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The Five Hidden Differences Between DVRs

December 23, 2005

Digital Video Recorders are fast becoming “commodity” items — Tivos are now selling for pocket change (leaving aside the monthly fee), cable and satellite providers are throwing in “house brand” DVRs cheap or even free for new and renewing subscribers, and some days it seems harder to find a Windows machine that’s not a Media Center than it does to find one that is.

Unfortunately, what makes a DVR worth using isn’t always the obvious features that they tell you about.  Sure, you can select between them based on recording time or disk storage, or how many standard definition or high def programs they’ll record simultaneously, but once it’s installed and you have to live with it, you’ll find that there are some major differences between the players.

Sometimes you have advanced warning — for example, this week DirecTV is taking a lot of heat for problems with their new post-Tivo house-brand DVRs, but often you’ll need to do a little online sleuthing around to find out what user experience are really like.

So what’s really important?  Funny you should ask.  Having owned a fairly wide variety of DVRs over the past few years, and played with a few different ones that friends own, I’ve decided that the following five issues are what really separate great DVR experiences from just another case of gadget misery.
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DirecTivo Software Update (Too Little, Too Late)

May 6, 2005

Matt Haughey is reporting that an upgrade to version 6.2 is in the pipe for DirecTivos.

I’m sure no DirecTivo owner will be surprised to hear that this does not include any sign of Home Media Option or pretty much anything else of much value. It’s not even being rolled out for my Hughes unit yet.

So much for DirecTV.

This is the last straw that will send me to Dish and their new dual tuner 942 HD PVR.

I’m sure the user interface on it will suck terribly, but I’m tired of owning a dead-end orphan PVR, and $250 for this is a lot easier to swallow than the price for the HD Tivo.

As for the rest of the house, I’m sure MCE won’t care whether I use basic DirecTV receivers or Dish receivers.

Anybody want a slightly used DirecTivo and a couple of basic DirecTV receivers? Make me an offer.

Tivo — Dying young, but leaving a great-looking corpse

December 8, 2004

If there’s a tougher user interface to get right than an interface for an intelligent TV device, I don’t wanna meet it.  I was involved with a project trying to do content management on TVs back in ‘97, and the problems involved in coming up with something powerful that looks good and is as easy to use 10 feet from the TV as the TV itself are immense.  The project died (several times—there must have been a shortage of wooden stakes) for other reasons, but we never came up with anything half as good as the Tivo interface has been since day one.

Matt Haughey has a great interview with Tivo’s Margret Schmidt, the person responsible for making their interface happen.  If you’ve ever thought great interfaces “just happen”, you really need to read this to appreciate how much work and thought goes into making an experience that is truely intuitive and easy to use.

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