What: Time Warner Cable’s newest digital set-top box.
Where: Available in Charlotte and elsewhere, contact your local cable provider for details.
How Much: As low as $6.95/month
It you don’t know what a “DVR” is, you’re behind the times. It stands for “Digital Video Recorder” and popular DVRs like TiVo and ReplayTV record your favorite TV shows on a computer hard drive instead of a tape. Given the massive capacities of today’s hard drives, DVRs can record dozens of shows on the hard drive, instead of a measly 8 hours on a T-160 VHS tape. And programming them is a breeze compared to a VCR. Easy to read on-screen menus – much like the channel guide you already have with your current analog or digital cable – have replaced the cryptic commands associated with setting the timer on your VCR.
Now as I see it, there are only two things keeping DVRs from hitting critical mass. One is consumer apathy – millions of people have perfectly good VCRs that don’t need replacing – yet. In much the same way that it took forever for your parents to catch on to CDs, it’s taking a while for the non-technical folks to see the advantages of a DVR. The other thing holding back the DVR is their (relatively) high cost. Units like TiVo cost around $399, with more advanced models costing as much as $500. On top of that, TiVo has a service charge of $12.95/month (or a “lifetime charge” of $299). This charge is for downloading local TV listings on your DVR, so TiVo knows what show is on which channel at what time. Regardless, it’s clear that $698 is too far much to compete with a $49.99 VCR from Best Buy.
But what if you could rent a DVR? Would you do it? That’s a question many cable providers hope you’ll answer “yes” to. Many cable companies out there – in this case, Time Warner Carolina – are rolling out DVRs combined with digital cable boxes. These 80-hour recorders have almost all the functions of a TiVo, yet cost as low as $6.95 a month*.
So here’s how it works: you call your cable provider and ask to have your current digital cable box swapped out for a DVR. Someone then comes out to your house and… well, swaps your current digital converter box for a DVR one. If you’re the technical type, you can also go to the nearest cable company office and swap out your digital cable box for a DVR and hook it up yourself.
All you need to do to tape a show is find it using the GUIDE feature and press the “record” button on the remote. A box will pop-up on your TV and ask if you’d like to record just the one show or the entire series. Using the arrow keys on the remote, you pick the option you want and press the SELECT button. It’s that easy. Either this one particular instance of The OC will be recorded, or every instance of the show – including syndication runs – will be copied to your DVR’s hard drive.
But while that’s cool, it’s hardly all that the DVR can do. You can pause live TV to answer the phone or for any other reason. You can rewind live TV to get another view of the big play or to understand just what the hell Renton said the next time Trainspotting comes on HBO. You can begin watching a recorded program before it’s finished taping, so if you make it home ten minutes into this week’s episode of 24, you don’t have to wait until 10pm to watch it as you would with VHS tape. One of the best features – an undocumented one – is that if you begin watching a program and decide a half hour or so into it that you need to leave, you can press the “record” button on the remote and the entire program will be recorded – not just the from the point where you pressed “record”! The Time Warner DVR also comes with 2 tuners, so I can finally have Picture-in-Picture again; this also means that I can record two different shows at once – or even record two shows and watch a third that’s been previously recorded!
This is probably one of the best “purchases” I’ve ever made. If you have friends with a DVR, chances are they just won’t shut up about it. And now I’m one of them. Recording an entire run of a show means that there’s always something to watch, yet having your DVR do it all for you means that you never have to be a slave to the network’s timetable or be constantly searching for tapes to stuff in the VCR. If I wake up at 4 this morning and decide that I want to watch MI-5, I have four episodes ready for me. On Wednesdays, we don’t have to decide between watching Lost or That 70’s Show or even scramble for a blank tape to record one of them – with a few “clicks” of the remote, they both automagically record every time they come on.
And the picture quality? Very nice! If you have digital cable already, you’re probably familiar with some of the black level issues and pixellation that’s inherent with the low bitrates the cable companies encode their stuff at. But the recorded material looks pretty good – on par with a pre-recorded VHS tape. And besides, if you’ve ever had a tape dedicated to recording one show (your “Survivor tape”), you know how crappy the picture gets after only three or four tapings – not so with the DVR.
