SONICblue ReplayTV RTV4000 PVR
At first glance, this appears to be yet another review of yet another PVR. Sure, this PVR looks a little cooler and seems a bit newer, but take a closer look at the back panel. There amongst all of the inputs you'd expect to see is an Ethernet connection. ReplayTV and new owner SONICblue have pushed the PVR to the next level: the Internet.
SONICblue has come out the door swinging with the RTV4000, and they don't care who they hit with their fists of fury. The Internet connection that used to just download channel and show listings now also enables you to trade shows (or anything else you record) with your friends. This would be lawsuit number one. The movie studios and TV networks are having a collective heart attack at the prospect of people recording copyrighted material, sending it to their friends, and storing it indefinitely. As if that weren't bad enough, the Commercial Advance feature lets you skip commercials. To the entire TV audience, this could be the greatest idea since channel-surfing. However, all the networks see is their viewing audience skipping over their sole form of income with nary a button pushed. This would be lawsuit number two.
The law here is fuzzy—and not like a teddy bear. Sony v. Universal (1984) gives home users the right to record what they want for personal use. Sending those recordings to friends wasn't an option in 1984 (other than via snail mail), and here's where the argument gets gray. The case against SONICblue claims that they're contributing to copyright infringement and can be held liable. This is the same case presented against Napster. Napster lost. In this case, the difficulty with these arguments is that people are already allowed to do everything that the RTV4000 does—just not as conveniently. VHS allows you to record TV shows, time-shift, save entire seasons, and so on (you can even send the tapes to a friend). Also, the ReplayTV technology supports Macrovision, so you can't share copyrighted material (like copying a DVD). It isn't an open forum like Napster, so you can only share with people you know, and they can't send the same show to someone else. All these lawsuits have done so far is give ReplayTV more publicity than it could've hoped for.
The RTV4040 that I reviewed is the baby of the RTV4000 line. Its 40-gigabyte hard drive (you can get up to 320 GB) holds only 40 hours of material in the standard record mode. In medium mode, you'll get 19.2 hours; in high mode, you'll get 13.2 hours. The standard mode seems to give you around 240 lines of resolution, which is about the same amount as VHS and fine if your cable provider's feed is extra noisy like mine is. The medium mode offers a substantial improvement, around 400 to 450 lines. The high mode closes in on 500 lines. My review sample's 40-hour capacity was adequate for most of my viewing/recording needs. If you have a big family in which everyone wants to record something, then one of the larger units might be better for you. If your space starts to run out and there's nothing you want to delete, you can very easily dump shows onto VHS or recordable DVD.
The RTV4000's rear panel looks like a cross between a VCR and a computer. There are coax connectors for the cable/antenna signal and a passthrough, just like a VCR. There are two sets of ins and outs that use RCA-style connectors for stereo audio and video, plus one Y/C (S-video) in and out. The Y/C input is only enabled in the setup menu as part of the second input. There's a D-Sub 15-pin connector that's switchable via the onscreen menu to output either RGB or Y/Pb/Pr and is the only output that offers progressive-scan capability. The Ethernet plug is right above the Toslink (optical) connector for digital audio. You get a DB9 serial connector to control satellite boxes that have such connections and an IR Blaster hookup for satellite and cable boxes that don't.
Setting up the RTV4000 was easy. After I hooked everything up, I plugged in the unit and waited for my time-shifting fun to begin. A few button pushes later, the PVR told me to "Please Wait" while it did its own thing for a few minutes. The conclusion of the setup procedure involves downloading the channel guide. This process is as fast as your Internet connection. Enter your ZIP code and what type of service you have (OTA, DBS, or cable). After a few tries (my cable provider is weird), I found the right listing and was ready to dive in to the viewing experience. For people who want to go more in-depth, there are further setup options for Internet modes, other sources, other RTV4000s on a network, and so on.
Using the remote takes at least two hands. If you have a universal remote, be ready to use it. The buttons you'd use on a regular basis are scattered all over the remote, and they all feel the same in the dark. Many are small and sit very close to one another. Backlighting could relieve some of this, but only seven of the buttons have it. I doubt you'll use five of these buttons very often. I'll give the remote points for aesthetics, as its color and design match the chassis fairly well.
Once you've mastered the remote (yeah, right), the RTV4000 is extremely easy to use. I've used the poorly named and now thankfully defunct Microsoft UltimateTV, and the difference is night and day. The RTV4000 turns on and off instantly, and you don't have to wait long for the menus to appear. Some have said that TiVo is easier to use than ReplayTV; I've found that ReplayTV is just more involved. There's more to tweak and more options to play around with. Sure, for the average user, this may come across as harder to use, but, for us home theater folks, this added level of tweakability is a strong selling point. The program guide goes 12 days forward and one day back. You can select something to record from the guide either by a push of the record button (one push for one-time record, two to record that show every time) or by searching for the show and recording it. At MyReplayTV.com, you can set your RTV4000 to record from any computer on the Internet. You can also set up your own channels that feature every show by that name. Imagine, The Simpsons four hours a night and no commercials.
The Commercial Advance function works beautifully, by the way. The box comes with a disclaimer that says that Commercial Advance works about 80 percent of the time. That seems about right. For the 20 percent of the time that it doesn't work, there's a button that allows you to skip forward 30 seconds. If you want to watch one thing and record something else, you can. When the unit is on, the signal only goes to the RTV4000; however, if the unit is in standby mode, the signal is split so that the PVR can record one program while you watch another.
Don't get your hopes up that you're going to send last night's South Park episode to your buddy in Omaha while you're eating dinner. A 30-minute show recorded at medium quality is around 1 GB; so, unless you have an OC-12 trunk wired to your living room (and the five grand a month that you need for such a service), sending a show might take a while.
All ReplayTV PVRs include many other features that are worth talking about. Check out Mike Wood's August 2000 review or Rebecca Day's January 2002 review of the Panasonic ShowStopper ReplayTV models for more info. If you haven't stepped into the world of the PVR, you should know that it will truly change how you watch television. You might not watch more TV, but you'll watch better TV (OK, I ripped that off from their slogan). The RTV4000 makes it easy and is well worth a look.
• Cooler than your VCR
• Internet makes ReplayTV even better
• Good-looking, to boot