Posts Tagged ‘ DVRs ’

I Don’t Want Apps on My TV

With Google throwing its unexpectedly pricey hat into the TV set top box business, I grow ever more frustrated by a move that I just don’t understand: Apps on the TV. Apps give content owners and distributors an opportunity to offer branded, custom portals to their content. Yea for them. But that’s not what I want, and I question—despite all of the tech media hype—if it’s what the masses want.

I don’t want to hunt for shows that interest me in a bunch of different applications. Will I find How Your $#*! Got Outsourced in the CBQ app, the Buena Brothers app, or the huFlix app? Why does it have to be in any of them? I just want to watch the damned show. I don’t care who claims the digital streaming rights to it, and I sure as Hell don’t want some heavily-branded experience wrapped around it. I don’t want a different library browsing, selection, and playback experience from show to show or app to app. I just want to watch the damned show. Oh…and I don’t want another accessory on my coffee table: a keyboard. (TiVo: I think you nailed this one).

What we need is an aggregator. I want to see a service and/or device that can pull together all of the digital content available to me and make it navigable and discoverable (and even purchasable) in meaningful ways. Include the stuff I own, the stuff I can buy, the stuff I can or have recorded, and the stuff available to stream freely; but don’t throw up walls between those acquisition models. Let me search and browse across all of that content. Slice it up and group it in different ways, using robust metadata beyond just genre and network. I still want to browse by network, too, because that’s still a logical association, but define network more broadly than just what you find on your cable box, and include YouTube channels and Internet-only content, like CNET and Revision 3.

Boxee tries to do all this, but it’s still too disjointed, and the UI is overly complex. Apple TV—the old Apple TV—did it fairly well, but its appeal is limited to consumers who have bought into the walled iTunes media garden, and the entry price was too high. Hulu and Netflix both get partway there, but their content is limited by distribution rights that are governed by frightened license holders and greedy attorneys. TiVo teased this with Premier but didn’t deliver, and the Roku box is fundamentally designed around the concept of apps.

It’s a tricky issue, because the content rights holders want to paint their colors and logos all over the place, and then get out their rulers. Everyone wants to do their own thing, but ultimately that makes it harder for consumers to find and consume content. Ironically, this thwarts the content owners’ opportunities to distribute and monetize their content.

So the big question is whether Google can pull this off. They have the expertise in content aggregation and discovery, but Google’s user experience record is underwhelming. The solution needs to be simple, powerful, and engaging. And the price point needs to be right. So far, the $300 Logitech set top box and $1300 Sony television with baked-in Google TV have missed that mark. That said, I’ve already pre-ordered the Revue, so I’ll know soon enough.

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I’ve Got Moxi

In 2007, Digeo announced plans to launch a consumer DVR, which I reviewed for CNET at CES. Then just one year later, with no product to market, Digeo significantly reorganized, refocused, and suspended their plans for a consumer DVR. Or did they? A/V geeks like me have been watching the progress of the Moxi digital video recorder for years now. Digeo, the company behind Moxi for the past six plus years, has seen some degree of success supplying Moxi DVRs through cable companies, but it’s taken them a very long time to get a standalone DVR out to consumers.

So why are people fired up about the Moxi? For one, Moxi is worthy competition for TiVo—the gold standard for home DVRs. TiVo leads in a somewhat challenging market space. Numerous companies—including Replay, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, and Microsoft—have tried and failed to compete in this space. Even DirecTV, once a TiVo licensee, has strayed and since announced its return to the TiVo world. About the only thing really cutting into TiVo’s market these days is the cable industry itself. Cable companies have achieved success leasing DVRs to their customers for a monthly fee. They offer the convenience of home television recording without the significant up-front cost.

But TiVo is an aging contender, and the overall user experience hasn’t changed or improved significantly since TiVo’s inception–nearly ten years ago. The time is right for some worthy competition.

Enter Moxi. Last month—nearly two years after the CES announcement—Digeo quietly (and somewhat unexpectedly) released the Moxi HD DVR, available for limited release exclusively through Amazon.com. Digeo is expected to make a more public splash with the device this January at CES 2009. In the meantime, $799.99 at Amazon gets you a two-tuner high definition video recorder with 500 GB of storage and lifetime updates to TV listings. The price tag may scare some people, but when you break it down and compare it to the cost of ownership for other DVR options, the cost is not unreasonable.

