Posted by pete on August 27th, 2006
Back toward the beginning of July, Lis and I got completely fed up with DirecTV. I had been thinking of switching to our local cable company (Cox) for a while as they offered a lot of HD content and just had to be more reliable than DirecTV. We had been tired of seeing our coverage slowly disappear in spring and summer as the tree in our front yard got taller. It would also quickly disappear any time a storm came along. Combine that with their crappy service and treating the DirecTiVo as a second class citizen in favor of their terrible DVR and we were ripe for the leaving.
We moved from DirecTV with the DirecTiVo to Cox Digital with the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD DVR. It was an immediate shock just how primitive the SA DVR was compared to the DirecTiVo, but I also figured that part of our negative reaction might just be because the SA is different; after a little while, we’d adjust and it wouldn’t feel so bad. Wrong. Now, almost two months out, it’s still bad and we’re longing for a TiVo.
I find it hard to fathom that others making DVRs can’t even come close to the wonderfulness of the TiVo. Do they actually test their devices with humans before foisting their inferior product on the market? The SA 8300HD’s search functionality if pathetic. You can search only by show title and show topic. You cannot search the show description and you can’t search all the schedule, only by day. There’s no concept of wishlists. The search guide and search display is only five lines, so you have to page again and again to see much of anything. You can only search by first letter, not by a string of letters.
The interface is slow and non-intuitive. If you hit the rewind or fast forward button, there’s a delay while it processes your command with no feedback that you actually pressed the button (such as the TiVo’s “boing!”). The SA 8300HD has three rewind and forward speeds, just like the TiVo, but the SA’s speeds seem to be “slightly faster than normal play,” “slightly faster than that,” and “warp speed.” There’s no sensible speed. When you go from forward or rewind by pressing play, it doesn’t jump back a little bit like the TiVo does; it’s just like a digital equivalent of a VCR. This is actually a pretty good description of the whole SA 8300HD DVR experience in general. It’s like they went out and made a digital VCR without trying to improve anything.
Speaking of forward and rewind, the SA remembers the speed it was last rewinding or fast forwarding at. The problem is, it doesn’t return to that speed the next time you hit the forward or rewind button, it returns to the next speed up or “play” if you were at the fastest speed. Why? This makes absolutely no sense. Returning to the last speed? That makes sense. One faster? No sense.
If you’re looking through your tiny five-line display of all the shows you have recorded and you find something you want to watch, don’t press the play button to — you know — play the show. You press the select button, make sure the “play this episode” option is highlighted, then press select again.
Watching HD is nice, but I think our TV has issues with switching modes and the HD channels seem to switch modes quite a bit, especially shows like Sports Center on ESPNHD. I’m not sure if it’s switching from 1080i to 1080i or that it switches from 1080i to something else (480i?), then right back to 1080i too quickly for our six-year-old TV to handle. Regardless, even mode shift seems to cause the TV to momentarily blank out, then come back with the video input channel and mode displayed prominently on the screen. I think I’d like to find a way to force the DVR to stay in 1080i all the time and ignore the mode changes (although the picture might suddenly get smaller), but I haven’t figured out how to try that.
On the good side, my SA 8300HD seems fairly stable. I’ve heard tales of non-TiVo DVRs being very unstable, but that doesn’t seem to be the case of the 8300HD at least. It also has a nice eSATA port in the back so that I can easily add more capacity of my DVR without opening it up (and voiding the warranty). Since it’s not mine, I’m kind of hesitant to mod it anyway.
The capacity of the 8300HD is a bit of a concern for me, especially when HD content is involved. Right now, during the summer rerun season, we’re hovering around 50% capacity. A lot of this is Gracie shows (which are SD format) that we continuously record. There are a few HD shows that Lis records and watches, but they usually don’t hang around long. As the new shows start coming airing this autumn (and most are available in HD), I think our DVR will start filling up quickly. I’m considering at least a 300GB eSATA drive that should roughly triple our recording capacity, but the longer I wait, 400+GB size drives are looking interesting too.
The one thing that our Cox DVR experience has taught us, though, is just how nice the TiVo experience is. All the little things that the TiVo gets right and the SA 8300HD doesn’t are really important to us: much more so than we expected. This has gotten us eagerly watching for the release of the TiVo Series Three box. It looks like we can stay with Cox Digital and their HD (via cablecards) and still have the wonderful TiVo experience.
Another intriguing development might just side-track our need for the new TiVo. Cox and TiVo have reached and agreement to put the TiVo interface on the Cox DVRs. Eventually — reportedly, the first half of 2007 — Cox will push out an update to the DVR that’ll include the TiVo interface. This would be very cool. We don’t have a problem with the SA hardware, just the interface. If the interface would be made by TiVo, I think most, if not all, of the problems we currently have with the SA 8300HD will be covered. I’m a bit bummed by the “first half of 2007″ (translate: “Middle of 2007″) release date and not sure if the 8300HD will be included in this interface upgrade, but it could save us the (probably high) cost of the TiVo 3 and alleviate my concerns about using the cablecards.