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Must-See TV -- On Your Time


Unless you've been living in a cave, you've heard all about the joys of the digital home, with all the gadgets and gewgaws that help you shuttle pictures and music between your PC, stereo, and television. Indeed, if your muse is music, you're all set. But when will digital video finally be ready for prime time? A video junkie, I would argue that a picture is worth 1,000 lyrics. The History Channel has kept me up many a night trying to keep straight the great players of World War II. TiVo continually surprises me by automatically recording great shows for me to discover, such as The Office from BBC America.

But I've always been vexed by the question: "If it's must-see TV, why must I see it in only one place?" While making dinner in the kitchen, why can't I pause that rerun of Seinfeld and later pick up where I left off -- on the TV in the living room? And why can't I do the same crammed into coach on a cross-country trip?

The good news is that companies are increasingly tuning into the problem. Over the past few years, devices such as TiVo and ReplayTV, or newer services such as cable video-on-demand, let you watch anything, anytime. But they have missed the "anywhere." Now, new digital media servers and personal video recorders that are capable of moving video from room to room aim to fill in that blank.

I've been looking at lots of these new devices to see just how easily I can take my shows on the road. A couple of caveats first: Most of these tech toys work best with a moderately new PC. Digital media servers also require a high-speed Internet connection and a home network, either wired or wireless, to shuttle audio and video files to and fro.

First up, I tried out several media servers. One question I always get from friends is: TiVo or Replay? Both of these personal video recorder (PVR) brands now have a feature that lets you move video from TV to TV. This media server feature has changed my answer to the question.

TiVo has always been my favorite. I've long been impressed with its Apple-like simplicity, user-friendly interface, and Season Pass automated recording feature. But the company's Home Media Option, which lets you transfer shows from one TiVo to another and use the Internet to schedule programs to record, misses the mark. You must pay $100 for the first TiVo box you outfit (to handle remote scheduling) and $49 for each additional one if you're looking to network them. On top of that, be prepared to shell out whatever it takes for network adapters to get them hooked to your network: There's no built-in Ethernet jack.

BUMPY TRANSFERS

Costs aside, i was really bummed by the time it takes to move video from one room to another. While trying to pick up some Queer Eye for the Straight Guy tips, I wandered from my home office in the back of the house and flopped on the couch in the living room.

The TiVo recorder there recognized the other TiVo recorder on the network, but the fun ended there. To watch the show on my living room unit, TiVo first must copy the whole file from one box to the other. I had to wait about 30 minutes before enough of the show had transferred to begin watching, an annoying interruption. TiVo says the transfer is faster when you record at a lower picture quality, but at these prices who wants grainy video? And forget picking up where you left off. The transfer starts at the beginning.

ReplayTV's service was more to my liking. The lesser-known rival to the more established TiVo, ReplayTV offers its network media services at a can't-beat price: free. Better yet, it fit my bill. I recorded the campy 1968 movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang one Saturday morning on the ReplayTV 5504 in the kitchen, started to watch it, and paused. Later that day, I used a second 5504 (costing $499) in my home office to pick up where I left off.

ReplayTV's remote-scheduling feature needs work, though. If you're at work and get on the Web to schedule a recording at home, you'll need at least a few hours leeway. Unlike the same feature from TiVo, ReplayTV's service does not check the Internet for updates often enough. But if box-to-box video streaming is what you want most, I recommend Replay.

For those on a budget, there are cheaper alternatives. The $250 Prismiq Media Player and Gateway's $200 Connected DVD works for those who want to shuttle video (and music and snapshots) from PCs in the home to a bigger screen TV. With TiVo-like PVR functions being built into newer computers, such as Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Media Center PCs, you can schedule and record TV shows and you will soon have the ability to use one of these gizmos stream the picture to your TV.

Prismiq's setup was a little easier than Gateway's, but mainly because I chose a simple wired Ethernet connection for Prismiq, while I had to struggle with configuring the Wi-Fi security encryption I use on my home network to hook up the Gateway. Lesson learned: Speed counts. Even the highest-speed Wi-Fi connection introduced jagged edges and interruptions into the Gateway's picture, a fault of the wireless network, not Gateway.

PORTABLE VIDEO

There are trade-offs with each. Gateway's approach includes a DVD player, so there's one less box on that stack growing next to your TV. The Prismiq is a stand-alone box, but it does more. You can stream Internet music, surf the Web from your TV, and get regular updates of stock prices and weather, all from a 34-button remote control or an optional $49 wireless keyboard.

All of those media servers helped me get video throughout my home, but for true mobility I also took a look at a couple of new portable video players -- RCA's $449 Lyra A/V Jukebox and the $599 AV320 video recorder from Archos Technology. Either could end my love affair with the music-playing iPod.

The Lyra Jukebox wraps a sleek package with user-friendly controls around a 20-gigabyte hard drive for storing music, photos, and video. I tried out a preproduction unit, playing back a prerecorded episode of The Simpsons on its 3.5-inch screen. The picture was clear but looked more like watching a videotape than a DVD, and the fast-forward and rewind controls didn't work. When I tried to record a video signal -- you can plug it into a VCR or TV -- it froze. RCA says the bugs will be fixed before it goes on the market in early November.

Wei-En Chang, creative director at DC Shoes, which makes shoes for skateboarders, takes his Archos recorder everywhere he goes. I didn't find it as streamlined or eye-catching as the Lyra, but, like Chang, appreciated the slightly larger 3.8- inch screen and its much crisper picture. But the player is pretty hefty -- nearly a pound -- to accommodate the battery. (The Lyra is slightly lighter, but its battery conked out in less than four hours.) And the controls on the Archos, with buttons and inputs sharing different functions, are bound to confuse neophytes. Unlike RCA, Archos also neglected to include a handy stand for watching from anyplace other than your lap, and doesn't include a carrying case.

High prices for such tiny devices may scare some buyers away, but I think they're well worth their cost. On a recent trip, I stretched back in my (upgraded) first-class seat, sipped a little wine, and plugged myself into the Archos player and a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones to watch this summer's action flick 2 Fast 2 Furious. I couldn't help thinking that this is almost as good as my living room. Flight attendant, can you pass the popcorn, please? By Cliff Edwards


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