The Details

Moxi has the expected features for an HD DVR: it’s a two tuner recorder for digital HD cable, using a single multi-stream CableCARD to decode the signal. The device has nearly every type of connection possible: outputs include component, composite, S-Video, HDMI for video plus RCA, coax, and optical audio. Ethernet and USB connect the device to the outside world, and an eSATA connection lets you add your own external storage. The Moxi includes cables for nearly all the connections, including HDMI. You’ll need to bring your own digital audio, USB, and eSATA cables, though.

The Moxi remote is similar in form factor to other DVR remotes. It includes all of the expected functions broken into navigation, shuttle, and keypad zones, but some features are labeled with obscure symbols. The buttons are generally placed where you’d expect to find them. One feature the remote lacks is a dedicated button that takes you to the full program guide, which may take some getting used to for those in your household with less patience. [“Richard, why is there a Setup menu when I press the Moxi button?”]

Bright, sharp menus; high-resolution channel icons; and smooth graphical motion are the hallmarks of Moxi’s beautiful two-dimensional menu system. It’s fairly intuitive and easy to use, and it’s pretty responsive. For channel surfing, Moxi offers two modes: a quick guide that lets you flip through channel cards in the lower third area of the screen and a full, graphical 2D alternative to the traditional grid guide. In either mode, you can watch the current channel while you surf. The Moxi program guide takes some getting used to, but once you’re acclimated, the old grid seems as antiquated as your parent’s TV Guide subscription.

In the Moxi menu, you can navigate left or right through an endless loop of modes including pre-filtered programming (e.g., sports, movies, favorites, kids, HD), access to music and photos, games, and settings. Moving between modes expands a vertical menu that lets you select the applicable content or options. Moxi also includes a news feed program, MoxiNet, that seems slow, stale, and out of place in this otherwise stunning UI.

Recording shows with your remote is straightforward, but tedious. Finding programs to record is no easier or harder than you might expect. You have lots of options for recording individual shows and series, but there’s no way to specify your default recording preferences for all shows. So for example, if you typically want to record and keep all new episodes of a show until space is needed, you must record the series, then edit the series recording options, and change three settings (keep all, only new, ’til space is needed). Since you can’t define these default options for all shows, you have to go through these steps for every new series you record. Viewing the list of recorded programs for playback, however, is simple—it’s one of the only Moxi menu features that has a dedicated button on the remote.

Digeo also provides Moxi owners with remote programming capabilities through the web. This service lets you record shows with realtime confirmation and conflict resolution, view a list of scheduled and recorded programs, and cancel scheduled recordings. Digeo advertises that the Moxi HD DVR can record about 300 hours of SD or 75 hours of HD programming. If that’s not enough for you, you can expand the available storage by adding your own external eSATA drive. Not some specially-certified (read: expensive) device, but any eSATA drive.

It’s easy to get photos and music to the Moxi. You can load photos directly from a USB device or drive, connect to photos shared on your network, or link to specific Flickr accounts. Configuring Flickr couldn’t be easier because you do it online—none of this trying to type a username and password with an onscreen keyboard. You can play music from any Windows Media Connect source in your home, including Media Center and Windows Media Player. You can also play music from your Finetune account [who/what?]. What you can’t share with or from the Moxi device is video. You can’t get external video onto the thing, and you can’t get recorded video off. Original prototypes for Digeo’s home recorders included multi-room capabilities, but this device does not have that feature.

The Bottom Line

So how does all of this stack up with the competition? For a first release consumer product, it’s pretty impressive. It doesn’t have all of TiVo’s features and capabilities, but it sets the foundation for a new generation of consumer DVRs. And the cost is not as high as that price tag might suggest because there are no monthly service fees. The chart below shows that over a period of four years, Moxi (bolstered with additional external storage) costs less than similarly-equipped dual-tuner, 1TB TiVo and Media Center devices. However, they’re all more expensive than any box you might get from your cable company.

