Expensive simplicity: the PVR tradeoff

With the recent launch of the Foxtel IQ2, the imminent (and much-delayed) appearance of Tivo in Australia next month, and Sony promising its own PlayTV personal video recorder (PVR) option before the year is out, there are more big-name PVR choices for Aussies than ever before. Getting your favourite TV programs automatically recorded for playback at a time that suits you is an obviously appealing concept, but despite the arrival of these new entrants, you still have two basic choices: a fairly pricey system that works well but is hard to customise, or a much cheaper and more flexible option that may not deliver on the simplicity and reliability front.

For the most part, if you want the big-name brands, you’re going to
have to wait, and you’re going to have to cough up large amounts of
cash. Foxtel’s IQ2 — similar to the first generation IQ but with HD
and a bigger (320GB) hard drive — is officially on the market.
However, you might have to wait for an installer, and you’ll have to be
happy to pay for installation and an ongoing $14.95 a month, on top of
the existing Foxtel fees.
Tivo will hit online in mid-July and then sell initially only through
Harvey Norman from the end of July, with a predicted $700 price tag.
Unlike the US version, there’ll be no monthly subscription fee. Sony is
targeting the end of year for the PlayTV, and is promising a sub-$200
price tag — but you’ll need to have purchased a PS3 first. So
whichever way you look at it, big bucks are being spent.
On the other hand, there’s no denying that these solutions work well.
Tivo has become so ubiquitous in the US that it’s become a verb (“I’ll
Tivo it”). The IQ enjoys a good reputation for stability, and Sony
specialises in consumer interfaces. Seven (which is launching the Tivo
down under) has apparently managed to get around the endless copyright
battles that have prevented full coverage of free-to-air TV on
electronic program guides, which will add to the appeal of the Tivo.
Aside from cost, though, there’s a sacrifice of flexibility in most of
these options. You can record onto the device, and possibly stream it
to other screens, but that’s it: there’s no easy and obvious way to
make a permanent copy on DVD or tape, or send shows to a portable
device such as an iPod. On the Tivo, playing back video from other
sources (such as downloads or rips) will likely be hard without some
advanced network trickery.
If those sound like options you want, then you may be better off with a
basic hard drive recorder with built-in TV burner, or by adding a TV
tuner card to a media centre PC. The downside with these options is
that there’s much more work to do yourself, and no easy way to get an
electronic program guide that lets you automatically track programs.
You can subscribe to a service such as Ice TV, but that will cost $99 a
year, or you can just rely on printed and online TV guides and set your
own recording schedule. That’s cheaper, and it’s flexible, but nowhere
near as simple.

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