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Is there a PVR in Your Future?

Are Personal Video Recorders about to put the venerable VCR out to pasture?

PVR’s are the VCR for the new millennium, using a hard disk drive to record TV programming instead of a videocassette, and offering more TV viewing flexibility than a VCR.

PVR’s are hot, especially in the United States where they’ve been available for a few years now. In Canada, however, there has only been one honest to goodness standalone PVR available to the mainstream consumer market so far, and it isn’t really a standalone.

Bell ExpressVu’s model 5100 satellite receiver/PVR, introduced to the Canadian market in August 2001, has given some Canadians a taste of the digital recording world. Otherwise, Canadians interested in having a PVR have had to rely on some PC-based solutions such as ATI’s All-In-Wonder Radeon 8500 video card family, which includes a software-based PVR with its hardware, and a Sony Vaio that has PVR technology bundled in its cornucopia of goodies.

But now, with the fall 2002 buying season upon us, other mainstream manufacturers are finally introducing to the Canadian marketplace their own PVR’s, primed and ready for consumers don’t have ExpressVu or who don’t want to update their satellite receivers.

And it’s some of the biggies who are jumping on the bandwagon, too. Thomson Multimedia, makers of the RCA and RCA Scenium brands, is the most prominent, and when they jump onto a bandwagon you know it’s picking up momentum.

Thomson is introducing the RCA Scenium DRS7000N DVD digital media recorder. With a suggested retail price of $999.99 CDN, it combines a PVR with a progressive scan DVD player, allowing people to move from VHS to DVD without losing the ability to record their favourite TV shows. The RCA unit also includes Gemstar’s GUIDEPLUS Gold, an on screen programming guide that, unlike the TiVO and Replay PVR’s in the US, don’t force you to subscribe to a separate programming service to use the thing.

According to Greg Skinner, RCA’s Market Development Manager for Audio and DVD, “The extra fees (attached to the US PVR services) tend to scare people off, so our system gives consumers the break they’ve been asking for.” As Skinner is quick to point out, people pay enough already their for satellite and/or cable programming, so it’s hard to justify nickel and diming them to death through additional fees.

It isn’t a big deal for RCA anyway, because they’ve been offering the GUIDEPLUS feature on some of their TV’s for years.

Skinner views RCA’s unit as “Media Centre Box” that’s more than just a PVR and DVD player. “It also offers MP3 disc playback, and you can download tracks directly from the disc player onto the PVR’s hard drive for archiving.” You can also store up to 10,000 JPEG photo images on the hard drive so you can do slide shows for unsuspecting guests - though of course the more hard drive space you use up for such things the less there is available for recording TV programs.

And LG, who are poised to make a splash in the Canadian marketplace, are also poised to sweeten their inventory with a DVD/PVR available “this fall,” according to their PR blurb. LG’s model DH2010NC also offers a 40GB Hard drive for TV recording/playback, a single tray DVD player that also handles CD, VCD, SVCD, CD-R, CD-RW and MP3 files.

So is this a product whose time has come or is it just another gadget looking for a market?

According to Alessandra Saccal, Communications Manager for Bell ExpressVu, a PVR is far more than just a glorified VCR. “It’s a sophisticated system that puts the viewer in the driver seat.” That’s because the PVR is more flexible than a traditional VCR. “If the phone rings during a that climatic scene in a movie, if the baby is crying during your favorite drama or if you miss that highlight goal you can go back and watch it again and again,” says Saccal . “The PVR automatically digitally records on a hard disk drive whatever you happen to be watching, so you can rewind and watch sections of a show, movie or sport as many times as you want! If that doesn’t change the way you watch TV I don’t know what will!”

Bell ExpressVu’s experience with the PVR has been extremely positive. Sales are up, undoubtedly at least in part because they lowered the receiver/PVR’s price and, according to survey data they have, 96% of customers are very or somewhat satisfied with their PVR experience. “People love the capability to pause live TV as well as being able to digitally record for 30 hours,” Saccal says, adding “Customers still record a lot of TV, particularly movies dramas, learning or discovery shows, sitcoms and documentaries.”

Potential PVR purchasers are also lured in by the promise of digital quality (read “DVD”) recording, though PVR quality, as with everything else, falls back on the old adage “garbage in, garbage out.” This means that if the original broadcaster’s signal is substandard, so will your PVR’s recording quality - and there’s nothing you can do about it short of complaining to the broadcaster.

PVR’s are here to stay, one wonders what people are supposed to do with their existing libraries of VHS tapes once the old VCR has packed it in and the PVR is all that’s left.

RCA’s Skinner hints at a possible solution, however; his company is exploring the possibility of adding DVD recording technology to their product line, whether as part of a PVR/DVD-R package or a standalone unit. Panasonic and others already make standalone DVD recorders and they offer an excellent way to archive your old tapes.

As long as you burn them to disc while your VCR still works…

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.

 

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