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TiVo, ReplayTV, or SnapStream?

Our couch-potato guru reviews the state of personal video recorders.

A couple of years ago, I reviewed two second-generation personal video recorders (PVRs) from ReplayTV and TiVo. At that time, these gadgets were still relatively new, having come out in their first versions less than a year previously. Since then, both have made significant advances, and between them they’ve captured the lion’s share of the PVR market. However, several companies have been working on products that enable you to turn a PC into a PVR with software and hardware; one strong contender in this race is SnapStream. In this article, I’ll examine the progress that TiVo and ReplayTV have made in the past two years and review SnapStream, which I’ve had running on my PC for the last two weeks.

PVR update

TiVo has gained a strong foothold in the marketplace, and TiVo has become synonymous with PVR in the lexicon of many TV viewers. At the time of my last review, TiVo service (the program guide that lets you pick shows and automates recording–updated nightly via your telephone line) cost $9.95 per month or $199 for the life of your TiVo unit; it’s now up to $12.95 and $249.00. Besides selling standalone PVRs, TiVo has forged an alliance with DirecTV, and there are integrated boxes that act as both dual-channel DirecTV tuners and 35-hour TiVo recorders. Currently, these are available for $99 with DirecTV activation or $199 for current subscribers (TiVo service is on top of these prices–it’s not integrated with your DirecTV subscription).

TiVo has gone through several software upgrades and a couple of generations of standalone boxes since my last review. Not surprisingly, they now have more powerful hardware–primarily increased hard drive capacity–which determines how many programs you can store. They just introduced their $399 Series 2 model, which holds 60 hours. (The advertised capacity of PVRs is at the lowest quality level, which translates to about a gigabyte per hour of MPEG-2 video–the highest quality roughly doubles that requirement.) Hard drives with capacities from 80 to 160GB are becoming commonplace and affordable, and I expect TiVo will be increasing capacities again soon. Incidentally, there are several active online discussion groups dealing with both TiVo and ReplayTV, and a popular topic with each is hacking into the box to drop in a bigger hard drive or drives. A good place to start (on a variety of audio/video topics) is AV Science Forum.

Introduced shortly after TiVo, ReplayTV lost ground from the outset, in part because of a decision to market mostly online rather than move aggressively into retail stores, as did TiVo. ReplayTV boxes also have cost more than equivalent TiVo boxes because lifetime program guide service was built into the price–a marketing disadvantage. Last year, ReplayTV was purchased by SONICblue, maker of the popular Rio MP3 player/recorders. Shortly thereafter, they rolled out the ReplayTV 4000 series, a line of PVRs with recording capacities ranging from 40 to 320 hours and prices from $699 to $1,999. The 4000 series has just been replaced by the 4500 series, which along with some new features offers lower prices ($350 to $1,300 after a rebate). Along with lower box prices, SONICblue has followed TiVo’s lead and now charges $9.95 monthly and $250 lifetime service fees for 4500-series boxes.

Two features unique (so far) to the ReplayTV 4000 PVRs (or higher) are Commercial Advance to automatically skip commercials, and the ability to transmit content between networked 4000 boxes. The former works like the same feature on some VCRs (but much more quickly) and provides similar 70 to 90 percent real-world reliability. The latter requires an Ethernet connection and works in two modes. If you have a home network, you can stream content from one 4000 to another over their 10/100 Ethernet ports, playing it in real time from the receiving PVR. Over either your local network or the Internet via a broadband modem, you can transfer content from one 4000 to another.

Even with broadband (it’s not supported on the phone modem for obvious reasons), the Internet option is less than appealing; at typical 128Kbps uplink speeds, an hour of standard-quality content will take 16 hours to send. Triple that for high quality; and streaming is out of the question. Speaking of quality, videophiles will be happy to learn that besides the standard array of RF, composite and S-video outputs, the 4000 boxes have a VGA connector for 480P (progressive-scan) resolution on a compatible monitor or HD-ready TV.

One side effect of SONICblue’s introduction of Commercial Advance and Internet transfer has been to arouse the ire of content providers, such as television networks, premium channels, and major studios. The networks don’t like people messing with their revenue model, and the thought of having their commercials zapped so easily drives them to apoplexy (one network executive ill-advisedly likened not watching commercials to theft of service). Of course, this has always been easy with PVRs (and is even automated on some VCRs, as mentioned), but you still had to push a button or two on your PVR to zap commercials, and it’s slow on VCRs.

As for content sharing, even though it’s not very practical now, the HBOs and Paramounts of the world see this as the camel’s nose in the tent, and want to nip any video Napsters in the nose ring. Last fall, they ganged up and filed a lawsuit against SONICblue; it’s due to go to trial soon. They failed to get an injunction against 4000 sales, however, so they go on. Prevailing legal opinion seems to be that under the fair-use doctrine established with the Universal Studios vs. Sony Betamax Supreme Court decision in 1984 (which finally legitimized VCRs), the plaintiffs will lose at least on the commercial-skipping issue, and probably on content sharing as well. However, until that suit is settled, a small cloud of uncertainty hovers on the horizon for SONICblue and ReplayTV users (and perhaps by extension, all PVR users).

