SAN FRANCISCO (05/26/2000) - Take total control of your TV with personal digital TV recorders, now equipped with improved show-selection features and more memory than earlier incarnations possessed. These so-called hard disk recorders--basically hard drives in VCR-size boxes--let you specify what you want to see, when you want to see it, and with what special effects. Using an HDR to fine-tune your entertainment options is amusingly addictive--and the device's powers are light-years beyond any VCR's capabilities.
I looked at shipping units of two models: the $399 Philips Consumer Electronics Corp. Personal TV Receiver HDR312 and the $700 Panasonic Corp. ShowStopper Hard Disk Recorder PV-HS2000. Both of these HDRs can convert TV input received from antenna, cable, or satellite into digital data quickly savable to a hard disk.
It's a couch potato's dream: You can pause a live show when the phone rings, freeze frames, or push a button to initiate instant replay. Other features: multispeed fast-forward and backup, and on-screen program guides that let you use your remote control to browse by channel, time, show name, or topic, as well as call up easy-to-read show descriptions.
Both HDRs carry 30GB Quantum hard drives that hold 30 hours of MPEG-2 video and stereo sound at basic recording quality--good enough for most TV shows. (Some previous units had smaller disks, others were far more expensive.) Unfortunately, at highest recording quality, which you'll want for broadcasts with lots of movement, the devices' capacity quickly shrinks. If you need to keep programs long-term, and not just manage viewing times for your convenience, you'll want to transfer them to videocassette tape to free HDR memory. This is easy to do, so don't chuck the VCR yet.
Both HDRs I looked at can receive automatic program guide updates from their respective services via modem--a key feature. (You don't have to subscribe to the services, but without them you pay an awful lot just for the ultrafast-forward and instant replay.) If you use the programming services, the difference in cost between the two HDRs is considerably less than the gap in their list prices suggests. TiVo Service for the Philips is $10 a month, $100 a year, or $199 for the box's lifetime, while ReplayTV Service is included free with the Panasonic.
Installation is simple, but you have to wade through a maze of cords and cables (including a phone line hookup) to download the program guide. The Panasonic hard drive is slightly noisy when downloading the guide. Both devices do their spinning and hoodoo late at night, when you're least likely to need the phone, and they never interrupt phone calls; if you happen to be using the line, they simply try again later.
I liked the ReplayZones on-screen feature, where I could seek out and easily record programs categorized by specific genre--movie, sitcom, talk show, and so on. Replay also permits creation of viewer-selected theme channels--say, an all-Simpsons or all-Julia Roberts program collection. I also liked Replay's advanced program-search functions, which let you track programs by topic, title, actor, or director. TiVo says the next version of its software will match these capabilities. Currently, TiVo generates personalized programming recommendations based on how you rate shows (you classify them by employing thumbs-up, thumbs-down buttons on the remote). This feature didn't produce interesting recommendations in my tests, but it's supposed to work better over time.
Both Replay and TiVo expect to add programming you can't get on regular TV. For example, TiVo plans to offer IFilm's broadband film and animation content, which was previously available only on the Web.
Overall, the Philips Personal TV Receiver is the easier box to operate.
Recording is a snap, and the remote is simple and pleasing (though the picture briefly freezes when channels change). Buy this one if you don't like grappling with technology or if kids are involved. The Panasonic was a two-fisted job--complicated remote in one hand and complex directions in the other. But the search options on its Replay software make personal programming with it more fun.
Panasonic ShowStopper Hard Disk Recorder PV-HS2000Pro: More options to customize TV viewing; free Replay service.
Con: Complicated to master.
Value: For technically savvy types.
List price: $700, Replay service free
Philips Personal TV Receiver HDR312
Pro: Very simple to operate.
Con: Few programming options.
Value: Buy it if technophobes or kids are involved.
List price: $399; TiVo service $10/month, $100/year, $199 lifetimePhilips USAwww.philipsusa.comTiVo877/367-8486www.tivo.com.