Moxi
TiVo HD XL
Media Center
(Dell Inspiron)
Cable DVR
Up-front device cost
$799
$599
$1,486
$0
Service fees
$399
Cable rental fees*
$144
$144
$288
$480
Add’l 500GB storage
$110
n/a
Total 4-yr cost
$1,053
$1,142
$1,774
$480

*CableCARD rental estimated at $3/month, DVR rental estimated at $10/month

Digital cable HD DVR 4 year cost of ownership comparison

Overall, Digeo has released a great new product. And while TiVo is starting to feel a little long in the tooth—its largly-unchanged UI now encumbered by a patchwork of heavily-branded, disjointed features and ads—it’s nice to see someone doing something new, something fresh. Enter Moxi.


1/14/2009 update: Table above updated to reflect cost of CableCARD rental, as suggested by a commenter.

Did DirecTV Just Serve Media Center a Fatal Blow?

Nearly three years ago at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show, Bill Gates unveiled a deal with DirecTV that would open Windows Media Center to a whole new market—satellite customers. Two agonizing years later at CES 2008, DirecTV quietly released news about their two-tuner interface for Media Center. But just days ago, DirecTV announced it is suspending further development of this device, and I have to ponder the impact: Is this the end of the line for Media Center?

Windows Media Center has faced continued challenges from the start. Spawned from Microsoft’s lackluster Ultimate TV, Windows XP Media Center Edition was greeted with mixed reactions. The Windows PC as a DVR. But why would you want a DVR on your desk? Or a PC in your living room?

And so Media Center evolves, eventually finding its way onto devices from the likes of HP, Gateway, and Sony that look more like and fit better with consumers’ home entertainment equipment. CE companies produce Media Center remotes and build extenders that let you use the Media Center from any TV in the home. Except that nobody buys them because the boxes are priced on par with similarly capable computers instead of similarly capable set-top boxes. Why pay $1000 for a PC when you can spend $300 for a TiVo—or just rent a DVR from your cable or satellite service provider?

Meanwhile, HDTV is gaining ground, and while TiVo seems entirely incapable of delivering its long-promised Series 3 HD recorder, consumers start looking toward Microsoft—and Microsoft is starting to look better. With several revs of the platform, suddenly Windows Media Center supports HD! Over the air. Only. But it’s more than TiVo’s offering, save for a select few early-adopting satellite customers. And it’s far better than what most local cable providers can provide at the time.

So Microsoft puts the moves on. Windows Vista overhauls the whole on-screen experience, once again rejuvenating interest in Media Center as a home entertainment platform. Microsoft talks about a future with CableCard support for HD cable tuners, your HD DVD movie collection right on your hard drive, and TVs with Media Center built right in. And then, in early 2006, Gates announces the entry into a largely untapped market with deals to support DirecTV and Sky.

But when Vista comes out, the CableCard support isn’t there, and consumers soon realize that their Media Center PC is using more CPU cycles to protect the interests of the content providers than to provide the engaging access to media that they were sold. Available extenders don’t support HD content yet, Sony introduces and retires a few more overpriced living room devices, HD DVD tanks, and HP scraps all support for Media Center PCs and TVs. Once again, the consumers aren’t buying, and Windows Media Center is not staking its claim to the living room as Microsoft had so hoped.

Imagine the impact that DirecTV’s abandonment of Media Center must mean for Microsoft. CableCard support for Media Center PCs is largely encumbered by licensing, certification, and cost. Analog tuner support offered in earlier Media Center PCs is all but useless come February’s digital transition. Set-top box tethering has never really been a good option—especially without any high definition video connection between devices. And now support for satellite TV on Media Center seems entirely unlikely. That leaves over-the-air HD broadcasts. And that’s it. Now how much would you pay?

Nowadays, it’s a challenge to even find a Media Center PC for the living room. Most of those available today are from specialty PC manufacturers catering to high-end home theater systems. And certified CableCard support adds even more expense for consumers, starting at about $300 per tuner. Somewhat ironically, custom installers often shy away from Media Center home theater solutions. The margins are too low, and the system is so complete out of the box, there’s little opportunity for the kind of consulting revenue that a complex solution like Crestron might yield.

