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Finding Out What’s New in the Hard Drive Video Storage Category

Due to the larger bandwidth required to store a video signal, there has always been somewhat of an inequity when video and audio storage are concerned. Where audio started out with quarter-inch tape and moved to cassettes with tape that was half that size, those of us on the video side were struggling with either half-inch open-reel tape or three-quarter-inch U-Matic cassettes. (Let's not even talk about the dozens of competing one-inch open-reel formats or the gone, but never forgotten, days of 2-inch quad or helical scan tapes.)

Due to the larger bandwidth required to store a video signal, there has always been somewhat of an inequity when video and audio storage are concerned. Where audio started out with quarter-inch tape and moved to cassettes with tape that was half that size, those of us on the video side were struggling with either half-inch open-reel tape or three-quarter-inch U-Matic cassettes. (Let’s not even talk about the dozens of competing one-inch open-reel formats or the gone, but never forgotten, days of 2-inch quad or helical scan tapes.) Yes, over time there were some early attempts at consumer formats using quarter-inch tape, but they weren’t ready for the real world. As audiotape stayed small, videotape was always two to four times the width, and considerably more tape was required on a linear basis per unit of time.

When the optical disc world came around, audio migrated first to the 5-inch CD, while video had to make do with 12-inch laser discs. Yes, eventually video pulled even with audio, thanks to the use of MPEG-2 compression and higher packing densities that give us up to two hours per side (or layer) on a DVD, while CD stays stuck at just over an hour per side of a Red Book CD. However, some might say that with the some of the options made possible by DVD-Audio, the race may be even in terms of capacity per side at a given quality level for audio and video. For a while…

As noted last month (RS Feb. 2002, p. 44), the use of massive hard drives and the ease of transferring digital audio or encoding analog audio to digital makes it possible to store large amounts of audio on a hard drive. Not just hundreds, but literally thousands or tens of thousands of hours depending on the CODEC used and the size and number of hard drives. Video? Well, so far there is nothing analogous to the products discussed last month for a variety of reasons. Some have to do with the need for more aggressive compression technologies, while more political, economic and technical issues are chewed over so that consumer electronics manufacturers and content owners such as the movie studios agree on a simple, yet effective means of providing copy protection and “transactioning” the purchase of video program material.

Nevertheless, hard drive-equipped video storage devices are available for consumer video, and as time moves forward, they will change and improve just as their audio predecessors have.

To the consumer, the current hard drive-based video products are Personal Video Recorders, or PVRs. Whether your clients choose TiVo, Replay, UltimateTV or Dishplayer, they get a basic feature set that has managed to establish itself as a “must have” for many installations in a very short period of time.

What’s it all about? Using an MPEG-2 encoder to handle incoming analog off-air, cable or satellite delivered sources, the video is digitized and stored on an internal hard drive. For units with built-in satellite tuners, no digitization is needed, as the incoming signal is already in MPEG-2 form. As the programming is being recorded, metadata accompanies it to identify the show’s title and other key descriptive information.

Thanks to the ability of the hard drive to record and play back at the same time, you have “broadcast pause”, “live rewind and replay”, and on some brands there is the dreaded “commercial skip-over” feature. Yes, the ability to select programs to be recorded from an interactive and constantly updated Electronic Program Guide (EPG) is nice, but if you are trying to sell someone on the PVR concept, showing how you can “pause” live TV, and then “catch up to real time” by fast forwarding during commercials is probably all you need to do. Of course, all of the PVRs available today do have a dynamic PVR, and that brings with it the availability to select a show for recording 10 or more days in advance, to dynamically track a favorite show by name even when it shifts time periods, to see selections of shows you might like and more. This second bundle of features forms the core of the second compelling reason to suggest a PVR.

So if the feature set seems universal, what’s the difference between the brands and configurations? Plenty! How do you decide which model or brand spec for a specific system? It’s not that difficult. Drawing a broad line of demarcation, one major difference is that some models are specifically intended for use with satellite systems, while others are compatible with any incoming signal. The former category, including some of the TiVo models, EchoStar’s Dishplayers and UltimateTV benefit from receiving the digital signal directly from the satellite. This means that picture quality should be higher since the analog to digital encode is done by a powerful, professional encoder, not a less expensive chip in the player. Good for quality, but the down side is that you surrender control over setting the drive’s capacity since the bit rate is fixed.

