This Video Recorder Has Some Enemies
If you wanted to build a consumer-electronics product designed to drive the entertainment industry nuts, it would be hard to beat SONICblue's (SBLU ) ReplayTV 4000 (www.replaytv.com). While basically a personal video recorder that gives you an easy way to record shows onto a big hard drive, Replay claims the ability to delete commercials automatically during playback and to send recorded programs to other Replay owners over the Internet. An assortment of outraged broadcasters and cable programmers has asked a federal court to block the sale of the product.
In truth, the commercial-skipping feature works erratically, and sending programs is hopelessly impractical, even with a broadband connection. But Replay is still an important product. It is in the vanguard of a new generation of consumer electronics equipped to connect both to home networks and to the Internet.
Recorders such as Replay and rivals from TiVo (TIVO ) and Microsoft (MSFT ) have been around for a couple of years. They give you a simple way to select programs from an on-screen guide for one-shot or repeated recording and to search for and select shows by title or genre. Replay marks a new high in recording capability, ranging from 40 gigabytes (40 hours at standard quality) for $699 to 320 GB for $1,999.
Previous versions used dial-up connections to download the program guide. Replay links to the Internet through a home network. That same connection can be used to transfer video to another Replay in your home or out onto the Net. You can also display photos stored on a Windows PC in your home as a slide show on a television set.
Make no mistake about it: This is bleeding-edge stuff aimed at technically astute buyers. It requires a broadband connection and a home network that includes a standard Ethernet connection handy to your television. (Given the trend in home-networking, a wireless option would greatly enhance the appeal.) Setting the box up to download program information is actually simpler than the old dial-up models. But configuring it to receive video over the Internet included the baffling instruction: "Open a port on your firewall and enter the port number here."
Broadcasters find the new Replay alarming. In a suit pending in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, content producers claim that the copying of programs for personal use, not to mention sharing them, violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Fortunately for the plaintiffs, sharing programs over the Internet isn't likely to be much of an issue in the real world. An hour of video fills a gigabyte of storage, and since most broadband connections limit upload speed to about 256 kilobits per second, sending a two-hour movie takes 18 hours. If you own two Replays, you could send a movie to a second unit over a high-speed home network in less than five minutes. And in the not-too-distant future, you'll probably be able to send a movie recorded on a Replay or similar device to a networked TV set anywhere in your home.
The industry is also alarmed about Replay's Commercial Advance feature, which SONICblue claims automatically deletes ads during playback. I found that it caught most commercials on prime-time programming but, for some reason, was more erratic at other times. It also missed some ads during segments of five or more commercials. Still, a click of the 30-second advance button on the remote quickly got me past any commercials that remained.
The TV and movie industries, like recorded music companies, view new technologies as a threat rather than an opportunity. Studios, which now find tape and DVD sales a very profitable business, went to the Supreme Court in the 1980s in a vain effort to block the sale of VCRs. The Recording Industry Assn. failed to stop Diamond Multimedia (since purchased by SONICblue) from selling Rio digital audio players.
Networked home-entertainment products are coming, whether the industry likes them or not, and they are going to get cheaper and easier to use. We can only hope the entertainment industry fails in its efforts to kill these new products before they have a chance to thrive.