Sonicblue took some risks with last year's digital video recorders (DVRs). The company included controversial file-sharing features, sold the models exclusively through its Web site, and provided only a broadband connection, which some argue was a mistake. With that faux pas in mind, Sonicblue has released the 4500 series. The models, which come in versions ranging from 40GB to 320GB, are virtually identical to the 4000-series units, except that they add an analog modem and a TiVo-like pricing structure. While these DVRs may not be major steps forward, they are positive ones. Sonicblue took some risks with last year's digital video recorders (DVRs). The company included controversial file-sharing features, sold the models exclusively through its Web site, and provided only a broadband connection, which some argue was a mistake. With that faux pas in mind, Sonicblue has released the 4500 series. The models, which come in versions ranging from 40GB to 320GB, are virtually identical to the 4000-series units, except that they add an analog modem and a TiVo-like pricing structure. While these DVRs may not be major steps forward, they are positive ones.
No surface changes
The review sample that we received is the 40GB 4504, which is the entry-level model in the line. Cosmetically, the 4500 series isn't any different from the 4000 series. The unit is fairly sleek and comes with the same slightly oversized remote that shipped with last year's DVRs. The biggest changes are around back, where you'll find two new additions: an RF output, so that you can watch one channel while recording another, and the aforementioned RJ11 telephone jack for those who lack a DSL connection or a cable modem.
Fortunately, Sonicblue didn't take out anything to make room for the new jacks, which makes the overall connectivity package pretty comprehensive. You get two sets of composite inputs, one RF input, and one S-Video input. On the output side, you'll find two sets of composite jacks, an S-Video out, a digital optical audio out, and a component-video adapter--an optional accessory with the 4000 series that enables DVI output--that plugs into the PC-monitor VGA port.
Setup is easy if you're going the analog-modem route; just plug your phone line into the back and follow the step-by-step instructions. But in order to use the file-sharing features, you really need a broadband connection (either cable or DSL) and a home network, which makes things a little more complicated. You'll need an Ethernet hub to connect the ReplayTV to your PC, and if it has a firewall, as most gateways do, you'll also need to assign the ReplayTV an IP address and open a port on your firewall so that the device can connect to the Internet.
Controversial yet enticing features
Once you're set up, you can take advantage of the ReplayTV's unique features, including: the hotly debated Commercial Advance feature, which automatically filters out commercials during playback and actually works; MyReplayTV Internet programmability, which allows you to program your unit remotely via the Web overnight (although there's still no word on when you'll be able to send real-time online recording commands); and the aforementioned file-sharing option, which allows you to swap programs with other ReplayTV users.
We were really impressed by the Commercial Advance feature, but the file-sharing isn't all that it's cracked up to be, mainly because it can take up to several hours to download a 30-minute program, even if you have a broadband connection. File sharing makes more sense if you own a couple of ReplayTV units and have them connected via a speedy LAN. Of course, one unit is pricey enough; multiple decks will put a serious dent in your wallet.
We hooked up the 4504 to a number of display devices--including a PC monitor, a Samsung Tantus HD-ready set, and an analog 27-inch TV--and were generally impressed with what we saw, even at the lowest-quality, or standard, setting. Sonicblue says that you can record up to 40 hours of programming at the standard setting and 14 hours at the highest quality setting. It's worth noting that in our tests, we found the video quality of the 4504 at its lowest setting to be the equivalent of the medium setting on TiVo's 60-hour Series2 box. That competing DVR offers 60 hours of recording at its lowest setting, which most people will find lacking. In short, when you factor picture quality into the equation, the 40-hour 4504 is comparable to the 60-hour TiVo, which runs $299, plus $250 service.
As noted, Sonicblue has gone to a TiVo-like pricing system to help even the playing field and make things less confusing for the consumer. The 4504 carries a $450 list price, but, as with TiVo, you'll have to pay a separate fee for service--in this case, a one-time activation charge of $250. Compare that to TiVo's $250 lifetime (of the unit) subscription fee, and you're looking at two comparably priced units, neither one of which is a particularly attractive bargain.
So which is the better bet, the 40-hour 4504 or the rival 60-hour TiVo Series2? Well, it basically depends on whether you'll use the extra features that the Replay offers--namely, whether you have a broadband connection and plan to share files with other Replay users. If not, we'd recommend the TiVo thanks to its user-friendly interface and bigger storage capacity. As it stands, though, this is still a versatile DVR that will appeal to both current broadband users and those with analog connections who may eventually decide to upgrade.