Digital video recorders like TiVo long ago freed us from the tyranny of network schedules. The newest DVRs provide liberation from the need to coordinate our viewing with the rest of the household.
Now we can all sit in different rooms watching different shows! (Is that good for familial relations? I suppose that depends on your family.)
A machine from Scientific-Atlanta, in Time Warner Cable trials in my area, lets you record two channels simultaneously and watch the recordings on any TV in the house.
Like TiVo, Scientific-Atlanta's Explorer 8300 Multi-Room DVR allows you to go to a program guide and click on the shows you want it to record automatically.
Want all first-run episodes of "The O.C." but not the repeats? No problem. The standard features familiar to TiVo users are there: You can fast-forward past commercials, pause live television for bathroom, snack and phone call breaks, rewind for an instant replay.
But with Scientific-Atlanta's machine, any program you record on the main unit can be played back on any TV in the house that's hooked up to cable. Up to three additional sets are supported
I'm a fan of both "Alias" and "The West Wing," which air at the same time, and my DVR is set to record both simultaneously.
While those shows are recording, I can use the kitchen TV to play back the local evening news that I recorded earlier. And while I'm fixing dinner, my wife can use the bedroom TV to play back the day's episode of "General Hospital." Then I can watch "Alias" and "The West Wing" at my leisure.
The multi-room DVR is a two-tuner DVR and cable box in one with an internal hard drive that holds about 50 hours of programming. It uses a home's existing cable system to communicate with smaller set-top boxes attached to the other TVs in the house. From the other TVs, I can either watch live TV or play back a recorded program.
The system doesn't allow you to directly pause live TV at any of the "satellite" TVs, but the technician who installed my device pointed out a workaround (as did S-A's Web page).
Start recording the program you want on the main unit, then play it back immediately on the bedroom TV. You can then pause and rewind as you like, or fast-forward up to the moment that's currently being recorded. Another limitation is that you must schedule all recordings from your main TV.
Among other advantages the multi-room DVR has over TiVo and some satellite services is that you don't have to buy the equipment. You just pay the monthly rental and cable fees and your cable company does the installation.
Time Warner Cable charges $12.95 per month for the DVR plus $7.95 per month for each additional set-top box, on top of its monthly cable service charges. Installation is free and there are discounts for digital cable subscribers.
Other cable and satellite TV companies are also beginning to offer multi-room DVRs, and high-definition versions are already among the offerings, though Scientific-Atlanta does not yet offer one.
By comparison, a TiVo box starts at $99, after rebates, then costs $12.95 monthly or $4.99 a month when bought through DirecTV (DirecTV plans to introduce a multi-room system later this year that won't use TiVo's technology; Meanwhile, Comcast announced this week that it would begin offering DVRs next year with technology licensed from TiVo).
Another company, Digeo, recently rolled out a two-room version of its innovative Moxi Media Center DVR for Charter cable subscribers in Bend, Ore., and Lawrence, Kan. The system lets you record two shows at once, plus it records HDTV, allows sharing of digital music and photographs and has a built-in DVD/CD player. Rental costs $24 a month in Bend and $40 in Lawrence, not including installation.
The picture quality on the Scientific-Atlanta unit I tested was quite good. Glitches occasionally showed on my recordings as partially pixelated images but typically disappeared in a moment and were no more than minor annoyances.
The controls and channel guide are intuitive and easy to navigate. Transferring programs to a VCR is simple enough, and an optional external hard drive will be available for those who want more storage.
TiVo, which has a devoted following, still has some advantages. It has better search capabilities for finding programs, you can schedule recordings over the Internet and you can transfer programs to your computer to take on the road.
But TiVo's multi-room capability is limited _ your home needs a computer network, you need to own two boxes and you must transfer a show from one machine to another via the network first.
My experience with the Explorer 8300 was my first exposure to the joys of digital video recording, and with my irregular work schedule I soon decided I didn't want to live without it.
As soon as the trial period was over, I was on the phone with Time Warner Cable, adding the box to my monthly bill.
And that leaves my two VCRs and piles of tapes to gather dust.