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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The Sky+ is the limit

So, after a full month of waiting, I finally got Sky+ installed for my television. After 424 days of being without a DVR (but who’s counting?), I was back in the world of digital television time-shifting. Or was I?

I approached my new digibox with a healthy dose of apprehension. For months I had been reading relevant Usenet newsgroups about other people’s experiences with Sky+. The problem with reading such newsgroups is that, as voluntary forums, they tend to be dominated by people with an axe to grind, looking for a place to chronicle their hassles and problems and frustrations. After reading these messages for a while, it is easy to start believing that nobody has a positive experience with Sky+ (or anything else for that matter), that the digiboxes never work or they never work for very long. Intellectually, I knew that the messages were in no way statistically representative, but emotionally it was hard not to worry that maybe this product was flaky.

I took hold of the remote and held my breath. To my relief, it actually worked! Exactly as advertised. Hallelujah, free at last! I held my breath again at the end of the third week, since more than a few complainers said that their digibox stopped working around that time. The milestone passed without event. After five and a half weeks, it is still working, surviving even a major software upgrade downloaded from the satellite.

So, how does Sky+ compare to my late, lamented, beloved TiVo? Quite favorably, as it turns out. (Remember that my only TiVo experience was with one of the first models and not with any of the more recent ones that have since come out.) The main thing I missed out of the box was the great TiVo software that lets you set up “season passes” and “wish lists.” The TiVo’s programmability is what makes the machine a “nerd machine” that casual users find a bit complicated. But for devotees, it is a wonderfully powerful way to make sure you never miss anything you might be interested in watching. For example, a wish list can be set up to record every movie featuring a particular actor or to find a particular episode of a series in syndicated reruns. Sky+ can’t compete with that. It does have the “series link” which is a rough equivalent to the season pass, but it is available for relatively few series. Generally, you have to pick your programs to record one at a time, working no more than a week ahead. But this turns out not to bother me as much as I thought it would. The TiVo season pass feature was never foolproof and it sometimes lured me into a sense of false security that all my programs would be recorded. For example, a title change would fool it, as my mother found out with her TiVo, as it stopped recording one of her regular morning chat shows when the title kept changing (from Live with Regis and Kathie Lee to Live with Regis to Live with Regis and Kelly). As with an airplane, DVRs can work fine on auto-pilot, but there is no substitute for a human pilot. Otherwise, both machines have the other main weakness that all DVRs are prone to: unreliable schedules provided by the broadcasters. Ireland’s RTÉ is particularly bad in this regard. Just as well I don’t watch it any more than I have to.

In another way, Sky+ is clearly superior to TiVo. Since it has more than one tuner, it doesn’t suffer from a limitation that astounds TiVo sceptics. Since the TiVo (or mine anyway) had only one tuner, it was not possible to watch a live program on one channel while recording a program on a second channel. To people who want to think of TiVo as a glorified VCR, this is incomprehensible since the very reason for many people to have a VCR is to be able to watch two programs that are broadcast at the same time. You can actually get around this the same way you do with a VCR, that is by using the tuner in your television or even the one in your VCR, if you still have it. But this can be a little complicated to set up and use, depending on your setup. With Sky+ there is no problem. Record on one channel and watch on a second channel. It’s great. And since the software upgrade at the beginning of December, you can even record on two channels at once if you want. Now that’s viewing flexibility. As most anybody knows, who watches much television at all, Murphy’s Law dictates that, if there are only two programs on all week that you are interested in watching, they are liable both to be on at the same time.

There are still a couple of other nitpicky things I might change about Sky+. For one thing, I really miss that little button on the TiVo remote which backs up the current program just a few seconds. It’s very handy when fast-forwarding through commercials, since it is virtually impossible to stop in exactly the right place. Another annoyance is a byproduct of the fact that the Sky+ DVR is provided by the satellite channel content provider. Since TiVo is separate from the cable and satellite companies, their online TV listings include all channels in every package. Since Sky+ is controlled by BskyB, it only records programs that are part of my satellite package and not free-to-air satellite channels which can be picked up by my receiver but are not part of my Sky package. This means, for example, that Sky+ will not record (in the Republic of Ireland anyway) ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, which is broadcast by BBC News 24 at 1:30 in the morning. If I want to watch it without staying up all night, I have to set the channel manually and record the program on my VCR. How 20th century!

Sky+ probably represents the future in that it is logical that the DVR will be built into the receiver (just as it was inevitable that the internet browser would be built into Windows). But my Peter Jennings problem demonstrates the risks in this convergence. When the company that provides my content is also the gatekeeper on my digital recorder, I am at that company’s mercy to be able to record everything that I want. This situation is serious enough that I think some big news organization ought to investigate it. I doubt, however, that the news group to do it will be Sky News. But maybe Peter Jennings will look into it.

-S.L., 11 December 2003

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