Renting to Record Has Its Attractions

Scott Greczkowski

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Sep 7, 2003
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[size=+2]Renting to Record Has Its Attractions[/size]

Reprinted from:

[size=-1]By Daniel Greenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 7, 2004; Page F06 [/size]

The inner workings of digital video recorders like TiVo and ReplayTV can be confusing, but not their basic point -- they put viewers back in charge of television, letting them pause, rewind and replay live TV and easily store far more shows than a stack of videotapes would allow.

Now cable TV companies are getting in on the act. Instead of selling video recorders, at $150 and up, they're renting them: Subscribers to digital-cable services (required for this add-on) can pay a few more dollars a month to trade in their cable boxes for ones that include digital video recorders. sg

In the Washington area, Comcast's recorder costs $9.95 a month -- since the recorder replaces the $3-a-month cable box, it adds only $7 to regular digital service -- while Cox's adds $9.99 to the bill. (Adelphia charges $8.95, plus a service fee, but offers this option only in Stafford County.) We tried Comcast's model over three weeks.

For most users, Comcast's biggest advantage after the money saved comes from fusing the recorder with the cable box. This simplifies the setup; for instance, you don't need to plug it into a phone line to download program schedules, since that comes over the cable wire.

It also provides better quality in recordings from digital channels, an advantage shared with video recorders for the DirecTV and Dish Network satellite-TV services. But the 80 or so channels that come over in analog form -- including broadcast networks and most popular cable programming -- look noticeably grainier in comparison.

In some aspects, Comcast's recorder has some catching up to do. For starters, it doesn't let you watch one channel while recording another.

Its onscreen user interface, in which you select programs from a simple time/channel grid, falls short of the high standards set by TiVo, ReplayTV and Dish recorders. It goes two weeks into the future, but the two ads on this screen only leave room to show an hour's schedule at a time, and you can't hide the channels you don't watch.

The limited search feature kept overlooking relevant content -- on Wednesday, its "Sports" category missed all of ESPN's English-language fare.

And you can set up a recording only by time, not by program as other video recorders allow -- meaning that the Comcast box isn't smart enough to snag the same series on other channels. Unlike TiVo, Comcast's recorder doesn't suggest shows based on your own recording history.

Comcast says the internal hard drive, at 80 gigabytes, can store 30 hours of programming, but we managed to pack in more than 35 hours. But you can't choose lower-quality recording levels to stretch out that capacity.

Comcast's remote control lacks two helpful ReplayTV features: a 30-second skip-forward button to scoot past commercials and the option to bypass every ad in a recording (unfortunately, ReplayTV is dropping this feature from future units). The remote does include a 15-second rewind button to catch missed dialogue or wardrobe malfunctions, plus four speeds of rewind and fast-forward.

In one respect, however, Comcast's recorder nukes most of the competition: It can record high-definition broadcasts at their full, gorgeous resolution, at the cost of greatly limiting its capacity. That formerly roomy hard drive is good for only about seven hours of high-definition video.

Only Dish Network's video recorder, a few tape-based "D-VHS" recorders and some computer-based systems offer this capability. So for many HDTV owners, Comcast's recorder will be by far the easiest choice. (We'll review the Dish Network device and some upcoming HD recording choices in the next few months.)

Like most digital video recorders, Comcast's offers plenty of ways to connect to a TV -- composite, component, S-Video and DVI -- and none that allows digital archiving of recordings: Its Ethernet, FireWire and USB ports are all inactive.

But for all its faults, Comcast's box saves you hundreds of dollars off the cheapest TiVo or ReplayTV, and that may be a lot more relevant than the ads it includes or the features it doesn't.

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