- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2001

What do "The Sopranos," the highly favored HBO drama, and the Linux operating system have in common?

Not much, unless one brings the two together in a personal video recorder.

Some explanation, first, however: HBO's series, featured on the cover of Newsweek and on this paper's Culture page, has become a must-watch on Sunday nights for many folks, in the way that PBS' "Upstairs, Downstairs" was 25 years ago. The big difference: Fans not at home on Sunday night can record the show for later viewing, technology being far more advanced in this respect than in the 1970s.

Big deal, you say, consumer VCRs have been around for 20 years. Yes, but hook up a VCR to your local cable TV system and you're asking for trouble. I've had cable for years, and a VCR for years, but to have the two operate in harmony, well, that's another story. In order to watch one channel and record another, you need either a second cable box (at an extra monthly fee, naturally) or a degree in electrical engineering, preferably from Georgia Tech. No slight to the electrical engineers out there, it's just been that making the two systems, VCR and cable, talk to each other has been a nightmare for many. Well, for me at least.

Into this mix has come the personal video recorder, or PVR, a computer-based device intended to overcome the limitations of cable and record what you want when you want. It does this on a hard disk drive, using a microprocessor and specially written software. One such unit, from ReplayTV, reviewed here about two years ago, failed miserably in my testing. It was confusing, confounding and it didn't work.

But wait, there's more, (as they say on those infomercials). First, many cable companies (including my local provider, AT&T; Broadband) have gotten rather greedy, raising rates and tacking on charges with what seems like reckless abandon. Then, satellite providers such as DirecTV and DISHnetworks have aggressively promoted their services, which often deliver more value (and fewer hassles) to subscribers than does cable these days. Finally, the Linux operating system, top choice for network and Internet servers, also turns out to be a great choice for embedded systems such as the PVR.

All this and Tony Soprano, too, came together in the Philips DSR6000, a $399.99 device that marries a satellite receiver with a PVR and the TiVo service, allows viewers to find and schedule favorite television shows automatically, and digitally record or store up to 35 hours of video content without the use of videotape.

The short course: It works like a charm. I'm just about ready to unplug my cable service.

The longer story: This is the kind of product for which one could benefit from having a professional installer. There is some configuring that needs to be done, and the technician who installed my test unit did a magnificent job; after a couple of phone calls with the DirecTV and TiVo people, the unit was up and running and receiving all sorts of neat channels.

Programming the TiVo part of the service is done with the handheld remote control; a wireless keyboard would be better for this, but the remote lets you navigate a block where letters and numbers are selected. Pick out T-h-a-t, and choices including "That's My Bush" and "That's Life," the CBS drama/ comedy, appear on the right-hand side of the screen. You can choose to record one episode or a season pass of all episodes. The TiVo player, which updates itself nightly via a telephone download (a modem is built in to the unit) is able to track last-minute schedule changes and keep your recordings up to date.

Like milk and other fresh items, there is an expiration date on new recordings, so as to keep room available for new programs. You can override this or delete shows after viewing and another option lets you dump a program to videotape using a VCR.

Along with my Sopranos fix, I now never miss an episode of "Iron Chef," whose drama (and perhaps gore in some cases) rivals the HBO series. In other words, I'm having a ton of fun with all of this.

Two improvements might help. I'd rather have the TiVo updates as part of the satellite downlink instead of the modem. Also, the Philips DSR6000 will get a software refresh this summer to allow you to watch one show while recording another. Right now, that's not possible.

And other firms are set to weigh in on all this. Microsoft's Ultimate TV (www.ultimatetv.com) works in the same way as the Philips/TiVo unit but adds WebTV Internet access. Echostar Networks is also due to announce a PVR/satellite combo that will feature its programming, including the popular SkyAngel religious network (www.dishtv.com).

For now, I'm tickled pink with TiVo and the Philips DSR6000. You might want to investigate it yourself, especially after your next cable bill arrives.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page, www.kellner2000.com. Talk back live to Mark every Thursday from 8 to 9 p.m., Eastern time, on www.adrenaline-radio.com.

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