Brains for the Boob Tube

Those of you reading this column probably spend many of your waking hours looking into a computer screen. But I'm willing to bet that far more hours are spent by people staring into television screens. Ninety percent of everything is crap, or so the saying goes, and that's nowhere more evident than when flipping through channels in a search for intelligent life in the vast universe of television programming. Luckily, that 90 percent rule does leave open the possibility of some decent television programs in the remaining ten percent; the problem is, given differing tastes, how can you find shows, especially new ones, that you might like?

OK, that's just the first problem. My wife, Tonya, and I are firm believers in watching television on our terms, just as we read books or browse the Web on our own terms. Call us time-shifting fools, but we rarely watch anything live, not even the occasional sporting event. Until recently, exerting control over a television required a VCR, and VCRs present huge frustrations to anyone who understands the basics of computers, information as data, and interface design. Consider the following:

  • The interface for recording on most VCRs is so abysmally bad, I don't even know where to begin a critique. The mere fact that the VCR clock flashing 12:00 has become a ubiquitous joke about our inability to understand technology says it all.
  • Videotapes are linear, so to get to a show you recorded, you have to rewind the tape to the point at which the show began, which is slow and inaccurate.
  • Most VCRs have no concept of a directory structure, so you have to remember (or write down separately) where shows are located on the tape. At least most VCRs now tell you where you are in the tape by time, rather than by incomprehensible counter numbers. Our VCR actually does know where shows are on a tape...until you remove it.
  • Although removable videotapes offer limitless storage, the six-hour maximum recording length per tape can be annoying, especially since it's difficult to reuse space safely in the middle of a tape.
  • The answer to all of these problems is simple, at least in theory. Create a downloadable electronic program guide, index and present it like computer data (all movies, all programs on CBS, and so on), record the television shows to hard disk with MPEG compression, and offer an on-screen interface to recording, managing, and playing shows.

    In fact, all but the third of these four were answered several years ago by the VideoGuide, a short-lived box (powered by a 68,000 processor, such as the one in original Macs) that sat on top of your television, received listings via the pager network, gave you a good interface for browsing, and controlled your TV and VCR via infrared. However, when the VideoGuide was available, sufficiently inexpensive processor power and hard disk space weren't readily available.

    That all changed with last year's introduction of a pair of digital video recorders, TiVo and ReplayTV, that offer roughly similar features.

  • Both have built-in modems that regularly call out and download program listings, which they let you display in a variety of ways.
  • You can record every episode of your favorite shows, even if the airtime changes or a half-hour sitcom has an hour-long special. And, it's easy to find and record good shows you'd never know about otherwise because they're on weird channels at odd times.
  • You can watch or delete any recorded show, no matter when it was recorded. Each show is just a file on a hard disk, so there's no more trying to find the right place on a videotape.
  • You can watch one stored show while recording another, and you can start watching a show that's being recorded, while still being able to fast-forward through commercials. (We love this, since we often had to put off watching television until recording had finished.) You can't, however, record two shows at the same time.
  • If the phone rings, you can pause live television (which essentially starts recording) and start it playing again after hanging up.
  • Both offer lightning quick fast-forward and rewind features that are especially welcome when scanning through hours of obscure Olympic events. They both also have built-in instant replay features that replay the last few seconds of action, plus super slow and frame advance features for picking out details that were always blurry on paused videotape.
  • The hardest part of evolving past videotape to a digital video recorder (other than the cost) is deciding between the two devices. They really do offer similar features, cost about the same, and provide similar levels of satisfaction. The resource I found most helpful in making up my mind (other than the opinions of my estimable Macworld.com editor, Jason Snell, who's a TiVo fan and producer of the TeeVee Web site) was the iwantptv.com Web site. It has detailed descriptions of both devices along with information about related topics, including a recently posted review of a program called ShowShifter that turns a PC into a digital video recorder and more.

    Although we chose TiVo over ReplayTV because of TiVo's capability to suggest shows we might like, enabling us to do data mining on the limited offerings from the six channels we receive, I'm not going to evangelize TiVo (which is based on a PowerPC processor, albeit running Linux and not the Mac OS) over ReplayTV here. Frankly, I think both of these devices are brilliant, and although the TiVo costs more than I'd generally pay for consumer electronics, I consider it money well spent.

    It's not that we watch so much television, but that the TiVo makes the process of watching television so much more enjoyable. Dealing with the TiVo's interface is a joy compared to fumbling with the VCR. Even better, the TiVo always has something recorded we might want to watch, and it has even found good shows we hadn't seen before. Life is good when TiVo decides on its own to record a Jackie Chan movie for you.

    But what I find most compelling is that TiVo and ReplayTV have now done for television shows what MP3 did for music -- moved them out of a world predicated on the analog and the physical object into one where everything is founded instead on the basic tenets of the modern personal computer: make everything digital, provide nonlinear access to data, and offer flexible interfaces.

    That's just a fancy way of saying that if you've found yourself wishing you could search and sort the TV listings in the paper, been frustrated by trying to find a specific show in the middle of a full videotape, or had that nagging feeling that you were letting television rule your life, you should look into these digital video recorders. As a friend of mine noted, "I can't believe I used to let network television executives govern when I leave work, go out with friends, or even hit the john."

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