Trender Research™

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Tivo? DVR? A review of Cox Communications (Cable) DVR Service for Dummies

If you are reading this article because you are intrigued by the title, you are probably interested in recording TV shows but may be a little perplexed by the complexity of doing so. Or you may be unhappy with your own TV service or piece of recording equipment. As someone who used to sell Electronic Program Guide (EPG) middleware and Digital Video Recorder (DVR) applications to telephone companies for IPTV services, I can tell you that my Cox DVR Set-Top Box (STB) {manufactured by Motorola, by the way} and its user interface is about as good as it gets.

First of all, I tell people I "Tivo" something when I record it on my DVR because I fear that a lot of people do not understand the term "DVR". Remember in the old days (which actually isn't that long ago...) when we talked about how we'd search for things on the Internet, but now we just say we "Google" something? Same concept. Tivo was a revolutionary service when it was first introduced, and it still has a remarkably easy to use user interface. However, every cable and satellite TV operator is now offering their own DVR (= Tivo, some employing the exact same Tivo technology and branding) service, so when you see a DVR offering consider it the same basic functionality as Tivo but with a different user interface.

Now I don't have to tell you why I record TV shows. Yes, I prefer to watch things live, too. But with two young kids to look after, I only have time to watch TV after everyone is asleep or before someone wakes up. And since prime time TV doesn't happen at 5 A.M. (or 11 P.M.), I rely on my DVR for almost 100% of my TV viewing.

Now on to the subject of this post. So, what is complex about recording a TV show from your DVR? Nothing. You press the "Guide" button to get your EPG up and running, and once you select a program, you have the option to record the show or even record the entire series (with additional options to record first run & repeats, channels, air times, etc.). If it is a live sporting event (Go Lakers!) you are given the option of choosing how long you want to extend the time so that you don't miss any action (TNT broadcasts always go over the allotted time, for instance...too much meaningless halftime talk imho). And if you can't immediately find the program you want to record in the EPG, Cox has an excellent search program where you input letters using the cursor key and can search for a show using either keywords or titles. On top of all that you can search for programs based on their genre. I have never had a problem either finding a program to record or actually recording it. Hope it sounds as simple to you as it is in real life to me.

What makes the Cox DVR service work is the performance of the navigation. It is fast. Even when you search for a program name, as you enter each letter, it starts showing you potential matches in real time. I have tried navigating my father's DirecTV guide and I have always been frustrated in the performance as well as the ease of use. Without easy and quick navigation these new services will not take off. Cox is a perfect example of an operator that understands this and implemented it excellently. They probably learned a lot of why Tivo has been such a popular service and now is part of our vocabulary.

So how do you manage your recordings once you have them on your Set-Top Box? This is also very easy. You press the "DVR List" button and then you can immediately see the list of your recorded shows in chronological order. Furthermore by pressing the "B" button you can see your scheduled recordings, and the "C" button allows you to manage all of the TV series that you are recording. Let's take a look at each one of these menus.

By pressing on a recorded show, you not only have the option of playback but also of erasing it if you are no longer interested in it (see below on why this is very important to save disk space). If you started watching a recorded show and paused it, you can watch it from where you paused or from the start...very cool! The scheduled recordings menu also let's you cancel something that you might not be interested in or change the recording options. The series manager not only allows you to change the options of all of the series that you are recording, but it also let's you see at a glance all of the series that you are recording so that you can manage them all in one place.

That's it! That's all you need in a DVR service! As you can see, by having a special "Guide" as well as a "DVR List" key on the remote control and having all options available to you on sub-menus easily accessible with an "A", "B", or "C" key, Cox has made it very easy to record and manage your recordings. It is a perfect combination of dedicated remote control keys, easy to navigate menus, full functionality, and very quick navigation and user performance. And did I also mention that on either the Guide screen or the DVR List screen it will shrink what you are currently watching into the top right-hand corner of the TV screen and then change back to full screen when you are done in less than a second? This is really the ultimate in performance and I have never felt that I had to "wait" for the screen to change. A true consumer electronic device!