A better plus for the satellite-based units is that all of the TiVo units, UltimateTV and EchoStar’s new DishPVR 721 have two tuners, which means that you can record one program while watching another or record two programs while watching a third program that you had previously recorded. That’s a terrific piece of flexibility that you can’t get with a single VCR, but here again, there is a limitation. Since the satellite-based units do not have a built-in off-air tuner or MPEG encoder there is no way for them to record something other than what they receive from the satellite. If your clients are in an area where they receive “local-into-local” satellite reception of the local stations that won’t be a problem. However, if there is a need to record anything to the hard drive from an off-air antenna or cable service, the cable-based boxes aren’t for you.

What’s available in the satellite PVR category? At the moment, TiVo and UltimateTV offer boxes under a number of brands that are compatible with DirecTV, while EchoStar has their own DishPVR models. Of course, all of this is subject to change once there is a resolution of EchoStar’s pending acquisition of DirecTV. In recent weeks there have been announcements that DirecTV will use TiVo’s new “Series2” platform in future products, while Philips announced that it will manufacture set-tops for DirecTV. At the same time, Thomson (parent of the RCA brand) has announced that it will manufacture set-tops for EchoStar. Curious, since Thomson owns a part of DirecTV, even as it is being sold to EchoStar. Neither the Philips or Thomson announcements mentioned PVR-equipped boxes, but the capabilities of the respective companies clearly include PVR. Rounding things out, Microsoft announced that it is scaling back UltimateTV and rolling much of the staff that was devoted to that product into the Xbox program. (Hmm…doesn’t Xbox include a hard drive already? More about that later!)

If this all sounds confusing, it is. To some extent we’ll probably have to wait more than a new months for the resolution that an approval or rejection of the merger will bring. Until then, all the current contenders remain viable. If you are working on a system that includes DBS capability, there is no excuse not to include some brand of PVR in there somewhere.

But what if the installation uses cable or “plain old ordinary” off-air reception? No problem at all. TiVo and Replay are both very much in that market. While the traditional “off-air” PVRs lack the nifty two-tuner feature of their DBS cousins, they make up for it with the ability to record any incoming analog video source. It can be cable, it can be off-air and it can even be a security camera if you wanted to use a PVR for that purpose. You have a variety of storage capabilities, from the now standard 30 hours to the 320-hour unit available from Replay. You also have the continued divergence between the TiVo business model that levies a monthly, yearly or “lifetime” service charge for the EPG updates while Replay offers it for free, essentially building it into somewhat higher retail pricing. More importantly, it is in the new products already available from Replay and soon to come from TiVo that you see more differences as well as the shape of PVRs to come.

Given up for dead by some before last year’s acquisition by SonicBlue, Replay has come charging back with an innovative package of features that includes a 480P output option for use with digital televisions (via a D-15 type VGA connection), the ability to remotely program your Replay via the internet, a “commercial advance” button that skips ahead 30 seconds and most importantly, Internet connectivity.

Yes, we’ve long been preaching that all of the PVRs need a telephone jack behind the display’s location. Now, with Replay, you need an RJ-45 and a line to a broadband router. Why? With each new Replay having an individual IP address, the units are able to communicate with one another so that you are able to transfer programs from one unit to another. Did you miss last week’s episode of 24? No problem, call a friend with a Replay and their unit can blast it over to yours! Suffice it to say the TV networks and movie studios aren’t very happy with this. Despite the fact that some of the networks are investors the original investors in Replay, they are suing SonicBlue over the copyright implications of this feature. As with so many other aspects of the PVR world, this is one of those “we’ll have to wait and see” sort of things. Never the less, it still remains an interesting and compelling feature, as does Replay’s largest in the business 320 hour capacity.

Not to be left behind, TiVo will soon counter with their Series2 platform, which will also allow for future Internet connectivity to be facilitated through the units’ USB connectivity. TiVo’s plans for their new platform take a slightly different tack than Replay’s, and are a very good peek into what the future of all PVR products may become.

Standard with Series2 is the new Real One player, and much as in the vein of the hard drive audio products described last month, you may rip in audio content from your CD library (using an external CD player or a USB connection to your PC) and store it on the hard drive along with all the TV shows. When the Internet connectivity is implemented, you will also be able to download audio content directly from the web.

