirectTV also requires a satellite dish and digital receiver (both provided free, along with installation service, if you commit to a year of service).  But since I don’t own my own home, installing DirectTV also requires approval from both my landlord and the condominium association’s homeowner’s association, and if I move I’d have to pay substantial additional fees to install a new satellite dish in my new home (if one is permitted; if not, I’d pay additional fees to terminate service earlier than 1 year after installation.)

And I still can’t see if UltimateTV might be something I could use, because I couldn’t see the product in actual use at any store, either.

One of TiVo’s supervisors (Leslie) told me that Microsoft has discontinued production of the UltimateTV unit, after losing a patent lawsuit.  When I called UltimateTV during the business hours posted at its web site, I got a message stating that “our office is closed,” which might just answer that question.

What You See Is What You Get: After 20 years spent using and writing about computers and technology products, I’m pretty disillusioned. My experience is that if someone won’t let me a see a product in use, there’s usually a good reason.

In this case, I really want to see how the “fast-forward” and “skip-forward” features work.  I’d also like to see what it’s like to view and navigate through 20 or 30 hours of recorded content. But I can’t do that — I can’t see these products “in use.”  Since I’m a skeptic (and because I’ve been “burned” many times before), I can only assume that if they won’t let me try the product, it probably doesn’t work as promised, or there is something I won’t like.

In this case, my hesitation is quite reasonable: I am looking at three distinct technologies, all three of which appear likely to be discontinued at any time.  I am faced with a huge “finger-pointing” problem, with two or three companies sharing responsibility (and blame) for any problems. And I am faced with a technology — personal video recording — that is under attack by the broadcasting industry, who are even suing companies they directly invested in a few years ago!

It’s entirely reasonable for me to worry that any one of these companies might not meet its promises, and once I realize that I can’t trust these guys, I need to see for myself that I’m at least getting what I am paying for, before I pay for it.

The “Promise But Don’t Show” Syndrome: PVRs aren’t the only technology that promises but refuses to show what it can offer.  Over the past several years, I’ve owned five different cell phones, with service from four different companies (Sprint, PacBell/Cingular, GTE/Verizon, and AT&T/Cellular One).  In each case, the retailers claim that they can’t show the phone “in use” because it requires special activation, and so I had to rely on their promises of features and capabilities.  In every case, the retailer and cell-service providers each blamed the other for all problems.  In one case (involving a “no frills” cell phone), I eventually learned that the phone actually didn’t work in the store because the store was located in one of several huge “dead zones” (no cell-phone signal at my home, my office, the local post office, the mall, nor the local cineplex).  In the other cases,  I experienced several smaller “dead zones” and promised features didn’t work.  After my fourth dismal cell-phone experience —  in which AT&T Wireless refused to process a 911 call — I have not bothered to try any further.  Salesmen try to sell me, but they balk at letting me actually try the product they are selling, even for a minute, so I don’t buy.

PVRs are different in a key way: everyone I’ve ever talked to, has said that after using a PVR for a few days, they could never go back.  My friends talk with religious fervor about some of PVR capabilities — to fast-forward or skip commercials, to instantly replay any scene, to pause live TV, to tape two programs at once, to tape programs whenever they air and view them whenever you want, to identify new programs you might like based on your past viewing history.

And yet, despite the incredible “selling” or “addictive” powers of actually using the product, these companies won’t let consumers actually use their products in the store where they are sold!  You have to buy it, take it home, configure it, and activate the service, and in some cases wait a day for programming information to be loaded, before you can see how the product works.  It would be a simple task to have a working machine at a big-box retailer.  Just like it would be a simple task to have a working cell phone in the store.  Sure, prevent abuse: have a big “demo” logo on the PVR display screen, or only let the demo unit store programs from PBS, or disable the long-distance calling from the store-demo cell phone.  But if you claim your product is great to use, let me use it.  If you tell me I will love this when I see it, then show me.

I didn’t buy a PVR today, and after learning that all three technologies are unlikely to survive, I doubt I’ll buy one this year.

By Mark J. Welch ( (April 21, 2002)

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