Sonicblue ReplayTV 5000 Series

Sonicblue ReplayTV 5000 Series

By Andrew Hawn - Posted Dec 04, 2002
ReplayTV 5000Today's hard-drive-based personal video recorders (PVRs), such as TiVo, DishPVR, and Microsoft's UltimateTV, pause, rewind, save, and organize huge amounts of television content. If you haven't used one, the experience is nothing short of transformative. If you have used one, then you know how a PVR changes your TV-viewing habits forever. See the latest PVRs, including Sonicblue's new ReplayTV 5000, on "Fresh Gear." (Vulcan Inc., TechTV's parent company, holds a stake in TiVo.)

Sonicblue's recently released ReplayTV 5000 improves on the original ReplayTV 4000 and 4500 series of networkable PVRs with minor but needed tweaks. With a revamped pricing model and a cosmetic redesign of the box and remote, the 5000 series should be more attractive to a wider group of consumers.

What's new with ReplayTV 5000?

The first obvious difference you'll notice with the 5000 is its new box design. While the 4000 and 4500 series were sleek, silver, and high-end looking, Sonicblue opted for a simplified, subdued, brushed metallic gray-blue color for the 5000. Gone are the hard-to-use front bezel controls and hard-to-read indicator lights. Thankfully, Sonicblue totally rebuilt the ReplayTV remote, mercifully reducing the number of buttons by six while increasing the size of some key buttons.

Sonicblue offers versions of the 5000 with 40 hours to 320 hours of maximum recording time at variable 2MB to 6MB video quality. Prices for the units range from $199.99 (with mail-in rebate) for the 40-hour version to $900 for the 320-hour player, plus the required cost of service at either $9.95 monthly or $250 for lifetime usage.

Setting up the ReplayTV 5000 box is fairly simple. In fact we downloaded the location-based channel guide and registered our ReplayTV 5000 on the Sonicblue network over our home Ethernet network all in about half an hour. The TiVo setup took a bit longer.

However, the biggest drawback by far that has not been addressed is the ReplayTV's slow speed. We often found ourselves waiting several seconds for the box to catch up.

So many channels and so much content. Searching for and managing show recordings is a key PVR element and ReplayTV does it well. But we think it could do better. Like a TiVo, searching for content on the ReplayTV can be done in three ways: You can "type" in a specific keyword, search by genre, or simply browse the channel guide.

One feature we appreciate most about TiVo is typing that predicts a title when only a few letters are entered, which makes searching for content a breeze (and more of an adventure). ReplayTV lacks this ability but Sonicblue informed us that it is working on it.

Like all PVRs, ReplayTV will pause, rewind, and fast forward through recorded content. Keeping track of where you are in any given show is done through a time code display in the upper right corner of the screen. While on-screen display preferences can be a very personal thing, we prefer the TiVo interface's sliding recording bar.

Show management

Managing dozens of shows is never an easy proposition. The ReplayTV 5000 allows you to save up to 99 episodes of your favorite show but doesn't come close to TiVo's "Season Pass" functionality. The TiVo Series2 box allows users to automatically record all shows, ignoring repeats, or prioritize both repeats and first-run episodes. This is a major drawback if your show is syndicated over multiple channels. Without a lot of handholding, you will load up your ReplayTV drive with unneeded repeats in a hurry.Like earlier Sonicblue ReplayTV PVRs, the 5000 will skip commercials and share content with other Sonicblue PVRs over the Internet up to 15 times or stream throughout a house or corporate network. However, support for file sharing with 4000/4500 units won't come until later this year.

The 5000 series also includes features and lets you perform many functions that TiVo can't. Some of these include:

  • Skip commercials
  • Upload photos from a PC
  • Remotely control scheduling over the Web up to a day in advance
  • Component 480-line progressive output for digital TVs
  • Integrated Ethernet port

Unfortunately, the commercial advance feature can be hit or miss. It worked about 85 percent of the time for us and frequently cut off a couple of seconds re-entering regular programming, which can be annoying. In fact, ReplayTV claims that it will only work well about 70 percent of the time. Still, ReplayTV smartly moved the commercial advance on/off option from a buried menu option to a quicker-to-access button on the remote for those who want to disable it.After a couple of weeks testing the sharing function of our 40-hour ReplayTV 5040 review unit, it's clear sharing content is not suitable for every home setup. While streaming your recorded content over an existing home network from one ReplayTV 5000 to another is a cool option, it doesn't always work well when one of the boxes is recording something else. You also have to own two 5000 boxes since, as mentioned above, the earlier 4500 units won't work with this feature. Sonicblue informed us that it is working on a thin client, which would provide a more cost-effective way of streaming throughout the house.

Sharing content over the Internet, which used to be a big marketing tool for Sonicblue, doesn't require broadband access, but content sharing really is useless without it. Users will also need a home network with bridging or routing capabilities, unless you want to commit an IP address specific to your PVR. The majority of broadband subscribers will find opening up a network port on their PVR to be confusing, but it's there as an option if you want it.

Finally, sharing content can be slow. We mean really, really slow. Though you can watch television while sending shows to other Sonicblue PVRs, it could take days to upload a hefty amount of content to other users. Sonicblue says 30 minutes of "high quality" 6-Mbps content could take up to 24 hours to send at the common DSL upload speed. Send your friends your favorite one-hour episode of "ER" on a Thursday night and they might not get it until Saturday.

Below is Sonicblue's list of how long it takes to upload 30 minutes of content at three different speeds.

  • 128-Kbps upload speed in typical home environment
    Thirty-minute program
    Standard equals approximately eight hours
    Medium equals approximately 16 hours
    High equals approximately 24 hours

  • 600-Kbps upload speed (home/small business environment)
    Thirty-minute program
    Standard equals approximately two hours
    Medium equals approximately three and a half hours
    High equals approximately five hours

  • 1500-Kbps upload speed (business environment)
    Thirty-minute program
    Standard equals approximately one hour
    Medium equals approximately two hours
    High equals approximately three and a half hours

Summary: Like earlier ReplayTV 4000 and 4500 series PVRs, the ReplayTV 5000 series won't appeal to everyone, though it is a definite improvement in terms of usability and price. If you have access to a speedy Internet connection, as many corporations do, then waiting an hour or two to send or receive high quality content might not be such a big deal.

For now the ReplayTV 5000 is a good PVR for the advanced user who puts a premium on extra options. But for most users just looking for a PVR that does the best job of viewing content, managing drive space, and organizing future scheduled recordings, look no further than TiVo.

Pros: Sharing content is a great idea; commercial skip; improved remote.

Cons: Sharing still takes too long; very slow response time even for menus; inferior user interface to TiVo.

Company: Sonicblue
Price: $200 to $900
Available: Now
Category: Personal video recorders

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