Completing a storage triad, the new TiVo models will not only be able to store audio and motion video, you will be able to connect a digital camera or PC though the USB jack and use the hard drive to store, manage and display digital still photos. If that weren’t enough, video storage isn’t limited to traditional off-air, cable or DBS. Using the USB port and a broadband connection to the Internet you will eventually be able to use these products to view streaming or downloaded content, perhaps including movies.

The new TiVo units are already available under the TiVo name, rather than through Philips or Sony, but before the fall we can expect to see new TiVo implementations using familiar brands with high consumer visibility. At the moment, however, TiVo has not announced super-large sized capacity, with a 60-hour unit priced at $399 the current maximum.

If all of this sounds like a tempting way to wean consumers from VCRs, that is precisely the intent. TiVo and Replay have fought it out in the early stages of the PVR game, and both signal every intention that they are in it for the long term. It’s too early to measure their success, as the market is still in the early stages, but if competition is not only the sincerest form of flattery, but also a sign that a concept has market gravitas, the line-up of companies looking to knock TiVo and Replay out of contention certainly signal the idea that PVR is the wave of the future. At the lower end of the market, expect to see a number of simple PVRs later this year. As detailed in our CES report last month, they will have the basic feature set of record, pause and playback. However, rather than use the complex mechanics of a dynamic EPG that must be upgraded daily via a modem, DBS or broadband connection, these units will use simple VCR-like programming where you enter the date, time and channel. Simple, easy, familiar and inexpensive. It will be interesting to see which brands take this approach and sneak in under the high profile radar of TiVo, Replay and the others to light the market up the same way that under $100 DVD players excited consumers at retail this past year.

Moving up the ladder a bit in sophistication one quickly comes to a new category of PVR, the cable “sidecar.” As detailed in our report from November’s Western Cable Show, these units will not be available for you to sell or install at retail. Rather, they will be provided to your clients by their cable company as a means of extending feature set of their cable box to include PVR. Two companies have entered this segment: CacheVision, which will keep its brand name in the background will promoting the identity and branding of the cable company, and Keen, which will look to work with cable companies to create an “Intel Inside” sort of identity in concert with the cable company’s own brand name. You will likely see both of these units in the market in the third quarter of the year, meant to sit next to a cable box and to share its on-screen interface.

If the sidecar approach seems somewhat “kludgey,” fear not. The cable companies and the manufacturers that supply their set-tops have another idea up their sleeve. Before the end of the year you will begin to see the rollout of digital set-tops from Motorola (General Instruments) and Scientific Atlanta with built-in hard drives and PVR capability. Pioneer, Pace and Panasonic are likely to follow in early 2003. For the moment these boxes will also be unavailable for you to sell, and thus become competition to your TiVo, Replay and other branded product sales. However, hope springs eternal that the cable industry will finally figure out the Open Cable process so that you will be able to sell cable boxes at retail. That, however, is a story for another time. For now, cable boxes with PVR are something you will have to compete with at a price point that is currently not known.

At the top of the PVR food chain is the latest entrant, Moxi. First introduced to the public at CES, it takes a unique approach by combining what we have now come to view as the standard PVR feature set with an innovative connectivity approach that links a single main Moxi PVR server to remote “extension” boxes via wireless or wired networking. Combined with the capability to playback multiple simultaneous streams, the object is to eliminate the need for multiple PVRs in a house by letting the server provide programming to the outlying rooms.

For the moment it is still too early to tell when we’ll first see Moxi in a retail product, though indications at CES were that it would be embodied within an EchoStar receiver. Pricing was hinted at during CES, but at this point it remains to be seen if the pricing holds and what, if any, charge will be added for the service. There is a lot of technical and financial muscle behind Moxi, but it remains to be seen if it can succeed in a market where WebTV, the last venture of its creator Steve Pearlman, did not.

With the new Replay units, TiVo’s Series2, Moxi, and the somewhat unknown marketing and pricing approach that the cable industry will take when it gets serious about PVR, the differentiation between products and brands will make this an exciting product category. We’ve seen remote wireless servers, Internet connectivity and combined audio/video/still storage. What could possible be a bit further out in the future?

