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Don't Kill It After All

LAST NIGHT, I WATCHED SIX HOURS OF television (all news!) without sitting through a single commercial. I jumped back and forth in time: skipping stories that didn't interest me, moving back to record stories that did.

This quantum shift in the way we watch television is made possible by a $500 device called TiVo (pronounced tee-voe). Designed by a Sunnyvale, California, company and manufactured by multinational Philips, TiVo records video on a computer hard disk instead of tape. Thanks to the Linux operating system, the platform TiVo runs on, and a development called "QuickView" from hard disk maker Quantum, the hard disk in TiVo can read and write simultaneously. The result: TiVo will let you back up and begin watching a program at any point, while it's being recorded. You never have to wait till a show is over, and rewind the tape. TiVo can also be used for conventional VCR "time shifting," recording programs while you're not home, but with a twist: Instead of looking up schedules or VCR Plus numbers, TiVo's built-in two-week program guide lets you "point and click" shows you'd like to record.

It all sounded like a neat idea when Popular Science announced "personal television" as early as 1993, but how well would it really work? I've been using TiVo the last two weeks, and I'm completely blown away by the picture quality, ease and power of use, and, mainly, by the realization that I've needed this device all my life.

In 15 years of video testing, I've never been satisfied with the video quality of any consumer recording device until now. TiVo's digital video (and stereo audio) recording outperforms any analog VCR that's ever been offered to consumers. My tests showed that TiVo offers full broadcast-quality resolution, with absolutely none of the color bleeding and banding, wiggling, smeariness and video noise that mar even the best Super VHS recorder's quality.

TiVo uses MPEG2 compression to record video, and offers four recording qualities, or "speeds": On the $500 box, the highest quality allows four hours of recording (10 hours on a $1,000 model); the lowest quality offers 14 hours (30 hours on the $1,000 model). In the lowest quality, the picture is somewhat less sharp, and MPEG artifacts, or digititus, were often noticeable on fast motion. At the highest quality, the picture is virtually flawless.

HERE'S HOW IT WORKS: TIVO IS A PLAIN black set-top box, the size of an average VCR, with no controls on the front. The back has in-and-out jacks for antenna, video, S-video, stereo audio, telephone and cable-box control. You connect TiVo to your antenna, cable system, cable box or small-dish satellite, and to your TV and VCR. TiVo also needs a telephone connection to download program listings (an optional feature, which adds $10 a month to your bill, or $200 for a lifetime subscription). TiVo's one-handed, peanut-shaped remote has been designed with all curved surfaces and buttons of many different shapes and sizes, making it very easy to operate.

With TiVo I can pause, forward and reverse scan at 3X, 18X or 60X (much faster than a VCR fast-forward scan), access slow motion, frame-by-frame, instant replay and skip-to-live. These features are always available whether I'm watching a show live or pre-recorded. TiVo is always on and always recording, so whenever something on TV catches my eye, I can wind back up to a half-hour to check it out.

As a news junkie, my typical night starts with the MSNBC news at 6 o'clock, followed by hours of MSNBC commentary. That used to mean rushing home by 6 p.m., and basically having to stay home for the next few hours. Thanks to TiVo, I just leave my satellite dish pointed at MSNBC, and I have until 6:30 p.m. to start watching. If I'm home in time, I might watch the top story live at 6 p.m., but I'm still free to go out for my evening jog. When I get back, I rewind through the half-hour in about 30 seconds, and start watching where I left off, skipping commercials, sports and anything else that doesn't interest me. If the phone rings, I hit pause (or just let TiVo run), and when the call's over, I can keep watching exactly where I left off.

TiVo won't be available in retail stores until July or August; right now, it's sold by mail order at www.tivo.com. You can also learn more about TiVo, and a competing device called ReplayTV, at www.tele-portal.com and ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/elund/ptv.htm.