The DIY approach

I still use my old 20-hour ReplayTV daily (and am thinking about hacking into it to replace the hard drive), but another interesting alternative recently came to my attention. SnapStream is one of several companies offering to add PVR capabilities to your PC. Given that set-top boxes like TiVo and ReplayTV are basically dedicated, special-purpose computers, this sounds like an excellent application. To over-simplify, all a PC needs is a TV tuner card, software, and an online program directory service to schedule shows to record.

If you already have a PC (no Mac support yet, unfortunately), SnapStream lets you turn it into a PVS–personal video station, in their parlance–for as little as $50. If you need a TV tuner (PCI card or USB module), SnapStream has bundles that add between $30 and $110 to that number, depending on features (e.g., stereo sound, FM tuner). Snapstream also supports other TV tuner and combo cards; check its Web site for the latest results of their testing.

Because SnapStream will run on a Pentium II/350 or better with at least a 2GB hard drive and Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, it offers the intriguing possibility of putting your last-generation doorstop back to work and keeping it out of a landfill. However, figure on at least budgeting for a larger hard drive; SnapStream video consumes between 17.4MB and nearly 1GB per hour, depending on your chosen quality level (from 56K modem to near-DVD, on their scale). Also, streaming video is both processor and memory-intensive, so with lesser boxes you may lose features such as streaming video to other PCs (and Macs) over your home network. Or you may find that you can’t display your video in a window size or quality level you’d prefer. However, today’s Pentium 4 screamer is tomorrow’s doorstop, so there’s always hope.

Because I wanted to gauge its performance potential, I installed SnapStream 2.0 and a bundled Hauppage WinTV PCI card on a 2.2GHz Pentium 4 with 512MB of RAM and a 60GB hard drive. Installation and configuration of both hardware and software were a snap; the SnapStream software substitutes for that of the WinTV card, and the latter isn’t needed. I initially got no sound until I discovered that it had been muted in the Window XP Volume Controls. More confusingly, it kept re-muting itself whenever I’d record a program, and I’d have to go back and fix it before watching. I finally discovered a troubleshooting item in the SnapStream instructions that has you disable a feature in another XP control panel to preclude this. According to SnapStream, the next version of the software will handle this automatically.

Currently, the program guide service used by SnapStream is supplied by TitanTV, a Web site that partners with SnapStream and other PVR software companies. This service is free, and you can peruse the site (with or without any PVR software) for program listings and descriptions. With their imminent next version (called Quartz), SnapStream will unveil SnapStream.NET, a subscription service with more features than TitanTV. However, Quartz will continue to work with TitanTV. Using SnapStream is pretty straightforward; the user interface displays in your Web browser, and it’s well designed. SnapStream uses Windows Media Player and its controls for playback, and is subject to some vagaries of digital video streaming–occasional picture stutters and dropped frames. You’re probably familiar with these if you’ve ever streamed video from the Internet using Media Player.

Picture quality on my monitor at SnapStream’s VHS (600MB per hour) quality level was quite acceptable, though I wouldn’t call it VHS at full screen on my monitor. To be fair, I’ve found that monitors are much less forgiving than TV’s in this regard; you sit much closer, and their high resolution emphasizes every flaw in the picture. Incidentally, VHS is the highest level apparently supported by my TV tuner card. The higher Near-DVD level degraded things. You’ll note that the highest quality currently offered by SnapStream (as measured by hard drive space consumption) is actually a bit lower than the lowest quality level of either TiVo or ReplayTV, confirming my subjective viewing perceptions. When I streamed VHS-quality video from the PC to my Mac (a G4/500MP) over my 100-baseT Ethernet, everything worked, albeit with more stutters and dropped frames. It also caused a crash while trying to launch another application and viewing the stream. Given the obvious resource demands of streaming video, some tweaking of settings and compromises on picture size or quality likely will be necessary to get all this working smoothly.

Bottom line, SnapStream is still a work in progress, but it’s a very interesting one. It’s definitely not a couch potato’s PVR: There are still some rough edges and a high geek quotient; picture quality still needs improvement; and most of the control has to be done at the keyboard–remote-control options are still pretty limited. So if kicking back in front of the tube is your thing (and you want to automatically record, time-shift, and zap commercials to your heart’s content), you’ll be better off with a TiVo or ReplayTV. However, if you want to save some bucks, possibly extend the life of an old PC, or catch up on some viewing while you work, SnapStream could be just the ticket.

It’s unfortunate that Quartz and SnapStream.NET weren’t quite ready in time for this review. Among other things, Quartz promises to improve picture quality and should work better in full-screen mode. I plan to feed the SnapStream signal into my home cable system via an RF modulator to every TV in the house, as well as experiment with some remote control solutions. Among other things, operating this way will reduce the processor load associated with streaming digital video feeds to one or more networked computers. (Of course, it also precludes different viewers watching different content.) I’ll do a follow-up report on Quartz and those projects in the near future.

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