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A "Pause" Button For Tube Junkies

Personal Business: Electronics

A "Pause" Button for Tube Junkies

You arrive home too late for the start of a whodunit on TV, so you spend the rest of the hour trying to catch up with the plot. Or maybe you were watching at the beginning, but just as a key scene was about to confirm your suspicions about the culprit, the phone rang and pulled you away.

Tube junkies no longer have to contend with these irritants, thanks to new technology that caused a splash at January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. In March, Replay Networks and TiVo each plan to introduce set-top boxes that will let you rewind or pause a TV program even as it is being broadcast. Satellite subscribers who buy EchoStar's new $500 Model 7100 receiver will also be able to pause a telecast for up to 30 minutes. So when that ill-timed phone call interrupts the action, you'll hit a button and later resume watching from where you left off.PERSONAL CHANNELS. These devices have disk drives like the ones inside your PC. Incoming TV signals are compressed, recorded onto the hard drive, then decompressed in a split second. In fact, you can replay the start of a show at the same time the device is recording its conclusion.

Replay and TiVo also aim to personalize TV viewing so you can find the programs you want to see and watch them at your leisure. For example, Replay lets you set up customized channels. You could create an X-Files channel by having Replay's search software scan a database to find and automatically record each episode of the series. Similarly, if you can't get enough of Tom Cruise, the system can find all the movies or talk shows featuring the actor, and then record them. The device updates channel guide information by phoning a server in the middle of the night. To avoid running out of storage space, you can tell the device to replace older shows as new ones are aired.

TiVo functions in much the same fashion, with some differences. Just as makes recommendations to its Web site customers based on their previous orders, TiVo guesses at what you might like to watch, based on your viewing habits. So if you like ER, TiVo might recommend Marcus Welby, M.D. reruns. On the TiVo remote control are thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons so you can tell the service of your preferences. TiVo says it will not reveal your name in sharing such data with marketers.

The technology has limits. Without a splitter, you can't record one channel while watching another, like you can using a VCR. Viewers who like to record for posterity will still want to tape programs on their VCRs to avoid overloading the hard drive. Fortunately, the TiVo and Replay boxes have a port that lets you transfer contents of the hard drive to tape. As PC owners know, hard drives can crash. If that happens with either of these devices while they're covered by their one-year warranties, the companies will replace the broken hard drive.

The services aren't cheap. A Replay box with 10 hours of storage will set you back $699. Models with 14 and 28 hours of storage will cost $999 and $1,499, respectively. But Replay doesn't charge a monthly fee for access to its database. TiVo gives you 10 hours of storage and is expected to go for around $500--models with greater storage capacity will cost more. But you'll have to pay about $10 a month for data. You'll eventually be able to buy Philips Electronics TV sets with a TiVo storage device and DirecTV satellite receiver built in. Now, let's see: Should you start with Friends, Frasier, or the football game?By Edward C. Baig

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