For most of the five years that I have been writing this column, I've been hearing about the imminent convergence of computer and television technologies. I've looked at products that brought computing features to television sets and those that brought TV-like features to PCs. A few, such as Microsoft's WebTV and Gateway's big-screen Destination PCs, have enjoyed modest success. Most have sunk without a trace, generally because they didn't work very well.
Two similar devices, modest in both their technology and their ambitions, could change this doleful pattern. Both ReplayTV and the TiVo recorder, sold as the Philips Personal TV Receiver, are designed to do just one thing and do it well. They take TV from cable, satellite, or the air, digitize the shows, and save them to a hard drive. Then you can watch at your leisure. Both also allow you to pause while watching live TV and move back for an instant replay.
The inspiration for Replay Networks and TiVo is obvious--the VCR. But the differences are immense. After 20 years, VCRs remain difficult to program. The quality of VHS video is awful. And you can't play and record a tape at the same time. I quickly got used to running all my TV viewing through Replay or TiVo, and it wasn't long before I wondered how I ever got along without the pause button, not to mention the advantage of being able to watch shows when I wanted because they were so simple to record.
These devices are possible because the PC technology that makes them work has gotten cheap and continues to get cheaper. They basically consist of a TV tuner, storage and replay software, a modem used to fetch the program guide from the Internet, and a great big hard drive.
GRID STAR. TiVo and Replay offer similar features. Replay presents a program guide for up to a week ahead in the familiar grid setup used by satellite receivers and cable-preview systems. To schedule a recording, find the show in the grid and press the record button once. Press again, and you're set to record the show every time it comes on. Or you can enter a key word, using the remote to pick letters from an on-screen keyboard, such as "Gilligan" or "NBA," and record any show whose title contains it. I found TiVo's recording setup a bit more difficult to use--but still much easier than a VCR--because you search for shows by genre or channel rather than pick them from a grid.
One difference between the two is that TiVo requires you to subscribe to a service, while Replay, which costs more to buy, does not. But Replay has simply built the cost of providing the service into the price of the unit. After two years, your cash outlay is about the same either way, and TiVo's "lifetime" option equalizes the cost from the beginning.
A more significant difference is that TiVo keeps track of what you watch and offers viewing suggestions based on its assessment of your tastes. It's not a big selling point for me, since I don't need help picking shows and did not find the suggestions useful. Furthermore, even though TiVo provides a strong pledge that it will protect subscribers' privacy, I'd just as soon not have someone logging my viewing habits.
BULKY BOX. Beyond that, there's not that much to choose from between the two. Probably because of its partnership with Philips, TiVo has more the feel of a slick, finished consumer product. Its installation instructions are much more comprehensive for wiring the box into the myriad possible video setups. Both systems offer universal remotes that can be programmed to control other components, but TiVo's was much more comfortable and easier to use. However, Replay offers a great feature that TiVo lacks: a button that automatically jumps forward 30 seconds, perfect for skipping commercials.
These devices are, of course, much too expensive and represent one more bulky box to wire into already overly complex home video systems. Over time, both problems will be solved. As with all consumer electronics, prices will fall as volumes grow. And ultimately, what is now a freestanding appliance will become incorporated into settop boxes, digital TV receivers, or TV sets themselves.
One reason television-computer convergence has not happened is that consumers have resisted industry ideas of TV-like computers and PC-like televisions. TiVo and Replay, by contrast, incorporate PC technology into an appliance in a way that is invisible but very useful. This idea is a winner.