Brief note added 7/23/07: I've been using both the last major revision of the Replay and a Tivo now for two years, and I'll just note that I find the Replay interface simpler and less obtrusive--it's also far easier to skip past commercials on playback and come out cleanly on the break than with Tivo. From a practical standpoint, both devices do the job well, but I find that I prefer using the Replay system. Why do I need a Tivo? Two letters: HD. While a little clumsy (I need two Cable Cards and had to reconfigure my equipment), if you want to do the same thing with HD as you did with basic cable, the only option is the latest generation of Tivo equipment.
You never quite realize just how much you've fallen for a piece of hardware until it stops working. But there it was: all the program information on my Replay Personal Television Server had disintegrated to blank, brown bars. I was staring at 85 channels of nothing. I stared at the remote control without comprehension. How would I figure out what to watch? How would I record late night programs for view the next day?
Suddenly, a life of channel surfing, TV Guide browsing, and fiddling with deciphering the record option screen on my VCR seemed like hell, though that's exactly what I did for years prior to purchasing the Replay. That panicky, out-of-control feeling started to well up in me as I fumbled through all the Replay's option screens trying to figure out what was wrong.
But let's flashback to the way things are supposed to be, otherwise you'll never understand my panic.
The Replay PTS is a rather plain, black box that plugs in between your primary video source (cable, antenna, dish) and your television. Inside the box is, well, a computer, though you really don't need to know that. The computer digitizes the video signal and stores it on a hard disk. Once a week, the computer phones a local Replay number and downloads program information for your video source (here in Lehigh Valley it correctly picked up all four cable options and configured my system to the channels my TV actually receives; when I moved, it correctly reconfigured to the new channel pattern). These two fundamental things--digitizing video to disk and downloading program information--enable a tool that clearly enriches a videophile's viewing.
Here's just a few of the things that change with a Replay PTS:
You might be starting to understand why I was so distressed when the program schedule disappeared from my Replay one Saturday afternoon. The Replay device was still recording everything to disk, but it was like having a lobotomy--I didn't know what I was watching or what I'd do next.
When I tried to force the Replay to call the service and download new program info, a disturbing message appeared: "Unable to connect to modem." At first I thought the message was miswritten, surely this must mean "unable to connect to the service." After trying several different phone numbers (Replay gives you local access numbers so you don't incur long distance charges to update the schedule), then dialing the numbers on a regular phone to verify there was a computer at the other end (there was), I started to realize the message might actually be accurately telling me that the computer's modem was failing.
It was then that I noticed how hot the unit was. Really hot. Uncomfortable to put my hand on. Of course, the Replay had been on for three solid weeks, recording video signals the whole time. And, despite instructions to the contrary, I had placed my DVD player on top of the Replay, cutting off air circulation. So I did the only sane thing I could think of: I turned the Replay off and went to bed to ponder my next move. The next morning, I turned the Replay back on, and, lo and behold, off it went to dial the service. Yoohoo, my program guide was back! I was back to time-shifting heaven. [This reverie proved to be temporary. The symptoms reappeared a week later, only this time it stopped recording video, too. Off for repairs it goes.]
Replay is a must-have accessory for serious videoholics. If you're worried about permanancy, you can hook your VCR to the Replay and record your recordings (how geeked up is that?). And to my eyes, the Replay's basic settings provide better recordings than any VHS machine I've seen. The hard disk is capable of storing up to 20 hours of material at the basic quality.
Not that the Replay PTS is perfect. While the user interface is as good as any I've seen on a consumer video device, it still has quirks that'll have you head-scratching at times. Setup, for example, uses the Play and Rewind buttons to control a lot of actions, but in actual use similar actions tend to use the Select and arrow keys. Huh? Indeed, if you're into arrows, you'll love the remote, which has 10 keys with various types of arrows on them, plus four more keys that are shaped like arrows. Then there's the buttons labeled Channel Guide and Replay Guide. I know what they mean, but lots of buttons have similar names, similar icons, and are laid out in unusual patterns. The Menu and Exit buttons, for example, are orphaned down at the bottom of the remote, yet you sometimes need to use them in conjunction with the Select and arrow buttons located elsewhere on the remote. Moreover, despite controlling major functions, these key buttons are shaped the same as the Jump, Display, Input, and TV/VCR buttons, and randomly placed with them..
Another gripe comes when replaying video: still frames are maddening. First, there's a distinct lag between hitting the pause button and the Replay going into still frame mode. Wanna catch what the town's doing in the quick pan in the Simpson's credits? Better hit the pause button on the first of Marge's car horn beeps. Moreover, even if you hit the pause button consistently at the same point, the lag varies and puts you on different frames each time. If that weren't enough, for live video the Replay PTS places a large bar across the bottom of the paused screen, counting down the amount of disk space left (gee, thanks guys, I really was worried that I might use up all 12 hours of free space while pausing the video). In replay mode, the PTS simply puts a small pause symbol in the lower right corner, a much better choice.
Indeed, it's as if the Replay's software and controls were done separately by two different groups, with different design philosophies and choices. What's so frustrating is that the user interface comes so close to being perfect. Ironically, the Replay comes with 160-page manual it really doesn't need, while your cryptic VCR probably came with an 8-page manual that didn't begin to describe everything you needed to know.
Yes, it's a little pricey, even at the discounted $499 price you sometimes see, but the Replay Personal Television Server is the ultimate video convenience, with the emphasis on convenience.
Replay Networks, 1945 Charleston Road, Mountain View, CA 94043 (650) 210-1000. www.replaytv.com
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