In many ways, Microsoft offers a superior home entertainment platform. It provides multi-tuner recording capabilities from multiple sources with no monthly fees; it delivers a visually engaging and intuitive on-screen experience; it provides seamless access to music, video, and photos on your network; it presents a platform that third-party developers can and do use to expand its capabilities; and it doesn’t spam you with ads at every turn.

Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that Windows Media Center is flailing. Licensing, pricing, certification, content protection, poor vendor hardware support, and now economic trends have all played a part in Media Center’s failure to attract the audience it deserves. It’s probably fair to assume that a handful of poor business decisions have also contributed to this mess. This week’s announcement from DirecTV has to be the worst possible news at this point.

So is this it for Media Center? Windows 7 promises to enhance the media experience with a refreshed interface and integrated online content. But it may be too late. And if the next wave of Media Center devices remains overpriced and encumbered by corporate jockeying, Windows Media Center could go the way of Web TV, remaining a niche product for a very small market. One thing is certain: I’m not believing anything I see at Microsoft’s Media Center kiosk this January until it’s on my own home theater PC.

DirecTV Tuner for Media Center Closer to Becoming Reality

Yesterday DirecTV started officially talking about its upcoming new PC tuner. At CES, product sheets outlined the features of a stand-alone, USB-connected, two-tuner device called the HDPC-20 (think external CableCard tuner). Specifically, this product provides significant new options for Media Center and DirecTV customers alike. It delivers DirecTV HD content to Windows Vista Media Center, opening new markets for Media Center and (finally) an alternative to DirecTV’s own less-than-spectacular DVRs. DirecTV isn’t offering up any information about dates and cost, but price-wise, I’d expect it to fall somewhere between their set-top HD tuners and HD DVRs. Whatever the schedule, it’s nice to see that this relationship between Microsoft and DirecTV, first announced by Gates at CES two years ago, is real.

An E-mail Message to TiVo

I like TiVo’s new universal Swivel Search feature [though I wish it didn’t look so lousy in HiDef], but…seriously, what were you thinking with that name? Universal Swivel Search. Ugh! Your menus are getting so cluttered as you tack on new features without rethinking structure. They’re even more confusing with the unnecessary branding of individual features: Amazon Unbox. TiVoCast. Universal Swivel Search. KidZone. What ever happened to TiVo being easy to understand and use for everyone in the household?

Recommendation: Rethink the TiVo menus and stop obfuscating features through branding. Instead of the above-mentioned menu items, how about Downloaded Movies, Subscription Programs, and Advanced Search instead?

TiVo’s great features aren’t any good to anyone if people can’t find them.

– Richard
Long-time (three-time) TiVo owner, advocate, critic, and stockholder

2007 Consumer Electronics Show coverage for CNET

At CES this week, I created two short photo blogs for CNET, available here and here. Additionally, you can see the two video reviews I did for CNET: one with Molly Wood on the Moxi Multi-room HD Digitial Media Recorder and one with Veronica Belmont on the SideLink remote control for Windows Vista Media Center.

For CNET’s complete coverage of the 2007 Consumer Electronic Show, visit http://ces.cnet.com.

Feature Suggestions for TiVo

I have HD TiVo (Series 3). I wish it would:

  1. Display the caller ID information for incoming calls. Your most direct competitor – Windows Media Center – already offers caller ID support.
  2. Allow me to watch content from TiVo Series 2 devices elsewhere in my home. There’s no reason that transferring external content to the HD device would jeopardize the digital content on the HD device.
  3. Provide me with the subscription content like TiVoCast, Rocketboom, etc. Series 2 devices can do it – why not Series 3?
  4. Let me know the remaining storage space and alert me know when a show is in immediate danger of being deleted. Again, Media Center can do it.
  5. Give me an option to avoid recording two scheduled programs at once during typical viewing hours. Dual tuner is great, but if TiVo schedules two recordings at the same time, I still can’t watch anything else. With an option that avoided simultaneous recording when possible, TiVo could attempt to schedule other showings of an episode at an alternate time.