Hippo Manchester
August 25, 2005

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Beyond VCRs, Part 1

The future, tapeheads, is all about the digital media

By John “jaQ” Andrews

Summertime is racing season.

Every weekend my dad tapes the Formula 1 and IndyCar races and lends me the tapes so I can watch ‘em.

Half the time those tapes are unwatchable. The sound is garbled, or the video jumps and stops unexpectedly, or the whole screen just goes blank. Whether it’s because they spend time in a hot car, or they’re jostled around too much, or our respective VCRs are somehow incompatible, we’ve never been able to determine.

VHS tapes are a lot like cassette tapes in that they use a magnetically encoded ribbon to store content. Cassettes have pretty much disappeared in favor of the CD, and VHS tapes are probably headed to the same place — and good riddance, I say. There are better options available this century.

Digital Video Recorders (DVRs)

TiVo is probably the best-known DVR. Their entry-level box comes in just under $100 these days, and as of this writing $12.95 a month buys you a subscription to their service. You can also opt for a lifetime subscription for $299 up front.

Everyone I’ve known with a TiVo sings its praises heartily. The phrase “pause live TV” comes up a lot. What TiVo is really doing is recording live TV, and you can start watching that recording from the beginning while TiVo continues to record.

You can also use it like a traditional VCR, “taping” shows to watch later. Unlike a VCR, though, you don’t have to fuss with rewinding and fast-forwarding to find the beginning of your program. Just select it from the on-screen menu. You can even set it to record an entire season of your favorite show.

ReplayTV is virtually identical to TiVo, right down to the monthly and lifetime subscription prices. They both let you search for new shows by actor or other criteria, and both let you program new recordings from the Internet. They also both require a phone line for initial setup.

ReplayTV does have the advantage of letting you pause live TV for however much recording time is available on the box; TiVo is limited to 30 minutes. ReplayTV also has a couple impressively cheap models after rebate — we’re talking less than $50. TiVo, on the other hand, has more options for getting your recordings off the box and onto your PC or a DVD.

There are DVRs without subscription costs, but they cost significantly more. It’s almost as if some technology companies are selling hardware at a loss and trying to make it up with subscription costs ...

DVR on the PC

With the right add-in cards and software, the PC can do almost anything a stand-alone box can do, and recording TV on the PC has really come into its own the past couple years. Several companies like Hauppauge and ATI offer TV cards with software that lets you do just about everything a TiVo or ReplayTV can do — with no subscription fee.

Hauppauge’s WinTV-PVR-USB2, for example, plugs into a USB 2.0 port on your computer. It comes with software to not only record TV, but edit video and master DVDs. Its MSRP is $150.

John Andrews, also known as jaQ, is not only a technical wiz but he also writes and sings his own songs. Each week in Hippo he examines some facet of the gadget techie world and offers his advice for how to get the most technology bang for your buck. Have questions for Jack? E-mail him at jandrews@hippopress.com.