Noah Robischon
June 18, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The idiot box just got smarter. A new wave of TV set-top devices combines the IQ of personal organizers with the functionality of VCRs — but without the cassette. Plus, these digital video recorders — essentially gigantic hard drives in boxes — can pause or rewind a live show and be personalized so that ER is always on. ReplayTV and TiVo are the best-known devices; others are due out soon, including Dishplayer, which will incorporate a WebTV Net-browsing service. The basic Replay is $699; TiVo costs $499 but requires a lifetime subscription fee of $199, or $9.95 per month. Will these devices kill the VCR? Let’s go to the videota — uh, digital recording system.

ReplayTV’s black box is slicker than TiVo’s, but I found both as easy to hook up as a VCR. Both, however, have to piggyback onto your phone line to link with their motherships for scheduling data. Aside from initial setup (30 minutes for ReplayTV, 90 for TiVo), the boxes never conflicted with my normal phone use.

TiVo and ReplayTV also organize a week’s worth of program listings into on-screen viewing guides that include show summaries and can be searched by keyword. ReplayTV even let me set up a ”theme” channel that looks for and records, say, any Clint Eastwood movie in the coming week. Now who’s lucky, punk?

Sis calls with minutes left in the first Knicks-Hawks semifinal. Normally I’d screen her out, but since my TV signal is being turned into a digital file, I can hit pause and finish watching after we talk. During commercials I rewind and watch Latrell Sprewell dunk in slo-mo. Only one question: Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner?

I instruct the boxes to tape 90 minutes of Simpsons reruns daily, and — d’oh! — quickly run out of disc space. ReplayTV’s basic model stores just 10 hours, with 14 and 28 hours on pricier models; TiVo has 14- and 30-hour options. At least the machines let me prioritize what to record over and what to keep. They can also be linked to VCRs for offloading to cassette — too bad I unplugged mine to make space for the new toy.

When I change channels on TiVo, the picture briefly breaks up into pixels, a glitch the company says will be fixed in newer models. But my real problem with TiVo is that it plans to sell my viewing habits to advertisers who will then target me with special commercials. I will be able to opt out of the profiling, but it’s spooky knowing that my secret jones for World’s Wildest Police Videos could end up in some marketing database.

The somewhat pathetic result of my experiment: I watched twice as much TV. But if the concept of personalized televiewing is a winner, ReplayTV and TiVo aren’t yet the technology’s most elegant incarnations, since they add another black box to my rickety home-entertainment tower. Both would be more successful coupled with a VCR, or, better yet, a cable modem. That way I could e-mail in sick to my boss, order a pizza off the Net, go on a 12-hour Law & Order jag — and never face couch-potato famine again.
ReplayTV: A-
TiVo: B

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