Tuning Up Your TV

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Tired of changing channels? Change the whole way you watch television! That’s what I did several months ago. I cancelled my mediocre cable-TV service and signed up with Direct-TV. Now, not only am I receiving 300+ digitally sharp channels but I’m also recording everything on “personal video recorder” (PVR) technologies. So, having been blessed with Replay Tv, Microsoft’s Ultimate Tv, and TIVO services, my television watching has never been better.

Basically, personal video recorders are so much smarter than standard videocassette recorders. No more fumbling with record times: just look for the type of program you want to watch using on-screen menus, push a single record button, and the program is recorded effortlessly onto a computer disk.

Now, I only watch what I want to watch exactly when I want to watch it. It’s like having television concentrate: skip through boring bits instantaneously and create your own viewing schedule precisely tailored to you. Personal video recorders have revolutionized TV-watching.

In each case (with ReplayTv, Ultimate Tv, and TIVO) there are minute differences between the recording units and the services you receive. I think TIVO is easiest to use but sadly doesn’t allow you to fast-forward through programs fast enough. Ultimate TV, on the other hand, has an astonishing 300X fast-forward and 30-second jump features that TIVO lacks. However, even with the latest software upgrade (which these machines do automatically, by the way) it is far more difficult to search for programs using the Ultimate TV technology compared to the two other systems. The first Replay TV units also had the 30-second advance and their program searching technology was perhaps the most “intuitive” but you could only record a few programs on those early systems.

Well, Sonic Blue has resurrected ReplayTv with the 4000 series. This digital video recording system comes in several “flavors”: recording 40-hours, 80-hours, or a version with a staggering 320-hours of television. (You pay for that recording time: $699, $999, and $1999 respectively.) You’ll need a broadband connection to take advantage of this systems’ most outrageous and interesting feature: you can share programs on-line to others who have these recorders. (Such “program sharing” capabilities are understandably driving broadcast network lawyers nuts for obvious reasons. Plus, the “commercial advance” feature isn’t making them many friends in the advertising world as well.) We found the ReplayTv system easy to use but, to be frank, the setup was arduous even for the technically inclined. Also, sharing video with another machine can take a heck of a long time: as much as a day to send an hour recording over the broadband connection in some cases.

Yet, even desktop computers are revolutionizing television as well. Several companies have developed computer boards that let you watch TV on your desktop. Now Hauppauge Computers is launching the latest of such personal video recording technologies with the WinTV PVR-250. This has turned my computer into a full-blown home entertainment system with TIVO-like functionality. Not only can you watch TV while you work on the same computer, you can pause your TV shows and record programs directly to your hard disk. The WinTV PVR-250 should be available in May for a mere $149. You even get a remote control, FM-tuner, and a nifty-software suite that lets you search for and set up recordings over the web using Titan Tv’s free service. Even if you don’t have a personal video recorder yet, you should visit the Titan Tv website, because there is a terrific ongoing listing of all the future program listings you can possibly imagine.

How much disk space does recording programs to your hard drive consume? Well, it varies on the type of video compression (basically the quality of the video you want) but we found that we used basically 2-gigs of space per hour. Not only that but when you add a DVD-burner, like Phillips’ excellent DVD-RW Plus (DVDRW208), you can permanently record the programs you saved onto a DVD nearly anyone can play. The Phillips DVD-RW recorder, by the way, comes with an arsenal of useful software tools to turn videos into dvds. The unit costs about $499.

There are other cards with similar capabilities of Hauppauge’s Win-TV- PRV-250. For example, AverTv Studio’s Desktop TV Personal Video Recorder costs about $80 and offers many of the same features, including TV tuner and FM radio. Ingenious web-based applications, like TV Tonic, have emerged as well to allow viewers to create “interactive TV on your PC.” Download a free application to share comments online while watching a TV program and “telestrate” over programs (remember the original Winky Dink?)

If you are going to use your computer to watch television, everyone at CBS News can’t get over ViewSonic’s 23-inch diagonal flat screen Viewpanel VP230mb. It’s true this amazing bright screen is a dazzler to behold. Sadly, it sells for more than $3,000 at this moment, making it ideal for the rich or the truly demented or both.

Americans do get obsessed about their televisions. Recently, I visited the astonishing Hammacher Shlemmer store to see what they had for the TV-obsessed. First, the largest universal remote… so huge you can’t possibly lose the darn thing in the couch. (That’s $39)
Then, for the ultimate couch potato who doesn’t have satellite or cable: a remote controlled TV antenna. Get great reception without leaving the arm chair and yet another remote for your TV (!) ($99.)
Hammacher’s most outrageous offering for boob-tube extremists is the “Endurance Enhancing TV Bike.” What this sadistic-little machine does is scramble your television unless you keep pedaling. You can even put it on a table to exercise your arms. ($169.95)

by Daniel Dubno