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Japanese TiVo?

August 18th, 2004

Right now I’m considering switching from cable to satellite TV, but that’s not the main topic of this article. One piece of technology I’ve been waiting for is a TiVo-like easy-programmable device.

For those of you who don’t know about TiVo or its poor (but superior) cousin ReplayTV, these are hard-disk-based video recorders, belonging to a new category of home electronics, the “DVR” (Digital Video Recorder). Instead of saving recorded shows to VHS or even DVD, they save the video to a hard disk. The advantages are many: you can “pause” (“Time Slip” in Japanese) live TV while the digital recorder saves the ongoing programming into the hard drive; you can save up to a couple hundred hours of programming on the disk, no need to keep them on tapes and wonder what tape is free, what tape has what programming and other hassles; you can access any part of any recorded show very quickly; but best of all, the service usually includes an interactive program guide.

The program guide (called “EPG,” or “Electronic Program Guide” in Japan) is kind of the like the “what’s on” channel on cable TV in the U.S. On a grid displaying time horizontally and channels vertically, it allows you to access any part of the schedule. But with the HDD recorder, you can use that guide to program the recording of a show. For example, go to the program guide and find the “West Wing” slot, hit “program” and tell it how often, and your DVR will handle the recording of that show from then on–often including information such as episode title, summary, and whether or not it’s a repeat. My father uses this in the U.S., and I’ve been more than a little envious.

For me right now, well, I’ve got cable TV and pretty crappy cable at that. Not too many channels, and the channel can only be changed directly via the tuner. Which means that if I want to record a show, I not only have to set the VCR to tape the show, I also have to set the cable tuner to jump to that channel at that time. And aside from the extra work, the cable tuner is hard to program and de-program. Unlike a VCR which will only record from programming if switched off, the cable tuner will always switch to programmed presets, whether the tuner is on or off–which means that unless you de-program the cable box, it will skip to the programmed channel even if you’re watching another show. In short, it’s a huge hassle.

Hopefully, not any more, though. Toshiba now makes a machine (the RD-XS53) which, through a “control cable,” will control the satellite TV tuner as well as its own recorder functions. So like with TiVo or ReplayTV, you just have to go to the channel guide, choose a show, and then forget about it (you can also program the recorder from your PC). But it has some other very nice features as well: it can record two different shows simultaneously (so long as they don’t require the same tuner), and it has a built-in DVD-R/RW/RAM recorder, so you can save anywhere from 1 to 8 hours of programming on a single DVD-R (depending on the recording quality). So just leave the DVR to record a few months’ worth of shows, and for the ones you like, compile them on $3-a-pop DVD-Rs, which now cost about the same as, and record just as much as standard VHS tapes. You can watch these DVDs in your DVD player, or on your PC, if it has a DVD drive. Alas, it is not possible to directly put the video files on your PC, despite the network connection–copyright issues, I’m guessing. No biggie, though.

The major drawback, and possibly a deal-killer for me right now: the Toshiba machine costs ¥148,000 yen (about $1350). There is a lower-end model for ¥104,000 ($950), but it lacks the ability to mesh with SkyPerfecTV. For a while I thought the low-end model could do the satellite TV control, since the guy at Yodobashi and the sales guy at Toshiba both seemed to indicate that was possible when I asked about the two models together. But after my first call to Toshiba, I did more studying, noticed a small asterisk, and called again–and found out, sure enough, only the more expensive machine could do the satellite TV interface. Major difference there. The Toshiba guy was downright sheepish in admitting it to me.

So I might just go with the SkyPerfecTV for now and wait for the Toshiba models to get upgraded and priced down in 6 months or so. But it’s tempting, I have to admit.

One other problem for me, though–to get SkyPerfecTV, which is necessary for the cool programming features (not to mention far better programming than my local cable TV outfit), you need to have a line-of-sight to the satellite, which is relatively low in the southwestern sky–and there’s a building smack in the way from my apartment. However, at the east-most window ledge of my apartment, the SkyPerfecTV satellite map seems to indicate that I juuuuust might be able to peek around the building, just enough to catch the satellite. So, out goes the call to the local electronic shop’s technician, to tell me if I am go or not on the satellite.

