SAN FRANCISCO (03/30/2000) - Are you ready to toss your VCR and opt for the hard-disk-based TV recorder of the future? For the past year, two companies -- ReplayTV and TiVo -- have tried to convince you to do just that.
The companies market set-top boxes with advanced recording features that are well beyond the capabilities of your garden-variety VCR. The rivals use incompatible technologies and are staging a standards battle reminiscent of the great BETA versus VHS skirmish of the early 1980s. It's become a see-saw scuffle, with both companies allying with major consumer electronics companies in an effort to pull ahead.
In January, TiVo made headway by announcing both Philips and Sony will market its boxes. But this week ReplayTV made progress, as Panasonic announced it will sell ReplayTV's hard disk recorders under the Panasonic brand name.
Scheduled to ship in April, the Panasonic ShowStopper PV-HS1000 offers 20 hours of recording for US$699.95, and the PV-HS2000 supports 30 hours for $799.95.
Those models are on the high end. Philips' TiVo costs $499 for a 14-hour box, and $699 for 30-hour box. Sony's pricing is the most aggressive; it will ship a $399 30-hour box in April.
The TiVo-based boxes, however, require an additional $199 investment in a "lifetime" subscription to a programming schedule service. Programming services come free with the Panasonic/ReplayTV units.
Hard Drive Advantages
All boxes convert standard video to MPEG-2 and store it on a built-in hard disk. Each hour of MPEG-2 video requires approximately 1GB of drive space.
The Panasonic ShowStoppers automatically update a seven-day, on-screen programming guide nightly (it needs a phone line connection). As with a standard VCR, you can program the unit to record your favorite TV shows, but with more choices. Much like a Web-based search engine, the units let you scan for shows by keywords and tag them for recording. You can choose "theme-based" programming, and ShowStopper will automatically record all programs in that theme, by title, genre, actor, or director.
The ShowStoppers share other features with their competitors. The hard disk-based TV recorders start instantly and are random-access (like DVDs), so you don't need to rewind or fast-forward.
The multitasking capabilities of hard disk recorders also support intriguing and useful features such as "catch up" recording. If the phone rings or you are otherwise interrupted while watching TV, you can hit a button and the ShowStopper will start recording. When you're done, hitting Play will resume the show from the point of interruption. ShowStopper keeps recording the rest of the show while you watch the earlier part.
Panasonic's ShowStoppers are compatible with broadcast TV, cable, and Direct Broadcast Satellite services. The unit comes with a universal remote control and all required cables.
It's too early to tell whether these competing recorders will coexist, or whether one will stomp the other like in the VCR wars. But with major manufacturers taking sides, the battle should lead to price-cutting competition. In the meantime, products like the Panasonic ShowStopper should gladden the hearts of serious couch potatoes.