Switched On: New world recorder

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

When it comes to time-shifting television viewing, the conversation these days usually involves premium streaming services -- namely, Netflix and Hulu Plus. But consumers routinely shell out more than they do for either of these services -- in fact, sometimes more than for both of them combined -- simply to have more convenient access to the television from their existing cable or satellite subscriptions. Not only that, they're often willing to put up with a large, relatively noisy (and failure-prone!) box for this privilege. That box is the digital video recorder.

Most of the DVRs in American homes come courtesy of cable providers; the market for retail boxes is dominated by TiVo, though a number of upstarts have challenged its supremacy over the years. Though Replay TV was the company's first serious rival, this list of competitors later expanded to include various niche and PC-related products like Archos TV, the Monsoon Vulkano, SnapStream, Home Theater PCs with Windows Media Center, or Sage TV (now lying in wait at Google). A decade ago, one of the more ambitious "TiVo-killers" debuted at CES: the Moxi Media Center. Having changed hands twice, it's still around, but the website offers no obvious way to purchase it -- only a phone number. Nonetheless, hope springs eternal at CES, where this year's show saw no less than four devices aimed at time-shifting programming already coming at your TV. None of them appear poised to topple the cable DVR hegemony, but they all bring something new to the party.

Fisher-Price Kid Tough Portable DVR

This brightly colored kid-proof video viewer is neither the first such recorder nor Mattel's foray into digital video players. Hasbro released the abysmal VuGo video player for kids back in 2005. Its chunky frame allowed for playback of even rougher video recorded from video sources or downloaded from a PC via USB. The VuGo was a response to Mattel's equally-crummy Juice Box, which was itself a response to Hasbro's once-thriving VideoNow disc-based player. Both products were commercial duds, but attracted some interest from the hacker community.

This Kid Tough Portable DVR, though, promises to offer higher resolution on its 3.5-inch display and even timing of recordings, making it more of a true DVR (albeit, one with all the scheduling sophistication of a VCR). When it arrives mid-year, Mattel intends to bundle it with headphones, a docking station, car charger and a case for about $150, which could be a tempting price for parents who want nothing more than to wrest their smartphones back from their toddlers' hands.


The whole point of a DVR is to feast upon the choicest morsels in the banquet that is full-pay TV, is it not? Not for the $150 Simple.TV, which its makers describe as "a lovely little box that gobbles up oodles of TV" and then delivers it to a range of connected devices such as smartphones and tablets. Simple.TV is something of a cross between a SiliconDust HDHomeRun and a Monsoon Vulkano: a DVR aimed at cable cord-cutters and "cord-nevers."

In a twist, though, you'll need to pony up $5 per month if you want to make the most of Simple.TV's capabilities, which include remote streaming, an electronic programming guide and series recordings. And if you'd like to get a taste of the company's user interface chops, the outfit sells a $30 add-on for Windows Media Center that can convert recorded shows to podcasts and stream them to a browser on the local network.


Dish's forthcoming multi-room DVR is named after its newly minted kangaroo mascot (preciously, its secondary room client boxes are called Joeys). However, there's no kid stuff behind this powerful new DVR solution from Dish. A new HD user interface tunes the service and provides access to shows on its two-terabyte hard drive, while SRS TruVolume helps prevent commercials from disturbing your couch potato-dom. The Hopper also ties in to other members of the larger Dish / Echostar family, with the ability to receive Blockbuster@Home titles even without a broadband connection. Additionally, it can send live TV and recorded shows to a host of mobile devices using Sling technology from Echostar.

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The most intriguing feature, though, is Prime Time Anytime, which takes advantage of the Hopper's large hard drive by automatically recording all shows on the four most popular broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) for a rolling eight days. The idea is that if someone recommends a show to you, you can check it out without having to record it in advance. Or if an episode is coming up, you can at least catch up on what happened the previous week to get a feel for the season's story arc or learn more about the characters. PrimeTime Anytime forms a partial bridge between the selection of a DVR and the convenience of an on-demand service like Hulu.

Given Dish's sizable customer base, it's a sure bet the Hopper will be the most popular of the new DVRs shown off at CES. But there's one other with an interesting enough backstory and proposition that it deserves its own attention in Switched On. And that it shall have, in the not-too-distant future.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.