Vendors Prep HDTV Recorders

At the Western Cable Show, new set-top boxes from Motorola and Scientific Atlanta combine two HDTV tuners with big hard drives. Coverage includes a four-room DVR and Moxi too.

In what will certainly be a preview of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this January, Motorola and Scientific Atlanta recently rolled out new HDTV set-top boxes that double as TiVo-like digital video recorders (DVR). At the Western Cable Show this month, three different models were on display.

Scientific Atlanta had the most intriguing demo, showing off the HD version of its Explorer 8000 DVR. The 8000HD will come in 80GB or 160GB versions, which can hold 9 and 20 hours of HD content respectively. Those units are in trials right now and should be offered by cable operators by the end of December.

I was most excited, however, about the 8300 version. This set-top box acts as an HDTV DVR but doubles as a mini cable head-end and video server. It can serve up to four video streams simultaneously – one to a locally connected HDTV and three to additional client boxes connected via coax anywhere in the home. This lets a single unit serve video to four different TVs. This is a godsend for homes with multiple PVRs, because it always seems like the show you want to watch is stored on the "other" unit. Its also cost-effective, since those client units (I was sharply rebuked when I called them "satellite" units, for obvious reasons) are actually older Scientific Atlanta 3100 cable set-top boxes that many cable operators have in excess.

The unit will encrypt video as it travels from the 8300 to the 3100, which should mollify content providers. And with two tuners, the 8300 has some brawny specs – it will record two programs and play back four streams at a time. Although the hard drive is not field-upgradeable by consumers, Scientific Atlanta plans on adding external Serial ATA capability just as soon as the SATA 2 specifications are ready to go.

I wasnt impressed with either the software or the remote. Both were rudimentary at best, providing basic DVR functionality that lacked TiVos sophistication and ease-of-use. The remote puts the Pause, FF and Rewind buttons at the bottom, making for a very poor user experience. Unlike a VCR or DVD player, where you press play and sit back, DVR users interact with those buttons almost constantly. Putting them at the bottom of the remote makes it harder to use them.

The 8300 will go into field trials in February, and should be available before summer. As with other Scientific Atlanta set-top boxes, it will not be available for sale to consumers. Instead, customers will rent it from their cable operator. Although Scientific Atlanta wouldnt provide any price information, a basic unit will probably rent for about $10 a month and $2-$3 more for each client unit. Meanwhile, when it launched two years ago at CES, Moxi was a revolutionary concept. But now, after a change of ownership, its just another HDTV DVR. The finalized Moxi-based box from Motorola, called "Broadband Media Center" (BMC9012), includes two HDTV tuners. It can simultaneously record two shows to its 80 gigabyte hard drive, which stores around 9 hours of HDTV content.

The Moxi is built on an x86 platform, runs Linux, and, in addition to playing back HDTV and regular TV, will also support digital music and photos – although Motorola was not demonstrating those capabilities. Oddly enough for such a brawny box (about twice the size of Scientific Atlantas 8300), it includes no PC connectivity. A DOCSIS cable modem is included, which allows it to provide IP service to other computers in the house via the built-in Ethernet port.

When WebTV founder Steve Pearlman rolled Moxi out, he made a big deal about its ability to support satellite clients over 802.11a. These lightweight clients were supposed to extend the Moxi out to two other rooms. Sadly, Motorolas initial Moxi implementation does not include support for satellite clients. Scientific Atlanta, on the other hand, seems to have provided an elegant solution.


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