And yes, I am a bit much of a couch potato and electronics geek, so no need to tell me so via comments.


Update: I went to Kojima Denki, and they had the high-end model on sale for ¥120,000 ($1090) or thereabouts. The actual standard selling price for the model is ¥135,000, but Yodobashi sells at suggested retail and “gives” you the extra hundred bucks on your point card, so you’ll spend it there. Kojima had it listed for 135, but with a kind of red writing diagonally over the price–which is an old Akihabara thing which means you ask the sales staff, they’ll tell you the real discount price.

120 Puts it back into my ballpark, but only if I feel extravagant… which I might, if I can get SkyPerfecTV.

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  1. Dale Craddock
    August 20th, 2004 at 13:34 | #1

    I’ve been enjoying a “not-quite-a-TiVo” set-up for awhile now. It comes via the I-O DATA Rec-Pot, an 80 GB digital recording hard drive. They retail for around 3 or 4 Man and work with a large number of Sky-Perfect and Digital BS tuners. In fact I liked the darn thing so much I bought one for each of my tuners. They record about 7 hours of HDTV or 21 of regular programming and are operated via controls built into the tuners (via a FireWire/iLink connection) and accessed through the EPGs. They don’t have the bells and whistles of TiVo, no pausing/TimeSlipping, but function more like digital VCRs which is all I wanted from them anyway. I find them particularly useful for recording the news and have mine programmed to record a number of shows on a daily basis. I also set them to record some weekly shows automatically too.

    With regard to Sky-Perfect: have you condidered a Digital BS tuner? It works off the same satellite dish that picks up the old BS signals which might be more accessible for you. (I believe there are two different satellites in basically the same area.) BS Digital offers a limited selection of Sky-Perfect’s offerings but has what I consider essential: The BBC, CNN & Super-Channel. A Digital BS tuner also gives you access to all the HDTV content and WoWoW, if you haven’t upgraded yet (the Olympics are sensational), but that’s a whole other can of worms.

    Of course with this approach you don’t get DVD-R/RW capacity but I’m waiting for Blu-Ray prices to drop anyway and this does me for now. (:>)

  2. Luis
    August 20th, 2004 at 15:29 | #2

    I’ve been enjoying a “not-quite-a-TiVo” set-up for awhile now. It comes via the I-O DATA Rec-Pot, an 80 GB digital recording hard drive. They retail for around 3 or 4 Man and work with a large number of Sky-Perfect and Digital BS tuners. …
    Yeah, I know about those, they seem cool–and I might even get one of those as well, but maybe not. The Toshiba machine is much more expensive, but you get what you pay for. The HDD is 4x the I-O Data machine, at 320 GB. The data link between SkyP, The Internet, Your computer and the Toshiba is very nice, as is the programmability feature and some other nice bells & whistles. And the built-in DVD-R/RW/RAM recorder is very, very nice.

    With regard to Sky-Perfect: have you condidered a Digital BS tuner?… BS Digital offers a limited selection of Sky-Perfect’s offerings but has what I consider essential: The BBC, CNN & Super-Channel. A Digital BS tuner also gives you access to all the HDTV content and WoWoW, if you haven’t upgraded yet (the Olympics are sensational), but that’s a whole other can of worms.

    Yeah, actually my cable here already gives me that. But with SkyP, I can also get LaLaTV, AXN, Fox (entertainment, not news), Animal Planet, Natural Geographic, and the standards like Movie Plus, Super Channel, Discovery, CNN, BBC and more. The digital BS, I think, might be a step down from my current cable package… Also, I’ve been on WoWoW and Star Channel, and tired quickly of both of them. I can get better for cheaper from my video rental store, and what TV they have I can usually get off the Internet.

    Of course with this approach you don’t get DVD-R/RW capacity but I’m waiting for Blu-Ray prices to drop anyway and this does me for now. (:>)

    That should be a few years at least; I remember when DVD was still pricey, and even then it was less than 100,000 yen to buy a burner–and it took at least 2-3 years to come down to a reasonable level. I’d like to see it and will doubtlessly buy one, but I’m not going to be waiting by the roadside for it to pull up, as it were.