If the Cox DVR service is starting to smell like roses, is there anything I do not like about the service you ask? No one likes to pay for a service, and this is an extra $11.95 a month. But I do fell like I am getting my money's worth so I don't mind doing this. What I do mind is that when you record in HD, and you record a lot of sporting events which last three hours at a time, you can run out of hard disk space really fast. You don't know how many times we've had marital arguments over shows that have been erased because there wasn't enough disk space to record new episodes of a series we had already programmed in. To give credit to Cox, they do add functionality to set priorities of which recorded programs get deleted first or showing you in real time how many days before something gets deleted (if you go to the "DVR List" screen), but this in itself does not fix the problem. Some thoughts on potential solutions:

* E-Mail me 24 hours before deleting a program and allow me to confirm or even change the DVR settings over my cell phone. I also subscribe to Cox phone service, and most cell phones have Internet browsers, so why not go above and beyond and create a custom service like this to retain customer loyalty? Technically it is possible, and a lot of Japanese DVR services already have this program-by-phone functionality available yesterday.

* Install a bigger hard disk. Yes, this will be more expensive, but will it? Memory is getting cheaper and cheaper (Office Depot was selling 2GB SD cards for $8 next to the register yesterday), and the STB should be able to inform the Cox billing system when I have been utilizing all of my STB hard disk space. Cox should then be selectively offering to swap STBs with greater hard disks to, again, make their customers happy and retain their loyalty. And with High Definition, wow, it doesn't take many hours to fill up a 40GB or 60GB hard disk.

* Compress the recorded shows. I don't know if the shows are being recorded in MPEG2 or not, but with MPEG4, DivX, etc., there has to be a way of further compressing the TV programs without sacrificing quality to allow consumers tens of hours of HD programming on a STB hard disk.

* Why not put the burden of the hard disk on the customer? Allow the customer to swap hard disks with their own hard disks through a USB 2.0 or even wireless connection. There will never be enough space on a STB hard disk for heavy recorders, especially because service providers pressure STB vendors on every component in their bill of materials. Build a box without a hard disk and allow users to swap in their own. I am sure that there is DRM technology to protect the hard disk programming from being illegally quality and there must be a scheme to record a program in a special format that can only be played back when attached to the STB. There is actually a Japanese company who offered this type of swappable hard disk STB from a few years as a 3rd party DVR STB.

* Building on top of my last argument, what happened to Network DVR service, or saving all of the programs not on a hard disk inside a STB but out on a server over the network? Google Mail gives me about 7GB of space for free, and think of all of the users out there they provide this to. Couldn't Cox offer 100GB of network DVR for potentially a cheaper price than a physical hard disk? I don't even mind having to watch advertisements to help pay for this! Hey, this is an entirely new business model that operators can make additional advertising revenues on! I need to send this blog to the CMO of Cox ASAP!

As I conclude this post, I would like to point out that I am not a Cox employee nor have any relationship with them. But I really do like their service and hope that others with young kids and avid sports fans enjoy the same bliss I have of sleep-deprivated nights watching your favorite TV show or sporting event. Enjoy your DVR service while you can...i.e. while you have enough hard disk space!

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Comment by Neal Schaffer on February 6, 2009 at 8:43am
After that fantastic Lakers victory over the Celtics last night, I need to correct my comment about extending the normal 2 1/2 hour basketball programs 30 minutes...I missed the entire overtime on TNT, so extend it 60 minutes if you want to make sure to catch all of the action. Which leads me to think shouldn't there already be a technology that could allow the PVR recording to automatically extend the recording if the program time goes over the alloted time as shown on the EPG?
Comment by Neal Schaffer on February 4, 2009 at 10:57am
I think being able to save PVR programming online is the next killer service out there...and why not allow us to watch these shows on our PC like Netflix does? You also raised a good point about the remote control...I use a universal remote control and have an easy to access "EPG" and "PVR" buttons that I have programmed. Believe me, when you have one remote control which controls all of the devices, it doesn't get lost!!!
Comment by Ellen Bonner on February 4, 2009 at 10:45am
I also use Comcast DVR. We bought two boxes, even though we have three tvs, and find we sometimes miss it on the other tv. With six people in the house, there can be competition as to who gets to dvr what. My husband loves the motorcycle races, I have two shows I like to record and save for a sleepless night, and the kids like to save programs during the week so they can watch them during the weekend (the only time we let them watch tv). I am veyr happy with it, except the Comcast DVR is only as good as the remote control for it. if you lose the remote or the batteries die, you are out of luck. Being able to save what you want online would be a plus.
Comment by Neal Schaffer on February 3, 2009 at 8:32pm
I welcome a bake off of all of the major DVR services to see what we all could potentially be missing. Time Warner anyone? DirecTV?
Comment by Brian Mahony on February 3, 2009 at 8:20pm
Cool post Neal. I will try to do a comparison to the Comcast DVR service that I use. Actually, my wife uses it more than I do, so perhaps I should have her do it? (a good test of its ease-of-use I think)

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