Friday, November 14, 2003

New State-of-the Art Home Must Have

The Pioneer TiVo-DVD Recorders

The TiVo part means that you can freeze, rewind or instantly replay whatever you're watching; record a show (or, rather, a lot of shows) on its built-in hard drive for instant playback at any time; and skip over ads. Above all, a digital video recorder, or DVR, like TiVo permanently disconnects the broadcast time from the viewing time. By the time TiVo zealots - which is pretty much everyone who has ever bought one - blip over the ads, credits, recaps and promos, they can watch a one-hour show in about 35 minutes. No wonder they never, ever watch whatever junk happens to be on at the moment.

These Pioneers are also first-class DVD (and CD) players, made all the more likable because you control a disc's playback with the same buttons on the remote that you use for TiVo playback. If your TV has so-called component-video inputs (inexplicably labeled Y, Pb and Pr) the DVD player rewards you with progressive-scan output. (Translation: very high video quality found in fancier DVD players.)

But the real magic happens when you highlight a recorded show in the TiVo's Now Playing list and press the Copy to DVD button. A graph of the blank DVD fills up as you select more shows to record onto it. (If a movie is too long to fit on one DVD, the TiVo will even split it onto multiple discs for you.)

Another button press begins creating your very own homemade DVD. That may sound like a serious technical business, but on this machine, it's every bit as casual and effortless as using a VCR. The result is a disc that plays on any standard DVD player of recent vintage.

If this method of burning a DVD sounds simple and obvious, you've clearly never tried one of the other set-top DVD burners. For example, the TiVo already knows each show's name, so you don't have to type in the title of each show you're copying - a grueling exercise on other DVD recorders, given the absence of alphabet keys. This is the only DVD burner that approaches the simplicity of a VCR, and the only one you'd ever wish upon, say, your parents.

And now, an important digression into video-recording quality. Like any video recorder, the TiVo offers a choice of recording speeds. At Extreme quality, which looks spectacular, the "80 hour" Pioneer holds only 14 hours of shows. It holds 80 hours only in the lowest-quality mode, Basic, also known as "yucky."

Now, hard-drive capacity isn't nearly as important on this TiVo as it is on a regular TiVo, because you can always offload your recordings onto DVD's when the hard drive begins to fill up.

Even so, the different recording modes become important when you begin copying shows from the Pioneer's hard drive to a DVD, because the quality setting determines how much video will fit on a disc. At Extreme quality, each disc holds only an hour; at High, two hours; Medium, four hours; and Basic quality, six hours.

Using blank DVD's labeled 2x or 4x, it takes about an hour to burn a DVD. DVD-RW (erasable) discs take longer, and so do the older, 1x blank discs. (In any case, you can continue watching TV and using the TiVo while the burning takes place.)

The Pioneers can record onto both DVD-R discs (about $50 for a 25-pack) and DVD-RW discs, which you can erase and use again. That feature makes it easy and practical to dump some shows onto DVD for, say, a car trip with the kids, and then use the same disc later for a couple of "West Wing" episodes for your plane flight.

A delicious new TiVo option lets you record old VHS tapes and camcorder movies directly onto the hard drive, and burn them from there onto DVD's. In the process, you give your video a new lease on life with a much longer life expectancy. Trouble is, you have to hook up your camcorder by using analog connectors.

Finally - are you lying down? - there's the matter of the price. Pioneer's suggested price for the 80-hour DVR-801H is $1,200 - and for its 120-hour Elite DVR-57H, a staggering $1,800. Has Pioneer gone stark, raving mad?

You can find much better prices online - $725 and $1,400, respectively. But that's still a lot.

And that's not even the whole price story.

To attain your Pioneer's fullest potential, then, you're talking about $725 for the 80-hour box, plus $300 for TiVo Plus. This holiday season, the rafters will echo with the voices of livid spouses: "You want to spend $1,025 on a VCR!?"

One possible counter-argument: "Yeah, but we'd pay pretty much the same amount if we bought the components separately" ($300 for an 80-hour stand-alone TiVo, $300 for the lifetime service, $450 for a DVD recorder). Don't forget that business about saving space, clutter, cables, and remote controls, either.

The bottom line is that the Pioneer TiVo is far better designed and easier to use than any other DVD recorder. The question isn't whether or not people should buy it; the only question is whether or not they can.

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