Smart TV Gets Even Smarter

Now you can be a really efficient couch potato

Once in a blue moon, a must-have consumer gadget comes along that changes the way we live. Think of the Walkman. The VCR. The compact disk. The personal computer.

Smart TV is one of those products. A system that brings VCR-like controls such as pause and fast forward to real-time TV broadcasts, it lets you control what you watch, when you watch, and how you watch. Hundreds of thousands of people have installed smart-TV boxes, known generically as digital video recorders, or personal TV. I've been using two of them, TiVo and a Microsoft service called UltimateTV, for the better part of a year.

Now, manufacturers are offering a new generation of machines with even more goodies. I took a look at a couple of them to see how they've improved. Frankly, I was blown away by some of the nifty enhancements that TiVo has added. And I was impressed with how Microsoft (MSFT ) has gotten its priorities straight with UltimateTV. The successor to Microsoft's WebTV Personal TV, a service available only to EchoStar satellite-TV subscribers, UltimateTV finally is more focused on managing television viewing than on surfing the Internet. EchoStar will introduce a new system this month, but it will have a very limited program guide and far less functionality than the new TiVo and UltimateTV devices.

I tested Sony's (SNE ) SAT-T60 DirecTV Receiver with TiVo and RCA's DirecTV Receiver with UltimateTV Service. Philips (PHGZF ) makes a similar TiVo machine, called the DSR6000, virtually identical to Sony's except for styling and a peanut-shaped remote control that's a tad easier to use. Sony also makes a version of UltimateTV, the SAT-W60. All sell in the $400 range and require a $10 monthly subscription fee to connect to the service. (A better deal is TiVo's $199 lifetime subscription, which is good as long as you use the same box.)

Unfortunately, these new systems also contain a receiver designed to work only with satellite TV, so you'll need a dish antenna and DirecTV subscription as well. The good news: Because the receiver and recorder are in the same box, installation is easier than hooking up a VCR. This summer, TiVo will offer stand-alone models that will work with any cable or satellite TV hookup. And it will electronically upgrade its first-generation boxes with most of the new features over your home phone line, the same way it now sends the program guides.

Basically, smart TV is an audio/video hard-disk drive that records TV broadcasts. You can store and watch them later, like a VCR without tape. Or you can record and play back at the same time. Need a bathroom break? Or the phone rings? The pause button will put the program on hold for up to a half-hour with TiVo, more with UltimateTV. Sports fans will love the instant-replay button, which jumps back eight seconds. You can also rewind the program up to a half-hour. Once you're running behind the broadcast, you can fast forward to skip over commercials and any other boring bits. UltimateTV makes that even easier with a 30-second skip button.

There's much, much more, however, and that's where TiVo's comprehensive, easy-to-use controls take a significant lead. You can set up UltimateTV to record a daily or weekly program, but it's just recording by channel and time. With TiVo's Season Pass, you can specify whether you want first-run shows only or first-runs and repeats. Should the network move the show, such as when Fox moved The Lone Gunmen from Sunday to Friday, TiVo will find it without missing an episode. Hate the way NBC starts Will & Grace a minute early or runs Friends a minute late? You can tell TiVo to shift the recording time by a minute or two--or five or 10. UltimateTV doesn't give you that option.

TiVo has also added some features I hadn't even thought of. If you're watching a show and decide to record it, you can hit the record button and it will capture the part you've already seen--up to a half-hour's worth--as well as what's yet to come. And a powerful new search feature called Wish List lets you sift through the program listings by actor or director or by keywords such as "detective" or "Perry Mason." UltimateTV has a keyword search, too. But with TiVo, if you put in the title of a movie that has just hit the big screen, it will search your program listings week after week and automatically record the movie when it finally comes to TV.

If you're so inclined, you can have TiVo record programs it thinks you might like. You can rate programs--while you're watching them or while scanning the program guide--using "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" buttons on the remote control. TiVo will also keep track of what you watch and suggest something similar. If you've recorded an Alfred Hitchcock film, for example, it's likely to flag another for you.

Within a day of setting up my system, TiVo offered two movies I was interested in. They werewell, never mind. TiVo doesn't know what they were, either. While both the TiVo and UltimateTV systems can keep track of what you watch and even what commercials you skip, they both promise never to connect that information with your name and address. If you want, you can instruct them not to collect it at all, even anonymously.

The biggest advantage of the Microsoft system is that it arrives with two receivers built into the same box. That gives it a picture-in-picture option so you can watch two shows at once, record two simultaneously, or watch one and record the other. TiVo systems are shipped with two receivers as well, but one is inactive. The second will be turned on--by a software download--later this summer, allowing the dual-recording capability. But it will never get the picture-in-picture feature.

Like its predecessor, UltimateTV gives you a Web connection so you can surf or read and write e-mail while you watch TV. Ostensibly, it lets you interact with your TV, or at least with those few TV shows that have developed interactive content, such as CBS's Crime Scene Investigation. It also comes with two USB ports (still inactive) so that in the future, you can hook up a high-speed modem and a printer (also inactive). My guess is that by the time TV networks start offering worthwhile interactive features along with their shows, you'll need a different kind of receiver to get them.

Either system will change your viewing habits. Since I discovered smart TV, I probably watch more than I used to, but I watch more efficiently. I rarely watch in real time any more. It's too easy to start 10 minutes late so I can zap the commercials. And I never have to cycle through the channels looking for what's on. Today's smart TVs know what I want to watch, and they've already done the channel-surfing for me.

By Larry Armstrong

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