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Why TiVo Still has Legs

Several months ago I built a brand new computer from scratch and decided to go with the ATI Radeon 8500 All-in-Wonder AGP graphics card, a nice product that includes a TiVo-like PVR for TV capture. In addition to the TV capture capabilities, the card also supports media encoding for burning DVDs and has a dumbed-down TV Guide+ interface for scheduling recordings. Does my 180GB hard drive + TV Tuner Card (total cost of $330 after rebate) spell the end of stand-alone PVRs like TiVo?

A friend of mine recently asked me if I would recommend that he buy a TiVo given that he could cobble one together using PC components. Despite the availability of the Radeon and a similar offering from Nvidia, I don’t think that this solution is appropriate for your average consumer.

Don’t get me wrong — the benefits for the PC-based PVR are great. You get virtually unlimited storage that scales at roughly $1 per GB. You have integrated DVD writing capabilities. You don’t pay a subscription service.

There are three reasons why I don’t think that most consumers are ready to take this plunge:

Until PVR tuner cards are standard, installing them is beyond the reach of most consumers – For the time being, upgrading a hard drive and graphics card is beyond the comfort zone of many PC consumers. Sure, there are certainly technophiles who feel comfortable opening a case to updgrade components (or have a local person at Best Buy or Circuit City do it for them), but most people prefer not to open their PC cases unless it’s absolutely necessary. If a recent press release by Sony is any indication, this could happen sooner than expected.

Who wants a PC in the living room? – Until the nirvana of home networking arrives, users who want to enjoy the advantages of using a PC-based PVR can only be realized if one is willing to place a PC fairly close to the television or other home entertainment components. One of the nice things about a TiVo is that it looks like a standard consumer electronics component and fits nicely in a rack.

Cost/Benefit – Perhaps people will think more about moving to an open PC-based PVR or similar platform once we reach the nirvana of the home entertainment “God box” that will handle all forms of digital multimedia with integrated wireless networking. Until then, I am not sure that the benefits of expandable storage capacity and integrated DVD burning outweigh the cost associated with buying a new or used bare bones PC, especially if it runs some flavor of the Microsoft Windows operating system.

So, what’s this all about? Well, not too long ago many of the debates in consumer electronics were about what computers could and could not do. As the PC continues to mature and grow, the debate is becoming more about what computers should do than what they can do.

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