Gadget Freak: Keep the PC--I'll Take TiVo

Illustration: Ryan Heshka
Around my house, TiVo is more than just an entertainment device; it's a way of life. The ability to record shows and watch them when we want, pause a show to grab a cool libation, and fast-forward through commercials is so addictive, we never watch live TV.

Yes, there are downsides. My seven-year-old has rigged TiVo to record every episode of Ed, Edd, n Eddy; if I let him, he'd watch them over and over until his head exploded. But the thing is so useful and hassle-free, I can't imagine life without one.

I'm not alone. According to the Yankee Group, 3 million U.S. households have a digital video recorder--a TiVo or a Replay box that costs up to $13 a month for the service, or a set-top box from their cable or satellite company for an extra $5 to $10 a month. By the end of 2007, that number should be over 24 million.

You can also turn your PC into a DVR and avoid the extra charges. But is doing so worth it? I decided to find out.

The Lazy Way

Instead of installing a TV tuner card and software on my PC, I took the lazy route and got a $1700 Sony VAIO FRV37 notebook, which uses Sony Giga Pocket DVR software. I plugged my coaxial cable into the VAIO, ran the setup wizard, and downloaded a free program guide off the Web. Within minutes I was recording The Bold and the Beautiful (Sally and Marvin were plotting to alter the results of Brooke's paternity test, while Bridget and Ozzy revealed their undying love).

But Giga Pocket is limited--there's no way to pause live TV, for example. And depending on video quality, 30-odd minutes of TV can soak up 680MB to 3.6GB of the VAIO's 40GB of storage. (My TiVo, with an 80GB hard drive, can record up to 80 hours of programs.)

Things improved when I tried HP's $1500 Media Center PC 864n--its DVR functions are part of Windows XP Media Center. The software was slick--I could record a season's worth of shows with a few clicks, similar to TiVo's "SeasonPass"--yet not as easy as TiVo. Like a TiVo, the PC let me search for programs by category (like Kids) and by subcategory (Animation); both let me jump to a show in the middle of a long program list by entering the first few letters of its title. But unlike TiVo, Media Center PCs won't analyze what I've watched and record programs it thinks I might like (though when TiVo started recording The Nanny for me, I got worried).

Worse, I now had a big, ugly machine connected to my TV. In a few years, faster home networks and Wi-Fia-ready TVs will let you stash the PC elsewhere and stream content to your set, says the Yankee Group's Adi Kinshore, adding that the PC is a better platform for managing content.

Trouble is, most of us don't want to manage content; we just want to watch it. I doubt that any Windows-based system will ever be as affordable, reliable, or simple to use as a comparable consumer electronics device.

Will DVRs change the way America watches TV? Why would anyone replace a $200 set-top box with a $1500 PC? Who is the father of Brooke's unborn child?

To find out, you'll have to tune in tomorrow. I know I will--on TiVo, of course.

The Time Is Geek O'Clock

Fossil's $179 Wrist Net is one of the first watches to offer Microsoft's MSN Direct--an FM-based wireless service that delivers news, stock prices, weather, instant messaging, and access to your Outlook calendar. (The fee: $10 a month or $59 per year.) Microsoft says putting such data on a watch speeds access to it, but in my tests of a preproduction model, the watch was hobbled by a battery that conked out after three days and a bulky recharger. Before you travel, you must change settings on MSN's Web site to access your calendar and messages. And the only fashion statement this oversized clone of a 1978 Casio timepiece makes is "I'm a geek!"

Harry McCracken

Contributing Editor Dan Tynan is a sucker for Maverick reruns.

This story, "Gadget Freak: Keep the PC--I'll Take TiVo" was originally published by PCWorld.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon