Sysinternals Freeware - Mark Russinovich & Bryce Cogswell

Mark's Sysinternals Blog

Cable DVRs and Competition

I’ve been a DVR user since around the year 2000 when I purchased a ReplayTV (then sold by SonicBlue). A couple of years later its disk was too small for the programs all I was recording and it lacked some of the features available newer DVRs, like broadband, so I compared the TiVo and ReplayTV's current versio(which was being sold by Panasonic after it acquired SonicBlue). I decided to go with ReplayTV again, because it matched most of TiVo’s features, but primarily because I was familiar with it and its ability to skip forward 7 or 30 seconds makes it extremely easy to avoid commercials.

Unfortunately, the unit I purchased wouldn’t contact the ReplayTV service. In a manner that reminded all too much of many experiences with Windows software it reported an error that was something like “Error: 80004030. Contact Technical Support” (which was strange because that looks like a Windows COM error message, but ReplayTV ran on Linux). After an hour on the phone with a less-than-helpful customer service representative, who was probably talking to me from India, I gave up and returned the unit.

Just before I had purchased the ReplayTV I’d received a mailer from my cable company, Time Warner, announcing that they were offering a DVR service for a mere $20 per month (in addition to the digital cable fee). I decided to sign up because I figured that since I didn’t own the DVR, I could avoid the expense of upgrading every couple of years like I would end up doing if I went with a TiVo. Plus, the DVR doubles as the cable set top box, has two receivers allowing you to tape two shows at the same time, and I believed it would have an authoritative schedule downloaded directly from the cable company.

Two years later I can report that the DVR’s number of deficiencies borders on the absurd. Here are some highlights:
  • The schedule search requires you to know the day of the show you’re interested in
  • The schedule the DVR downloads often does not reflect the schedule that’s broadcast
  • The DVR sometimes just “forgets” a recording schedule you’ve configured for a particular show
  • If you’re watching in delay a show as its being recorded the DVR resets you to the start of the show when the show ends
  • The DVR doesn’t consistently remember where you were watching when you pause a recorded show you and later resume
  • There are only three forwarding speeds and no way to skip forward, making it painfully slow to get to a particular point in a show
  • When you’re watching a show the DVR announces, for no good reason, when it’s about to start recording a show on another station
  • There’s no audible feedback on menu navigation or selection and the lag when navigating the menu can result in you entering input that, when processed, causes you to miss what you’re after
I could go on. I discovered most of these problems within a few days of usage, but gave Time Warner the benefit of the doubt, expecting rough edges on new software and looking forward to automatic updates. The updates have never come and I long ago became convinced that they never will.

Time Warner is delivering consumers the bare minimum solution, which is probably the cheapest one they could find. They’re able to get away with it because most cable subscribers have never used another DVR and are therefore ignorant of what DVR software should provide them.

This is a great example of what happens to consumers when there’s a lack of real competition in a marketplace. Go TiVo!

posted by Mark Russinovich @ 11:42 PM

I would like to say your problem stems from expecting actual functionality from a set-top box.

A year or so ago I looked at all of the stand alone units and found great discomfort in the software and hardware being tied together. I knew it would be easy for them to screw one or the other up.

Thusly, I decided to go with a PC based solution. A Huappage(sp PVR-250 and gb-pvr software have made it a real pleasure for me to record.
I take it you're using a Scientific Atlanta. I've had two different models of that over two years, and the bugs sound familiar.

What amazes me is that these dorks haven't fixed these problems in these two years! From one PVR, they added the astounding ability to only record a "season pass" for a particular show at a particular time slot rather than all the time, if you want. That's it!

Terrible programming, terrible UI design ... but it basically barely works, so I keep paying the monthly fee.
Have you considered a Windows MCE unit? It gives you the flexibility to add disk space as needed, no monthly fees and includes all of that other music stuff.

I used to use a ReplayTV until it broke, which was replaced with a TIVO and I recently built an MCE with my brother - unfortunately it's at his apartment.

It is a shame about ReplayTV, as that was a very good product.
The DVR unit you have sounds very similar to the one I'm use with COX Cable in Phoenix.

I share most of the same frustrations as you do, ranking at the top only 3 fast forward speeds and fact that when you are watching a show in "delayed" mode, when the live show ends, the unit inexplicably suddenly switches to live mode; then I have to start playing the recorded show again and either rewind from the end or fast-forward from the beginning (depending on how far behind I was). Very frustrating to say the least.

I called COX cable complaining about these seemingly "BUGS" and their response was something along the lines "Well, the record unit doesn't know what the playback unit is doing, so when the recording ends on a live show, it causes the unit to switch to live. This is as designed." Yup. (And I have some swamp land to sell you too).

My only reason for keeping the box is that is provides the set-top HD converter for only $20 a month. Buying an HD DVR from DirectTV or TIVO ran around $999 at the time (it's probably cheaper now).

I have not found any further way to report these deficiencies to Scientific America, or to higher ups at COX. They seem to just not care about their customers. No competition. No need to care.
I have owned 2 TiVo's before my current ReplayTV. Each of the 2 TiVo's have died within 2 years. My last one only 18 months after purchase.

I'm guessing the cause of the problem is the HD. TiVo uses the HD 24x7. Recording the current channel to fill the 30 minute buffer. This 24x7 use of the HD can't be good for it over the long run.

ReplayTV only records when it's not in Stand-By mode and not recording a scheduled show. Now, I have only had the ReplayTV for a couple of months so far, so I can't say for sure that the 24x7 use of the HD is the culprit of my TiVo's demise, but I'm willing to put a decent bet on it.

Overall, I prefer the TiVo UI over ReplayTV's, but I also prefer a unit that will last longer than 18 months.

Also, I have given up on the idea of purchasing the "lifetime" subscriptions. After doing that for both of the dead TiVo's, I am on the monthly plan for ReplayTV.

I just thought I would share my experiences here.
Thank you!
My SA 8000 does the very same things. Now it's even less likely to get fixed than before. A few months ago, Adelphia tried to update the software and killed every DVR in their whole system - countrywide.

Let's also add a few more...
The "last channel" functions differently between the 8000 and the 3200.
Box locks up and requires a power removal to recover.
Box locks up and just reboots.
Programming guide not available 5% of the time.
Changing to/from HD and STD signal channels takes a few seconds of blank screen. Change back during this pause often confuses the box into outputting video in the wrong mode.
Some settings survive a power failure, others don't.
User cannot program the A, B or C buttons.
It cannot count. Tell it to keep n episodes and it keeps a lot more.
Navigation buttons inconsistent. Up arrows (and other curser keys) navigate in different directions depending on what menu is up.
Records same episode (repeats) multiple times, even if still in memory.
User cannot adjust the display to zoom in or out. With a 62" screen, there is a lot os space available for more info using a smaller font.
Program guide does not fill full HD screen width.
The SA 8300HD operates pretty well. As soon as TIVO gets their dual CableCard HD system ready there should be some real competition. I only switched away from TIVO because their standalone units don't support HD.
My thoughts...
I have the 522 from DishNetwork and do not experience the problems you have. See below for my responses:

1. The schedule search requires you to know the day of the show you’re interested in

- The "Dish Pass" will automatically search any channel, any day and find the title match.

2. The schedule the DVR downloads often does not reflect the schedule that’s broadcast

- Never had this happen.

3. The DVR sometimes just "forgets" a recording schedule you’ve configured for a particular show

- Only time a show was skipped because it did not meet the criteria I set or it was a "duplicate"

4. If you’re watching in delay a show as its being recorded the DVR resets you to the start of the show when the show ends

- Does not happen. I never watch a show "live" now, I always wait at least 10 minutes and start watching. The recording quitely ends in the background with no issues.

5. The DVR doesn’t consistently remember where you were watching when you pause a recorded show you and later resume

- I have been able to start and resume muliple shows without losing the location I left

6. There are only three forwarding speeds and no way to skip forward, making it painfully slow to get to a particular point in a show

- My DVR has a "skip" which is like 30 or 60 seconds plus multiple "forward speeds" such as 2x, 4x, 16x 32x, etc, etc.

7. When you’re watching a show the DVR announces, for no good reason, when it’s about to start recording a show on another station

- I only get this warning if the show is set to record on the tuner I am watching AND I am watching live TV. If I am watching a recording or the show is recorded on the other tuner, I get no warning.

8. There’s no audible feedback on menu navigation or selection and the lag when navigating the menu can result in you entering input that, when processed, causes you to miss what you’re after

- I have no audible feedback. Only prolem with "lag" is when using the RF tuner in the other room. The primary UV tuner works great.
Hey this really looks like my Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000, up here in Canada we get the exact same bugs and features. The SA8000 is very slow (like all digital TV decoders anyway), but that's not the feature people buy it for. What did i do to get around the limited space ? Buy a standalone DVD recorder and hook it between your SA8000 and your TV... ...with Pay TV on top of that, i get to watch any movie i want for the price of a blank media... Plus the SA8000 and a standalone DVD recorder will cost much less than any PC, be a lot more solid (no skipped frame like you get on cheesy windows machines)...
Have you looked at MythTV? It has addressed a lot of the items you mentioned as problems. I really like mine. For the needs I have, it is able to run on pretty low-end hardware too.

Counterpoint is that it can be quite a pain to setup; but for my opinion the work is quite worth it...
My Time Warner DVR crashes. It also gets into a state where some of the remote buttons no longer work and a reboot is required. Does this remind you of anything?
If you are recording two programs at once and try to view a third, turning off one of the recordings is anything but obvious. Rebooting takes a good 3 or 4 minutes. What could possibly be going on for that amount of time?
I've been using Tivo for three years and I've liked it so much I bought one for my father and talked a friend into buying one for himself. The UI is incredibly intuitive and well thought out.

If you haven't tried it I highly recommend it. It's been my experience that it actually lives up to the hype.

Interesting your experience with yor cable DVR. Here in the UK we have two cable firms, and one satellite firm. Satellite is vastly more popular, sold under the name "sky".

The digital cable boxes (not DVR) have the problems you highlight, especially with schedules and also seem like a 386 being used where a P4 is required.... incredibly slow.

However Sky sell a DVR called "sky+" which I've now had for just over two years. It is fantastic. The TV guide is reliable, the box quick, and you can record two shows at once.

I believe DirecTV is now owned by the same group, perhaps they will launch this product on your side of the Atlantic?

James, Hampshire, UK
I have a similar tale of the absurd. In my case its for a DiskNetwork PVR. Works pretty well but I was recording a very important show (World Series) that ran long. It was smart enough to record the entire game... but not smart enough to turn off the freakin' screensaver. The last 40 minutes are all screensaver. Can you believe it?
They should be paying you $$$$ for Q/A services!
I've used a Pioneer 510H DVR for a couple of years now and I find the UI to be quite ingenious. Its a stand alone box and I've used it with Directv, cable and now with expressvu satellite in canada. the interface is intuitive and freindly with some real forethought to human engineering. And the 30 sec skip button will without doubt be the first button on the remote to wear out.
As a further comment on the Pioneer 510H DVR, it has a built in DVD burner and will permit you to record ppv content to the hard drive and then copy it to dvd, or record it directly to the dvd if you prefer. This can save on ppv "buys", just buy it once and make a dvd copy so anyone in the house hold can watch the movie. And if you use a DVD-RW, just use it again for the next movie.
While Googling for info on this topic, I came across this site and was impressed with the specific expertise. I'm hoping you will tolerate a newbie on this topic with what is probably a trivial question (at least for you):

I have a SA Explorer 8000 DVR with Cox canle in Phoenix. Like most people (I suppose) I now have a half dozen or so programs which I wish to permanently archive (and also be able to clear from the drive). I've already done the Save to Tape, but what I'd really like is a DVD copy.

So here's the thing: I have a Dell Latitude D800 laptop with a DVD burner and also a docking station with S-Video and S/P DIF inputs. Can any one post some simple step-by-steps (incl required software) that I could use to burn a DVD from the laptop by directly plugging into the DVR? Is this even a viable option?

Thanks in advance for your help.
MFFIP, Inc. announces the sale of a US Utility Patent Application designated DVR001. The disclosure includes innovations in the DVR field. Bids are being accepted on eBay, item number 5981167951.
I own Panasonic DVR-85H. After working for 6+ months, the device stopped and notified me that it has downloaded an update for my TV-guide and asked(forced) me to unplug it and plug it back after 10 seconds so it can complete its update.
This scared the hell out of me since my DVR is not connected to anything but power and COX cable. I know that COX periodically updates their cable box software but my DVR is not supported by COX.
What would be the next step? Upgrading my DVR not to record protected shows?
Just got the SA8000HD from Comcast. The tech was here 2 hours trying to figure out how to hook it up. I don't have HDTV so he had to call to find out how to switch it. Got the picture then the sound wouldn't work so he hooked up the sound with an RCA cable. Switching to the rca input produced sound but no video. Then he plugged an s-video cable in and they both worked but now my video games don't work and I have to have the stereo on everytime I watch TV. I called Comcast the next morning and was told the box wasn't initialized properly and had it working through the cable in 5 minutes. Several buttons on my remote don't work, so I have to take it to the payment center to trade it. So far the DVR compared to my VCR is working as expected. I have cancelled my Blockbuster membership and am now happier being able to record at the touch of a button. For $9.95 a month it beats TiVo any day for basic recording.
SA8000 hack - On the front panel, press the big + button ( middle button ) for a few second until a LED start to blink. (mail LED). Then press the INFO button. A this time your TV screen should show internal system information about your SA 8000. You may use PAGE + to skip to the next information page. On the first page you'll see an RF parameters section. If the dBmV numbers are white than the cable signal are perfect. If you see yellow number than it's still OK but you might see some video artefact from time to times. When you see RED number than your cable signal is BAD and all king of bug are showing off. Crash and reboot. No programming guide, etc...
Have fun with the rest.
I've been using the Microsoft DVR from Comcast in Seattle, and it has none of the problems you list. They've upgraded the firmware (without warning) twice in the last year, the firs time erasing all my schedules (grrr!). The second time, they added an overshoot feature for fast forward--when you hit play, it rewinds automatically several seconds. The oversheet rewind is proportional to the fast forward speed--very nice feature since they don't allow a 30 second skip forward.
Despite the fact that the SA8000 seems to be the most prevalent PVR deployed by cable companies, I have yet to see any decent hacks for it. Has anybody taken it apart yet? What OS does it run? Is there a readable filesystem on the hard disk? Has anybody figured out a way to activate the USB or Firewire ports on it?
I just got a 8300 DVR from Time Warner. Sad to see that it has most of the problems the 8000 appears to have . I have a 30 day money-back offer and will probably keep Dish and ditch TW, mostly due to the poor DVR. I really like the Dish Network DVR skip forward button (30 seconds) and the smooth skip back button (10 seconds). The TW SA8300 fast forwards really slowly compared to the Dish 510.

Too bad because I can save $400 if I take TW for a year and ditch Dish Network.
Hey, I have an Adelphia DVR (I think it's Scientific Atlanta) and sometimes, a show that is in the scheduled recordings just miraculously doesn't tape. Any thoughts? I noticed it happened on a night when the show was airing two separate episodes back to back, but both were scheduled. I wish Adelphia would go out of business, they are awful.
Format the drive:

1. Turn off the box so all you have is the time displaying in the LCD.

2. With the DVR remote, hold down the "pause" key for a few second until the green mail light starts flashing on the LCD, then let go.

3. Press the "page -" key once.

4. Press the "List" button three time.

5. At this point, the box may go through a series of HDD- and HDDF flashes on the LCD screen. This is normal. Just wait about five minutes for the time to boot back up.

Congrats. You've just cleared everything off the drive. Any potential corruption in data stored on that drive has been wiped clean (including pending scheduled recordings).
I really really hate this SA8300HD-DVR I got just two weeks ago. It has failed me 3 times already in that short span of time.

Last Wednesday, I set it up to record American Idol. When we came home before 9pm, I started playing it. To my surprise, it only recorded the first singer. We missed the 7 singers in between the time that was recorded to the time we came home and saw the show live.

Worst of all was last night. I recorded "24" on it and "Apprentice". Apprentice was recorded just fine but my when I started to watch "24" at 10pm, I saw that it only recorded the first 25 minutes of the 2-hour episode! I was shocked. This is my most favorite show and I would have thrown this DVR out my window had I not recorded the same episode on my Tivo, albeit in standard TV, not HDTV.

