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Reviving ReplayTV

With up to 320 hours of VHS-quality storage and fast data transfer, SONICblue's new ReplayTV 4000 personal video recorder is targeted at the 10 million broadband homes predicted in the U.S. by year-end. The home gateway device is part of an effort by the company, which acquired PVR manufacturer ReplayTV last month, to stimulate PVR sales.

Including sales of Microsoft's Ultimate TV service and ReplayTV and TiVo devices, only about 500,000 PVRs have been sold in the U.S. in the two years the technology has been on the market, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Besides increased storage, SONICblue's strategy for boosting that figure, according to Vice President of Marketing Steve Shannon, is to provide Ethernet capability and a subscription service offering niche programming.

An internal Ethernet connection will permit files to be shared among rooms of a home and among other homes that have the device. SONICblue sees potential in using Internet Protocol (IP) to distribute signals throughout a networked home and throughout the world: Broadcast-quality video and Web pages can be displayed on a standard television, and virtually any ReplayTV user will be able to "broadcast" home-made programming to ReplayTV 4000 users anywhere.

"We're saying video over the Internet [often referred to as IPTV] is going to happen so let's embrace it and start creating business models around it," Shannon says, adding that digital-rights-management software will be supported to protect copyrighted material.

The high-speed access will also accommodate niche content, such as independent films, foreign-language programming or international sports, that SONICblue plans to offer. It would be suitable for movie studios to sell titles on a per-use basis, he adds.

SONICblue will sell the ReplayTV 4000 direct over the Internet and in selected retail stores. Pricing will vary according to storage capacity. The 320-hour version will list at approximately $2,000. Also available: 160 hours at $1,499, 80 hours at $999, and 40 hours at $699 (about $50 more than competitor TiVo's 30-hour version). The AutoSkip feature on the current ReplayTV box, which avoids recording commercials, is included.

Storage capacity depends on recording quality. The high-end box provides 320 hours at the lowest quality, 160 hours at medium quality, and slightly over 100 hours at DVD-quality (6 Mb/s).

The $2,000 price tag could be a tough sell to consumers. Mark Mullen, a director of strategic planning for Microsoft Ultimate TV, notes that several companies, including his, have the technology to pass files around. The hard part is doing it at a price point that encourages consumers to jump in and create a mass market.