Walt Mossberg

The HDTV Dilemma: Pay for TiVo’s Recorder Or Settle for Cable’s?

If you just got a high-definition television, one of the best things you can buy to complement it is a digital video recorder, or DVR, the tapeless gadgets that save programs so you can watch them when you choose.

The trouble is, it’s hard to find a DVR that can record in high definition, so most people wind up simply going with the bare-bones high-definition DVR capability built into the set-top box supplied by their cable or satellite service.

But TiVo, the pioneer in digital video recording, has recently entered the high-definition recorder market with a high-end, high-priced product. It’s called the TiVo Series3 HD Digital Media Recorder and it sells for a whopping $800, as much as some HDTVs themselves. And that doesn’t include the $12.95 a month it costs to subscribe to TiVo.

I’ve been testing the new TiVo and I like it a lot, but it’s hard to swallow that huge price, especially since the new Series3 model doesn’t include some nice features available on the much cheaper Series2 version, which doesn’t record in high definition. It also can’t handle certain cable features.

So, why not just stick with the high-definition DVR supplied by the cable company? After all, while it isn’t free, it’s cheaper than the TiVo.

The answer is that, at least in my recent experience with the nation’s biggest cable company, Comcast, the high-definition DVR it supplies is just awful. If cable boxes were sold at retail like consumer-electronics devices, the Comcast DVR I tested, built by Motorola, would get creamed by better competitors.

My Comcast box, a Motorola DCT3412 I, which Comcast rents for about $12 a month, holds a maximum of 15 hours of high-definition programming or 60 hours of standard programming. The TiVo holds up to 35 hours of high-definition programs or up to 300 hours of standard.

Also, the user interface on the Comcast box is crude and confusing — nothing like the elegant interfaces people have become used to on their personal computers and devices like iPods. The TiVo interface, by contrast, is effective and attractive.

The worst problem is that the Comcast box flubs the basic functions of a DVR. It is maddeningly slow at responding to commands sent by the remote control to pause, play, fast-forward and rewind. You press pause and nothing happens. So you press it again. You try to return to normal speed after fast-forwarding through commercials and the unit takes so long to obey your command that you badly overshoot the resumption of the program.

This latency problem didn’t affect just one dud of a Motorola box. In our home, we have four of these units, and three have the problem. All, of course, share the capacity limitations and user-interface problems.

In the program grid, even on a 50-inch, high-definition screen with acres of room, the Comcast box displays just four rows of stations at a time. Until recently, there was a fifth row, but now that has been replaced by an ad. The ad not only sucks up space, but also is aggravating because it gets selected each time you reach the bottom of the grid screen.

Advertising is fine, but in this case, sacrificing 20% of an already paltry information screen for an ad just shows contempt for users.

By contrast, the basic TiVo grid shows eight rows of stations at a time, and offers an alternate view that packs in even more information using two vertical columns: one displaying stations and the other showing a list of shows scheduled in the coming hours.

And, unlike the Comcast box, the TiVo Series3 can be programmed from a Web site, so if somebody at the office tells you about a great show, you can tell the TiVo to record it long before you get home. The new TiVo can also play music and display photos that are stored on Windows and Macintosh PCs on your home network. The Comcast box can’t.

But the TiVo also has some downsides. Unlike older TiVos, it’s intended to replace, not complement, a cable box. So, installing it requires a visit from cable-company technicians to install gadgets called cable cards that plug into the back of the TiVo. In my case, that process took over two hours. Even worse, these cable cards don’t support Comcast’s on-demand feature, which allows you to see certain programs and movies whenever you choose.

And the new Series3 lacks the capability of cheaper TiVos to let you transfer recorded shows to computers and portable devices.

Also, unlike the Comcast box, the TiVo doesn’t have a filtered grid display showing only high-definition shows, which is handy once you become addicted to HD.

Fortunately, it may be possible to get some, but not all, of TiVo’s superior features by just waiting. In 2007, Comcast and TiVo expect to roll out an option for downloading TiVo software to Comcast boxes. This would provide the TiVo interface without sacrificing Comcast features such as on demand. The pricing and details haven’t been announced. Comcast is also working on other new user interfaces and features using non-TiVo technology.

But, for now, the choice is tough. The Comcast high-definition DVR is a cheaper, but flawed product and the TiVo Series3 is an excellent, but overpriced one.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com.


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