Anyone have the same problem as me? The DVR recording only a portion of the show?
My Time Warner DVR records as planned but now stops recording somewhere in the middle for exactly 2 minutes and then starts again. I want to exchange the box but I have so many shows recorded and spent so much time setting up the season passes that I can't take it back until the summer.
I am almost embarrassed to say this reading all the problems had with DVR's. I have a Direct TV DVR, the cheapest one available, for over a year, and it works superbly. I am an electronics engineer and can find nothing wrong with operation or functionality. I guess Direct is better than Dish or cable...mike
I have the SA8000 ExplorerHD and I can't record a dvd copy off the dvr. I just purchased a separate DVD recorder and it seems as though I can't get another signal off my HD-DVR (neither the RCA or S-vid) to register on my DVD recorder. The HDTV outputs from my SA8000 obviously go directly into my TV, however that doesn't help me considering I need to change video input on my tv to see my DVD recorder. PLEASE HELP!!!
I have an SA Explorer 8300, and have definitely noticed pretty much all of the above bugs in my ~2 years of using it. One bug that I saw recently was a nasty one. I had scheduled a recording for a show on HBO that wasn't going to be on for a week or so, but a few days later, my wife and I decided that it would be nicer to have a second DVR as opposed to the premium channels (HBO & Cinemax) that we rarely watched. So I called up Time Warner and cancelled my HBO and Cinemax subscriptions, and ordered a new DVR. I did not cancel the HBO scheduled recording (I forgot about it totally). Well, a couple of days later, when my HBO recording was scheduled to start, the DVR lost its' mind! Since HBO was no longer available, it had no idea how to handle it, so it would try to record the show (which it couldn't do), then lock-up, and finally re-boot itself. This continued on a ~6 minute cycle for the next hour (the duration of the scheduled recording). I tried to cancel the recording after it did reboot itself by cancelling the scheduled recording, but just looking at the recorded list immediately caused it to lock-up and reboot. After the "show" was over, I was able to delete all instances of it.

I have a Scientfic Atlanta Explorer 8300HD via Charter Cable. I've experienced all the same bugs described here: the auto-restart when watching a show currently being recorded, the random "forgetting" of scheduled recordings... There are more. After a DST/PST time change, it seemed to neglect all "time slot" recordings, I guess because it saves the start/stop time in GMT?!

In fact, I found this web page because of a new bug I just found! "Copy to VCR" seemed like a cool feature: I could archive shows to a VCR (actually to DVD via my Mac) while watching something else on TV. Well, the video part worked... but the audio track recorded by my Mac was from the show I was currently watching!!! Did they test that feature even ONCE?! (It always astonishes me when I find bugs within the first few days of using a product. Some companies have zero QA, I guess.)

So I started Googling around, trying to find a way to copy the files directly off the PVR's hard drive, and found this post by the esteemed Mark Russinovich. So not only are there bugs, but they've been around for years and they will be around for years to come. Depressing. Why didn't they just license TiVo?
I think it is a good guess that Scientific Altanta DVR's use an embedded MS Windows OS, so it is no wonder that it is full of strange bugs. I am also guessing that the reliable "low end" DVR mentioned above uses Linux.
I haven't had many of the problems listed, but I am experiencing a strange one worth mentioning - this is for a SA8300HD using Cox Cable in Gainesville, FL

Basically, my DVR will try to record TBS. The thing is, it really isn't recording TBS, but the interface seems to think so. Normally, you can rewind while its recording -- not the case here. When I try to cancel the recording, the warning screen reappears. But don't forget, I'm really not recording anything; nothing to delete afterwards. To make things worse -- it is totally random. I can't wait until my fiance comes home and finds out that only half of "House" recorded because my DVR thought it'd be cool to lock down one of the 12 episodes of "Friends" showing on TBS.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

RSS Feed



Full Blog Index

Recent Posts

Polling and MSN Desktop Search
MSN Desktop Search Bugs
Updated RootkitRevealer
More on MSN Desktop Search
MSN Desktop Search
More on Google Desktop
Google Desktop


03/01/2005 - 03/31/2005
04/01/2005 - 04/30/2005
05/01/2005 - 05/31/2005
06/01/2005 - 06/30/2005
07/01/2005 - 07/31/2005
08/01/2005 - 08/31/2005
09/01/2005 - 09/30/2005
10/01/2005 - 10/31/2005
11/01/2005 - 11/30/2005
12/01/2005 - 12/31/2005
01/01/2006 - 01/31/2006
02/01/2006 - 02/28/2006
03/01/2006 - 03/31/2006
04/01/2006 - 04/30/2006
05/01/2006 - 05/31/2006
07/01/2006 - 07/31/2006

Other Blogs

Raymond Chen
Dana Epp
Aaron Margosis
Wes Miller
Larry Osterman
Bruce Schneier
Larry Seltzer