ReplayTV Update: TV of Tomorrow?

SAN FRANCISCO (03/10/2000) - Replay TV wants to change modern viewing habits--but first it has to attract some customers. In an effort to convince you that you need another peripheral, the service has lowered its price and enhanced its features. The set-top unit's list price is now down to $599, and it could sell for up to $100 less in some places.

Many companies make similar "change-the-world," hyperbolic claims, but ReplayTV stands a chance with its original approach. It combines and enhances a familiar process, essentially digitizing the recording capabilities of a VCR.

With the unit's 20 hours of digital storage, you can record and manipulate TV in a number of ways. Not only is the recording mechanism more flexible than that of the average VCR, you can stop, pause, or search the data at will.

If you have 200 cable channels and you always think that nothing's on, this could be the service for you.

"We make it so there is always something good to watch," says Jim Plant, ReplayTV spokesperson. "You are not at the mercy of whatever's on at a particular time."

Plant says the average ReplayTV viewer spends an average of 3 more hours a week planted in front of the set, presumably due to a corresponding increase in quality.

It Can't Do Everything

A few obvious functions are beyond the reach of the current model. You cannot record two programs simultaneously, although you can watch and manipulate a single program while recording another. Additionally, the archival mechanism is less elegant than you might like. With analog-only output you can record to tape, but not DVD.

The device seems like a natural feature for the well-appointed TV of the future, but Plant says it will probably not become a permanent fixture. "There is a trend in separating CPU-based components. They become obsolete more quickly than a picture tube, which has a much longer lifespan," he says. If the next-generation product includes digital output and upgradeable hard drives, you won't have to replace the whole set.

The software can learn your habits and respond accordingly, such as automatically taping frequently watched shows on a regular basis. The most significant feature enhancement is a search capability, which can help you make sense of what's on the disk and on TV. With it, you can select keywords or types (selecting letterbox, for example), or you can even make sure it catches every show set in, say, Chicago.

You can skip commercials--a feature advertisers aren't wild about, according to Plant--but there is not yet a way to search them. Want to see that new Life cereal commercial featuring Mikey? You still need to wait for it to come around.

Everything from the cassette recorder on has prompted a cry of "foul" from content providers, but ReplayTV has little chance of tearing everything down.

"There are some copyright and encryption issues," Plant says. "Some people in Hollywood think it's their worst nightmare. We don't think it's a huge deal, but [we] are not aggravating the issue."

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