HolidayBuyer's Guide

Why my cable DVR stinks

Are viewers better served by set-top boxes or dumbed-down terminals? TV providers look into it.

I love my DVR, but only when it works.

After a long week of interviews and writing stories, I was excited to hunker down in my living room one Friday night to see who had gotten booted off that week's "Project Runway." I flipped through the list of recorded programs on my digital video recorder and there was nothing.

How could this be? I knew for certain I had clicked on the "record the series" button.

"Competition is driving operators to offer more features more quickly, and often that comes at the expense of increasing complexity."
--Kip Compton,
Cisco Systems

I scrolled further and realized that it wasn't just "Project Runway" that was missing. That week's entire lineup of "The Daily Show," as well as the latest episode of "Entourage," were nowhere to be found.

I was upset, to say the least. This was the second DVR I had gotten from Time Warner since I signed up for the service in January. The previous box kept freezing and rebooting itself.

I looked online and discovered blogs full of complaints regarding the Scientific Atlanta 8000, the box Time Warner had given me not once, but twice. The whole debacle got me thinking about how complicated even the most basic things like watching television have gotten.

While I love how the DVR changed my life--letting me watch my favorite shows whenever I want and fast-forward through commercials--I was in love with it only when it worked. Because when it didn't work, I wanted to throw the whole thing out my window.

In a rush to give consumers more features, cable operators, satellite providers and phone companies are asking device makers to pack more complex capabilities into each box. Today, set-top boxes resemble a home PC more than they do a simple channel-changing cable box designed to do only three things: turn on, turn off, tune channels. Inevitably, these increasingly complicated devices are less reliable and harder to use than their predecessors.

"I would agree that things have gotten too complicated," said Kip Compton, director of business development for Cisco Systems, which now owns Scientific-Atlanta (in fairness, my DVR was made before Cisco bought the company). "Competition is driving operators to offer more features more quickly, and often that comes at the expense of increasing complexity. But it's a balancing act that the industry is trying to manage to keep up with the demand for more features while at the same time building simpler interfaces and reliable products."

Making networks intelligent
Some people in the industry suggest that instead of building more features into consumer devices, service providers and device makers should push more of the complexity into the network, so consumers are shielded from it.

The traditional telephone network is a good example of such a network. Circuit-switched telephony is by no means simple, but to the end user, picking up a phone and getting a dial tone is as simple as simple gets. And it's extremely reliable. Phone networks are designed to guarantee the network will be down no more than five minutes per year.

Some television providers have already begun exploring this concept. In March, Cablevision announced plans to test a new digital video recording service that allowed users to record and manage content through their existing set-top boxes, which would access a network-based DVR housed miles away in a Cablevision office.

The network-based DVR could save Cablevision tons of money, because company won't have to deploy and manage sophisticated devices in every subscriber's home. And subscribers wouldn't have to deal with the headache of boxes that reboot or fail altogether. But content owners quickly responded with threats of legal action, citing concerns over protecting copyright material. As a result, Cablevision put its test on hold until the digital rights management issues can be worked out, the company said.

In stark contrast to Cablevision's approach, Microsoft is selling its Media Center software that turns PCs into central repositories for all digital photos, music and video. Once hooked up to a TV, the software allows users to use their PC as a DVR to record, store and search content on their hard drives.

Because Media Center runs on a PC, it leverages gigabytes worth of data storage, super-fast processors and high-end graphics cards to deliver a rich experience for consumers. For example, the Media Center's program guide that accompanies the digital recording function can render 3D movie posters that consumers browse through and click on when they select a film.

"It's just a much richer user experience than you can get with a set-top box, which pretty much just gives you a text guide on a blue background," said Arvind Mishra, senior product manager for Microsoft's Windows Vista.

Vista as savior?
Microsoft claims it has already sold more than 10 million Media Center PCs, at a rate of about 1 million per month. And its next operating system, Vista, expected to be released next year, will have Media Center built into it. With that shift, the company expects more people to use their PCs to store, manage and navigate through their home entertainment content.

But critics say Microsoft's software has a poor track record in terms of reliability, which could hurt its chances of becoming the hub for home entertainment for the masses. Mischra said concerns over reliability will be a nonissue once Vista is released.

"There is this notion that PCs aren't reliable," Mischra said. "But we are marching to a day when Microsoft's operating systems will be as reliable as the old telephone network. And Vista will get us there."

Execs at companies such as Cisco believe the digital home of the future will offer a mix of networked services leveraging a simpler device, or thin client, and services relying on sophisticated devices.

"We are a networking vendor, so by definition our function is to make sure that all of this stuff that's going to end up in people's living rooms or in the carrier network can be connected together," Compton said. "Eventually, I think we will definitely see more content stored in the network, but there will also be a role for local storage in the home."

Verizon Communications, which is spending more than $20 billion over the next several years to build a fiber-to-the-home network to deliver TV service, agrees. Today, Verizon offers a set-top box for its television service that provides video on demand and digital video recording. But in the future the company may consider putting some of the functionality into the network, said Brian Whitton, executive director of technology for Verizon.

He likened the situation to the voice mail service that Verizon offers for voice customers. Voice mail is a hosted application that doesn't require users to buy and install a separate box next to their phones. While some customers choose to subscribe to voice mail, others don't and they buy a separate device.

Much more important than deploying simpler devices in people's homes, Whitton said, is providing enough intelligence in the network to allow service providers to troubleshoot devices remotely. Verizon is testing a technology on its Fios fiber-to-the-home network and on its traditional DSL network that will allow it to monitor and troubleshoot home routers, set-top boxes and home computers to make sure they are performing as they should.

"What stands between our customer and the $20 billion fiber network we're building is a $50 home router," he said. "So it makes sense for us to have some visibility into the home network to make sure the user experience is a good one."

As for me and my love/hate relationship with my DVR, Time Warner has assured me that my experience is uncommon, and representatives from the company are helping me resolve the problem. Still, I'm considering ditching cable altogether. If I really miss my favorite TV shows, I can always order the whole season from Netflix.

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