I have only a couple of minor quibbles with my favorite toy so far:
First, the instruction pamphlet that Time Warner gives you with the DVR is mighty thin. And while you don’t really need more than a pamphlet to get started, there are some advanced features that are slightly hidden. For instance, once you press the “record” button you are presented with the choice of recording one instance of a show or the entire series. By default, selecting “entire series” will record every instance of the show on the channel you are currently viewing. To change these options, you have to go to the “Series Manager” where you can change the frequency to “new shows only” or to “any channel”. None of this is mentioned in the instruction pamphlet and it took a week or so for me to find these options. And it’s kind of important, as it’s the difference between having 1 brand-new episode of Friends taking up hard drive space versus 19 syndicated episodes that you’ve seen umpteen times already.
Secondly, once the DVR has been on for some time it has the tendency to “freak out” and not record anything at all. Also, instead of a list of programs showing up in the guide, you get nothing but “No Program Data” – which is why the DVR part ceases to work, as it works on program titles and not times, as you are used to with VCR timers. This seems as if it might be a firmware or overheating issue. Once you unplug it for a few seconds, everything is back to normal.
Lastly, the TWC DVR doesn’t have any of the “learning” capabilities that a TiVo has. Ya see, with a TiVo you can rate certain TV shows and after a while a “profile” of your viewing habits is created and TiVo will automatically start taping shows you might be interested in. My box has none of that. Which is nice, but not necessary. I’m much more pleased with the fact that my DVR doesn’t require a telephone line like a TiVo does. So there!
All in all, this DVR thing is TV nirvana!
UPDATE: (02/02/2005) I recently upgraded to the world of HDTV and needed to upgrade my set-top box. TWC tried to push the 8000HD on me – which is basically an 8000 with slightly different firmware and component connectors in the back. Hell no! I was able to convince the lady working the front desk at the TWC office in Gastonia to look a little harder and she came up with what I wanted: an 8300HD. This model is smaller than the 8000\8000HD models and is a nice shade of silver that matches my Grand Wega. It also has component *and* HDMI connections available on the back of the box, which is what I was really after. Of course, the 8300 also has some nicer touches than the 8000\8000HD like a 160GB drive (vs. 80GB for the 8000 and 120GB for the 8000HD) and a 250mHz processor with 64MB of RAM. The UI is noticeably faster than previous models and I’ve had no issues with it so far. Setup was amazingly easy – plug the DVR into a power source, connect the HDMI cable to the back of the cable box then connect the same cable to the back of the TV. Done! I was greeted by a message saying that “your digital cable service has been disconnected”, but a quick phone call to TWC – and a cool automated “refresh” of my services – and the HDTV box was online! The only other thing you might want to do as far as setting the box up goes it to choose how the DVR displays 4:3 content on your 16:9 screen. Your choices are sidebars (which is the default choice), zoom and stretch; to set these up, click on “Settings” then “More Settings” and look for the “Aspect Ratio” option. As far as UI features go, the 8300 offers the same GUI and main features that the 8000 has, so there’s no need to repeat them here. One small change that I *do* like is that when you select “Record Entire Series” you are now automatically presented with the “Options” screen afterwards. One of my main beefs in the original review was that I didn’t like setting the DVR to record a whole season of a show and then having to manually go to that show’s options and to have the DVR record only first-run episodes or episodes on every channel or at any time or what have you. Because the “Options” screen is automatically displayed after you elect to record a show’s entire season, you can easily tweak the options without having to navigate through a bunch of menus. Of course, if you’re happy with the default setup, you only have to press the “A” button to accept the default options. A nice touch, that. Also, the front display has a nicer smaller clock and an indicator as to what type of program you’re watching (480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i), but it’s too small to read from across the room and you must memorize the location of the indicator instead. In any case, it suffices to say that HD DVR goodness is indeed “all that”.
