Easy Backup, Difficult Digital Video

In today's grab bag of products, I look at two very different items. One, a backup device for notebooks, is so straightforward and useful that it should be an instant hit, especially for people who are always on the road. You plug it in and the backup process literally starts itself. The other - a digital video recorder - sounds good in theory but was fiendishly hard to get hooked up and working.

Laptop Backups

Back up your data. Everybody needs to do it, but hardly anyone actually does.

That's why information technology managers love server-based data and applications: They know data has been backed up regularly and properly.

Nonetheless, lots of users still need to do their own backup, especially laptop users. For them, Costa Mesa, Calif.-based CMS Peripherals Inc. has the niftiest new product I've seen. It's called Automatic Backup System, and it accomplishes its job in a stunningly simple way.

Basically, the unit is a 6-oz., laptop-size hard disk (available in sizes ranging from 4G bytes to 18G bytes) with a permanently attached PC card that clips onto the disk drive and out of the way when not in use. To do a backup, you unclip the PC card and insert it into your laptop's PC card slot. That's all - end of story. The backup software for Windows 95, 98 and NT is already installed, and the process starts by itself.

You can customize what's backed up and what's excluded. The $389 4.3G byte unit I tried was fast, simple and foolproof. It took about 15 minutes to back up nearly a full G byte of files, and I didn't have to do a thing. I see this product as a potential blockbuster hit, especially among financial and auditing professionals who are constantly on the road.

The Video Computer Arrives

These new gadgets don't even have a standardized label to describe them. For now, I'll use the term digital video recorder (DVR). They record television programs like a VCR but onto a computer hard drive instead of magnetic tape.

Their aim is to make television viewing more convenient than ever.

When I first heard about them, I wondered just how well they would work in practice. The computer industry expects users to just put up with innumerable crashes, conflicts, inconsistencies and annoyances. Television, however, seems to expect little or no patience or intelligence from its viewers. That question is the main reason Computerworld is interested in these consumer-grade units.

IT managers should keep an eye out for such new and unpredicted uses of computer technology because such devices may suddenly come into use within the enterprise - and guess who's going to be asked for help when there are problems. To get an idea of what happens when two disparate technologies collide, I tried out the first two DVRs on the market: Replay TV from Mountain View, Calif.-based Replay Networks Inc. (www.replaytv.com) and TiVo from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based TiVo Inc. (www.tivo.com).

Let's ask the really important question: Why spend $700 for one of these boxes? For one thing, you can pause a live broadcast. If the doorbell rings or someone needs to talk right now, just hit the pause button on the remote and turn your attention to where it's needed. Later, press play and it picks up right where you left off.

Also, during playback you can press Replay's Quick Skip or TiVo's Jump button and advance instantly in the recording, which allows you to skip over virtually all commercials.

These DVRs have intelligent-search capabilities. Each one periodically dials into a central server and uploads a detailed, customizable program guide. You can program "theme channels" identified by keywords or phrases, and the system will automatically record programs with that title or theme no matter what channel they're on or what time they air.

The system isn't foolproof, though. My Replay unit attempted to record an HBO movie, even though I'm not an HBO subscriber. Also, I wanted to capture shows about woodworking, but when I programmed the word wood, the system recorded movies with an actor of that name. Still, my wife really appreciated the Mel Gibson channel.

Hard-disk capacity is finite; recording in its lowest-quality mode, Replay TV can hold about 20 hours of video (half that at better quality). TiVo can record about 14 hours of video at low quality (four at the best viewing level).

However, each company offers models with larger disks (up to 30 hours) at extra cost. To save something long-term, you're expected to archive it onto videotape.

Apart from cost, the real problem with these machines is a hookup nightmare - the worst "out-of-the-box experience" I've ever endured.

Confusing Cables

There's an intimidating collection of cables, and making all the right connections isn't easy. I've had 30 years' experience wiring audio component systems, computers and even studio-recording consoles, but despite the very clear diagrams each vendor supplied, I still managed to connect things wrong the first time on each DVR. They presented me not with the expected menus but with blank blue screens - final proof, perhaps, that these machines really are computers.

Neither of these products runs the Windows operating system, but each had crashes that forced manual reboots, which required unplugging their power cords.

Replay's receiver, which is made by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., required several reboots in two weeks. And TiVo's box, from Philips Electronics NV, initially wouldn't show the programs it indicated and then stopped responding to the remote.

All these problems are fixable, but many users won't put up with the hassle.

The DVR is a really intriguing product that's nowhere near ready for prime time, either in user-friendliness or pricing. I'd recommend having an experienced professional hook up the system. You can do it yourself, but you may regret it.

Replay TV costs $699; TiVo costs $499.

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