Mac Musings

Why the VCR Is Doomed

Daniel Knight - 2004.05.28

The video cassette recorder was a brilliant invention. We can thank Sony for taking the concept from open-reel tapes and turning it into something as easy to use as an 8-track or cassette tape.

VHS, Beta, and a few other formats the quickly died in the market made it possible to record television broadcasts for future playback, something kids take for granted today. You could capture the M*A*S*H finale for later viewing, record a special while you were at a meeting, zip through ads, and be free of the network broadcasting schedule.

Well, mostly. Unless you had two VCRs, you couldn't record two programs broadcast at the same time. But VCRs worked, and they reached the point where every home with a TV has one or more - and where you can sometimes pick up a cheapo VCR (Emerson and Sylvania, for instance) for around $40.

I know from experience how cheap they are. After a few weeks, the Emerson VCR I picked up from Walmart began eating tapes. (The Sylvania is the same mechanism with a different brand name and slightly different styling.) I had it with the Emerson when it ate my Wrinkle In Time tape 45 minutes into recording it.

I brought it back, got a full credit, and move up to a $54 Sanyo VCR that offers hi-fi stereo sound, is much more solid, and includes one of the greatest inventions in VCR history - the 30-second ad skip button. You do get what you pay for, and the Sanyo was definitely worth the small premium compared with the Emerson.

Despite numerous advances since their debut, recording to videotape is as doomed as 8-track players, portable cassette players, and tape-based answering machines. We live in the digital age, baby.

Although TiVo and ReplayTV aren't huge yet, digital video recorders have some huge advantages over VCRs. Here are some of the VCR drawbacks that DVRs overcome:

No need to swap tapes. You don't have to pop out Ghostbusters so you can record Charmed. You don't have to worry about leaving the tape of last night's episode of CSI and accidentally recording over the half you didn't watch yet.

No running out of tape. If you like to record at the SP setting for best quality, you get two hours out of a T120 videotape. After you've recorded two hours that you haven't watched, you better swap tapes before your VCR either gives up a couple minutes into the next program or rewinds and records over an unviewed episode. And if you want to record the Country Music Awards or Super Bowl, you'll have to use a lower quality setting to avoid running out of tape.

No tapes for dinner. How is it that VCRs know which tapes are most important to you so they can snack on them? I think it's a direct application of Murphy's Law - as well as the crazy technology used to pull tape out of the cartridge and then loop it this way and that around a spinning head. The cheaper the VCR, the more likely it is to eat tapes.

Easier programming. VCRs have come a long ways from manual recording to offering on screen programming and scheduled recording of several programs weeks or months in advance. I have my VCR set to record one program daily, others weekly, and sometimes set up one-shot programs for special events, such as the CMA. Still, programming means I have to know which channel, when it starts and when it ends, be sure to have a recordable tape in the VCR, and then be sure the VCR is turned off.

Linear or random access. If you want to watch the second program on a videotape, you have to fast forward 30 minutes or an hour to get to it. And when you're done with a tape, you usually want to rewind it. That's the nature of a linear medium like tape.

How DVRs Are Better

With a digital video recorder, you "tape" your programs to a hard drive. There's no tape to swap, and with capacities of 40 hours and higher, you're not too likely to run out of recording space unless you're archiving your favorite series on your DVR. Hard drives are vastly more reliable than tapes - compare the number of crashed hard drives you've heard about to the number of VHS tapes you've lost to a hungry VCR.

Digital recordings don't degrade in quality, a real problem with analog tapes. The more you view or rerecord a tape, the more quality deteriorates. Digital is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Because DVRs are essentially computers dedicated to recording and playing back video, they have much more sophisticated recording options. TiVo subscribers can go beyond basic programming - which is nicely tied to an external database - and have the unit record episodes of favorite programs that you didn't know about. And TiVos can even guess what you might want to watch based on your viewing habits and record similar programs to extra space on your hard drive.

Best of all, when you want to watch a video, you don't have to zip through a tape to find the start or watch ads in fast forward. Hard drives are random access devices, DVRs are computers, and they can jump instantly to the program you want to view - and jump through three minutes of ads at the touch of a button.

On top of that, with a DVR you won't end up with dozens of videotapes. Everything you record can stay on your hard drive - and if you run out of room, it's possible to add a second hard drive or a larger drive to some DVRs.

Although DVRs aren't big yet, they are a growing presence on the market.

The Video iPod

The biggest drawback of DVRs is price. You can pick up a factory-renewed TiVo for US$99, but expect to pay $12.95 per month for as long as you own it. If you choose the lifetime subscription (which is tied to the life of the specific TiVo unit you own), that $99 DVR ends up costing you $398. The same applies to ReplayTV, which includes 10/100 ethernet so you can share recordings between multiple units on your network.

On the Windows side of things, you can add a $50 PCI card and turn your computer into a DVR. On the Mac side, expect to pay $200 and up for an external device unless you have a Power Mac G4, the only model that accepts a sub-$200 PCI card for recording video.

Compared to a $55 VCR and a dozen 99¢ T120 videotapes, all these options seem expensive. Then again, compared to a Walkman and a box of blank cassette tapes, the iPod seems ridiculously expensive. Yet the iPod is the hottest portable music player on the market.

Apple timed their entry into that market perfectly, polishing iTunes and the iTunes Music Store on the Mac before offering a Windows version and really expanding their base. Today Apple has both the most popular online music service and the most popular players.

I think Apple could repeat their success with a digital video recorder. The market has hit the point where most people know what a TiVo is, most of them think a DVR is a great idea, but the initial and long-term costs are holding them back.

If Apple could offer a basic $300 DVR with an 80 GB hard drive, ethernet, and free access to scheduling via the Internet, it would be the hottest thing on the market come Christmas. No fancy features - no recording to CD or DVD, no ability to record two programs at once, nothing beyond what's needed to record and replay programs.

And make them accessible to any Mac on your home network.

Imagine running your recordings through iMovie, stripping out the ads, and making your own Video CDs or DVDs of your favorite shows. If Apple sold a DVR and made it really, really easy for Mac users to do that, a lot of iDVR buyers might consider a Mac as their next computer.

And imagine using a .mac account to offer premium services to iDVR owners, like TiVo's season pass and the ability to download QuickTime trailers in the background. Now that Windows XP users can access .mac, an Apple DVR could help sell a lot of .mac packages.

VHS Isn't Dead Yet

I don't expect videotape to disappear overnight, but over the coming years DVRs will grow their share of the market until it reaches the point that everyone knows how much better a DVR is than a VCR - and then VHS will go the way of the cassette tape. Some people will still use it, but most of the world will move to DVDs, just as music fans are moving to iPods.

There's real potential here for Apple's new iPod division to capitalize on their success, their design brilliance, their name recognition, and make Apple a dominant player in the DVR market.