I also wanted to address something from my original review: the “locking up and freaking out”. These problems have actually been fixed for some time via firmware updates on the machines, and I have been remiss in not addressing this sooner. My old 8000 worked like a champ most of the time I had it, except for a small period where playback would freeze far too often. Although Time Warner denied that there was any issue, lots of people at the Explorer 8000 Yahoo! Group were complaining about it and a news station in NYC even ran a story about it. Shortly thereafter the “freezing” problem was fixed and the box worked like a champ again. I have had *zero* performance issues with the 8300, except occasional lags when changing from a standard to a HD channel. Whether this is something that cannot be fixed I do not know. But I’ve had no “lockups” or “freezes” of any kind with this box, nor did I have any on the 8000 after a firmware update a couple of months after I got that box. I have no empirical evidence to back this up, but I’m almost certain that many of the people that have bad luck with these boxes aren’t giving them proper airflow. DVRs are basically small computers and they need room to breathe; keeping them locked in an enclosed media cabinet can’t be good for it.
Also, since this article was originally written TiVo has fallen into some hard times. Two of their most senior executives have resigned and the company has lost several high-profile contracts recently, such as the “DirecTiVo” line (that used to ship with DirecTV who now offers it’s own in-house designed DVR) and cable giant Comcast (who chose to use a Microsoft offering instead of TiVo for their line of DVRs). Indeed TiVo is facing competition from all sides and their current marketing strategy reflects this. You can now buy a TiVo for as little at $99.99 (after rebate) or even free – but you still have to pay a monthly or lifetime subscription fee to use the unit. TiVo has apparently finally reached the conclusion that the rest of us came to long ago: either offer the box for free and pay for the subscription or make the box $399 and include the subscription. Getting it from both ends doesn’t make the consumer happy and I’m surprised that TiVo is just now figuring this out. All the while, Comcast and Time Warner are adding thousands of DVR users to their subscriber lists, as people are only happy to pay $6.95/month to forgo the large upfront cost of “going TiVo”. The situation is quite bad but not dire. But the fact remains that TiVo has spent almost $700 billion in the past few years and has yet to make a profit. And while the company can boast 2.3 million subscribers, some analysts reckon that about 70% of that number are DirecTV subscribers that will eventually be migrated off to the DirecTV-designed one. To remain in business TiVo *must* come up with some sort of licensing scheme. And soon.
UPDATE: (09/27/2005) A new jimcofer.com reader posted a question via the “feedback” portion of the site. He wanted to know how much recording space (in minutes) the Time Warner DVR boxes will hold. Also, a reader of “Avenue” (the Saint Etienne e-mail list) wondered why TWC DVRs and TiVos don’t have a handy “recording time remaining” counter in their UI.
The short answer to this is that the amount of recording time left varies according to the programs you want to record as well as the format of the show. For example, my SA8300 can record programs in both high definition (HD) and standard definition (SD). As you might guess, HD programs take up far more space on the hard drive than SD ones do. Since the DVR has no idea if I’m going to record in only HD or only in SD (or some combination thereof), it has no idea how many minutes of video the remaining space on the hard drive can hold. And even if you record only in one format (HD or SD), the amount of space will vary depending on what type of program you’re recording. An action film with lots of high-speed camera work (car chases, explosions, etc.) will require a higher bitrate (and thus, more disk space) than a cooking show, even if both shows are in the same format (HD or SD) and are the same length.
I’m not sure about TiVos, but the TWC boxes *do* make a “guesstimate” of how much space is remaining by taking your list of upcoming recordings and estimating how much space they’ll take up (which is why you get the “x days remaining” next to a program once your DVR starts filling up). But this is a very rough estimate and is nowhere near precise enough for a “minutes remaining” counter.
(By the way, as always – thanks for ALL your comments! They really do make this site better!)
MY RATING: A+
* Because Lisa and I already subscribe to one “digital tier”, we pay only $6.95/month for the DVR service. DVR service without a digital tier costs (I believe) $8.95/month. If you only have analog cable at present, you *must* upgrade to digital, which should be a nice increase in your cable bill.