  3. Dave
    November 15th, 2004 at 02:12 | #3

    Does the Toshiba RD-XS53 have ad-skipping or some derivation of this feature?

    Can’t stand the whack commercials…especially on CNN. Camillia Diamond, Daily Yomuiri, Sony Sompo played over again ad-nauseum. Even the CNNj Anderson Cooper promos…I’m so sick of this guy’s voice.

    Also I read about this “…internet connectivity via “Net de Navi” software.”

    What about “The new recorders also integrate DEPGTM, Toshiba’s proprietary advanced electronic program guide.”

    Also nice site. I bookmarked it.

    Dave

  4. Luis
    November 15th, 2004 at 09:15 | #4

    Dave:

    First, go easy on that “Post” button. The comment does not appear immediately, you have to wait a minute and hit ‘refresh’ on your browser to make it appear. Your message came up four times, giving me the extra work of deleting the dupes.

    As for ad-skipping: the Toshiba has a “skip” feature which will jump a certain amount of time forward (like TiVo), which you can set (default is 30 seconds) as well as a “skip back” button (10 seconds), making it easier to skip past the commercials. Unfortunately, it does not auto-skip past commercials like the ReplayTV units in the U.S. But you can edit out commercials on replay.

    The “Net de Navi” DEPG is not as great as it sounds, essentially it’s a TV Guide online, and you can click on stuff to program it on the Toshiba, or even search for programs or actors and such. But it’s all in Japanese, and not so well-executed.

    The Net de Navi for other stuff is very good though, allowing you to control the XS-53 from your computer browser. I use it for re-naming recorded programs in English, for example. You can also use it to design custom DVD screen layouts–though that feature is limited in the form of preview windows. They’re set in a locked grid of 6 and don’t feature moving video, just stills. But you can design backgrounds and color schemes.

    So far, my major gripe about the XS-53 is that on 4 or 5 occasions so far in 2 months, it has inexplicably failed to switch the channel on the satellite receiver and recorded the wrong show. That, out of hundreds of times–but still a major pain. I tried re-booting by unplugging and plugging back in, so I’ll see how that goes.

    the unit also froze recently, requiring a re-set of some settings–but then I had it on continuously for 2 months, and it is a PC after all.

  5. Dave
    November 15th, 2004 at 15:32 | #5

    Sorry about the “re-posts”. When I’m connected to file sharing my browser doesn’t always respond and I thought that was the case. Appreciate your response on the Toshiba. Currently my solution to English programming is the GoVideo D2730 Networked DVD player. It has a PCMCIA slot and comes with a wired Ethernet card.
    You can stream images, MP3’s, and video files from your PC to a TV via ethernet connection. I get my content off the internet. Virtually every TV show in the UK and the USA is available and commercial free.
    Before I got this unit I was burning VCD’s which was a time consuming hassle. I picked this unit up in the states for $150 and imagine this type of “networked” gear to become more popular in the future.
    I’m currently ripping my audio CD collection to play music through this unit and look forward to not having to physically handle CD’s and jewel cases any more.
    I’d like to know where Dale picked up his I-O-Data Rec-Pot. This sounds like a a nice way to go in my situation where I’d be using it for BBC or CNN only.

  6. Luis
    November 15th, 2004 at 21:34 | #6

    Currently my solution to English programming is the GoVideo D2730 Networked DVD player. It has a PCMCIA slot and comes with a wired Ethernet card. You can stream images, MP3’s, and video files from your PC to a TV via ethernet connection.Really? I hadn’t heard of that. I’d very much like to go from my Desktop PC to my TV, but there’s no video-out. It’ll do that?
    I get my content off the internet. Virtually every TV show in the UK and the USA is available and commercial free.Yeah, I’m familiar with the sources. A combination of Bittorrent (suprnova.org) and Shareaza works pretty well.
    I’m currently ripping my audio CD collection to play music through this unit and look forward to not having to physically handle CD’s and jewel cases any more.I did that a long time ago on my Mac–just transferred them all onto my hard drive using iTunes, synched them onto my iPod, and now I buy my music from the Apple iTunes music store. It’s all MP3/AAC, no CDs, all centralized, easily searched and very handy. Love the iPod.

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