When ReplayTV's full-featured 5040 debuted in the fall of 2002, its competition in the digital-recording arena was largely limited to TiVo-branded set-top boxes; by contrast, the 5500 is merely the latest entrant into what has been an ever-expanding DVR landscape. DVRs are now being combined with DVD players and recorders as well as PCs. More importantly, set-top tuners with integrated DVRs are available from an increasing number of cable and satellite providers--often for free or a small monthly service charge. In such a competitive environment, should the ReplayTV 5500 series be your DVR of choice? Though TiVo has come on strong with an expanded home-media feature set, Replay remains a cult favorite, thanks in part to a superior video-streaming feature that makes multiroom recording and playback a cinch. Furthermore, a homebrew computer hack lets users transfer video stored on their Replay to their PC for viewing or burning to DVD. Those valuing ease of use should still opt for TiVo, but advanced users may find themselves seduced by the Replay's array of sophisticated functions. (Check out "CNET's guide to choosing the right DVR" to see how Replay and TiVo compare to the competition.)
Editor's note: Replay has discontinued its hardware products and moved to a PC software model. However, the company continues to support users of the set-top box DVRs such as the one reviewed here, and they remain a worthwhile solution for advanced users seeking a single-tuner DVR with strong networking functions.ReplayTV 5500-series DVRs are housed in the same 3-by-17-by-14-inch (HWD) case as models from the previous 5000 series. The silver box is strictly a minimalist affair, its front panel showing only a power button, two LEDs clustered on the unit's left--blue for power, red for recording--and the ReplayTV logo in the center.
The graphical user interface and functional, medium-size remote also remain unchanged. That's a bit of a disappointment, since Replay's onscreen UI, while much improved from its original incarnation, still lags behind the Mac-like elegance of that of the TiVo Series2. That said, the 5500 series' interface is still perfectly functional and easy to navigate, and it remains superior to the TV Guide On-Screen electronic programming guide seen on many competing DVRs and DVD recorders. The ReplayTV 5500 series is available in four models of varying capacity: the 40-hour 5504, the 80-hour 5508, the 160-hour 5516, and the 320-hour 5532. With two notable exceptions, 5500-series DVRs boast the same robust feature sets as their 5000-series predecessors, including the ability to pause and rewind live TV and schedule recordings using a detailed onscreen electronic programming guide (EPG). Furthermore, every DVR in the 5500 series retains progressive-scan component outputs, digital audio output, and built-in Ethernet networking capabilities. These high-end video and audio connections are especially important, given their glaring absence from the latest standalone TiVo models. TiVo's cool Home Media feature set, for example, still requires you to purchase a separate network adapter.
Despite all the similarities to its predecessor, the 5500 series lacks two of the 5000's marquee features: Internet program sharing and automatic commercial advance. Both features were axed in an effort to avoid the sort of industry lawsuits that helped land Replay's previous owner, Sonicblue, in bankruptcy court. But viewers who want to nix commercials are still partially in luck; Replay has added a new suite of features called ShowNav, which not only makes it very easy to access a recorded show at any point but also restores much of the functionality of automatic commercial advance.
And while Internet video sharing is gone, ReplayTV's video-streaming technology lets owners of multiple ReplayTV boxes share programs between units on the same home network in real time. Programs paused on one unit can resume from the same location on another, and conflicting recording schedules can be easily reassigned to other Replay devices on the network. The latter feature is great because it effectively covers for the fact that no standalone DVR--including TiVo--has dual-tuner functionality, which would ordinarily prevent you from watching one live program while recording another.
The most basic 5500-series model is the ReplayTV 5504, which lists for $150 and offers 40 hours of recording capacity. For hard-core TV viewers who need more than 40 hours of recording time, Replay offers the 80-hour 5508 for just $150 more, while the 160-hour 5516 lists for $380, and the 320-hour 5532 costs $500. If these prices seem too good to be true, they are; as with TiVo, Replay users will have to pay either a one-time $300 subscription that covers the life of their product, or a $13 monthly service fee. Aside from their different recording capacities, all of the models in the 5500 series have identical feature sets and require the same service fees for use. Basic functions on the ReplayTV 5500-series DVRs--time-shifted recording, pausing, and rewinding live TV and searching through program listings--work just fine. Yes, TiVo delivers a cleaner interface and slightly greater ease of use, but Replay has an edge over TiVo's standalone Series2 models when it comes to picture quality, primarily because of its progressive-scan component-video output.
The ShowNav features also worked well. A simple click of the Forward or Reverse button lets you hit the beginning or end of the next commercial break in the direction chosen. We were able to bypass entire commercial blocks and leapfrog through a show, from break to break, in seconds. The feature is a welcome addition for ad-weary couch potatoes, though it's less reliable on channels that lack discernible black intervals between commercial breaks. The Jump Anywhere feature lets you leap a specific number of minutes into the recording; just key in the number of minutes and click QuickSkip (forward) or Instant Replay (backward). For people who'd rather skip ads manually, the 30-second QuickSkip button is still alive and well.
Replay's home-networking enhancements were extremely impressive. From a 5504 in the bedroom, we could easily browse and play back all the programs stored in the living-room unit, and vice versa. And because playback is via instantaneous streaming--unlike the delayed "download and buffer" method employed by TiVo DVRs--programs can be paused in one room and seamlessly resumed from that same point in another. The same smart networking allows linked units to offload conflicting recording requests to one another. For instance, we were able to record CSI in the den while the bedroom unit automatically and simultaneously began recording Law & Order. The 5500 series also includes some overdue refinements to Replay's standard features, such as the ability to record only first-run episodes, bypassing reruns.
Unfortunately, there's no native support for wireless networking, but a separately purchased 802.11g Ethernet bridge or a pair of power-line Ethernet adapters will address that shortfall. Replay owners who are comfortable hacking things should also check out the free, open-source, Java-based DVArchive software, which allows users to view and copy Replay-based programs on their PC. It's surprisingly polished for a homebrew application and a worthwhile alternative to TiVo To Go.
Replay's Internet-programming feature remains shortsighted, passing recording instructions from the Web to your DVR at infrequent daily intervals. Furthermore, we were disappointed that Replay hasn't added network music sharing to its bag of tricks; TiVo's Home Media feature set uses a better-implemented remote Internet-programming feature and a well-designed system to stream PC-based MP3s.