Actually, a number of things. One feature note yet available, but clearly on the horizon, would be HDTV capable PVRs. To some extent this feature is yet another one that may be held captive while we wait for a resolution of the DirecTV-EchoStar deal. With the DBS systems already receiving an HD bitstream, it would be no problem for any of the satellite PVRs to record HD, given the hard drive capacity. Indeed, EchoStar has already announced plans for such a product later this year and Moxi has indicated that its product could record HDTV. Similarly, Motorola, Scientific Atlanta and Pioneer have all shown cable boxes with built-in hard drives that would easily make the transition to HDTV PVRs.

None have been announced as yet, but there is no reason that either any off-air or DirecTV STB couldn’t be equipped for HD as well. The digital stream is there, the PSIP metadata for program identification is there, and the MPEG-2 MP/HL decoder is there as well. The hard drives would have to be huge, but that is one item where costs are constantly coming down. It is too early to tell who will be first, and which method of transmission will be enabled, but before the end of the year we are almost certain to see an HD PVR–or possibly even more than one.

Before winding up, there are one or two other interesting parties to consider when looking at the PVR scene. The first one is TV manufacturers. Panasonic has already offered a TV with built-in Replay capability during the initial Replay rollout. That product is gone with Replay’s change of direction, but the concept is a good one. It doesn’t take a mystic to see that concept back with us soon and perhaps someday becoming a standard feature as TV sets and their tuners become totally digital.

TVs with built-in PVR is a de-centralized approach, placing the hard drive at every display location. A good idea, but look around the house to see where else there are hard drives. Computers? Of course. With TV tuner cards added to their systems that already include hard drives, graphical interfaces and broadband connectivity, it is a natural to see them becoming a potential home video server. You can already build (or buy) an “HTPC” that acts as a PVR, but over time that segment may fade away.

So what is left? Look around the house one more time for products that combine video and hard drives. Anyone see an Xbox out there? With a hard drive and broadband connectivity built upon what is basically a PC platform with a supercharged graphics engine is it too hard to imagine that Microsoft has something up its sleeve for Xbox besides gaming? Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer has already said as much, but the specifics remain under the hats of those in Redmond, perhaps until after the E3 show in May. Xbox has already surprised many with its very strong launch, and with the technical and financial power of the Redmond giant behind it, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone if Xbox morphed into a PVR and more.

A final PVR possibility? Though Sony had originally said that a 40 GB hard drive/Ethernet adaptor combination for PlayStation 2 would be available by now, we’ll undoubtedly have to wait until after E3 for that, as well. Never the less, Sony has already shown PSX2 as a conduit for HDTV, and AOL connectivity along with Real Audio is also due for inclusion in the product’s feature set when the connectivity module finally arrives. Add to that the Terabyte plus server Sony has already shown at a number of trade shows and you know that they won’t be caught napping, no matter where Sony’s current plans for TiVo or UltimateTV take them.

And, oh yes, don’t forget that some time in the next 18 to 24 months we’ll see PlayStation 3. Anyone want to bet what kind of video storage, networking and playback capabilities that product will have? All of this is only the beginning. DVD recordables are capable of PVR-like capability, particularly with the TimeSlip functionality of Panasonic’s DVD-RAM models, and it as DVD recordable becomes more widespread we will likely see it integrated into PVRs either as a primary recording media or as a means of archiving programs you want to store more permanently than leaving them on the hard drive. At the same time, there is another body of thought that says hard drive storage belongs in a cable head-end with consumers accessing it through their digital set top boxes. Both of these concepts are still in development, but with the fast pace of technology they may be appearing in an installation near you sooner than you think. While PVR has not yet attained the market penetration that we’ve seen for DBS or DVD, it is clearly here to stay. There are many options, brands, configurations and feature sets available with more to come. If you haven’t experienced it in your own home, you should. That will quickly convince you of the value of this product as it did for me. I’m a believer and you and your clients will become believers, too. In the mean time, don’t forget the phone jacks and network connectivity wherever you place a video display as a way of priming the pump for PVR.

It wasn’t all that long ago that tape storage for home video was rare, today that is still somewhat the case for hard drive video storage. Think of the compression of time between the development of VCR, DBS, DVD and you have an idea as to how quickly PVR will become commonplace. Take a look at the options available and you’ll wonder how you or your clients ever got along without it.

Michael Heiss ([email protected]) is a technology and marketing consultant based in Los Angeles.