Muscle-Bound Digital Recorder

Satellite dish, coaxial cables and tv monitor, on texture, 5-28-03
In the cable industry's latest move to combat competition from satellite TV, Charter Communications Inc. will soon introduce its most feature-packed cable set-top box yet.

The box, to be released in the fall, records programming onto a hard drive, has a built-in DVD player and can serve as a media center for digital photos and music. The dual-tuner device supports two TVs, allowing users to simultaneously record two different shows, or watch one program in one room while playing another show in another. It also supports high-definition television, video-on-demand and pay-per-view services.

The device also has Ethernet or wireless networking capabilities, so users can transfer digital music or photo files from a desktop computer. The machine can feed stored music or photos to a computer - but not television programs, because of built-in copy-protections.

Cable companies have toyed with introducing such all-in-one boxes for years. A handful of small pilots have been conducted in select cities, but faced with the costly gamble of deploying new boxes customers might not wildly embrace, cable providers have hesitated on bigger launches.

Charter thinks the market could be ready.

Rivals from the satellite and cable industry have begun offering pieces of the various functions or services - but none yet in an all-in-one set-top box, said Kip Simonson, Charter's executive vice president of marketing.

St. Louis-based Charter, the nation's third largest cable provider, was to announce Wednesday that it has ordered 100,000 boxes, which are made by Motorola Inc. and powered by Digeo Inc.'s Moxi software platform. Charter said the first commercial rollout of the Motorola Broadband Media Center will be for digital cable customers in Rochester, Minn.

Charter officials would not disclose customer prices or plans for other markets.

Still, "an order of 100,000 units from a major cable company validates that there's a market for this product," said Josh Bernoff, an analyst with Forrester Research. "Now we'll see if other operators, such as Comcast or Cox, will be interested in doing the same."

The rollout bodes well for the overall fledgling market of digital video recorders, or DVRs - and not so well for the makers of stand-alone units, such as TiVo or ReplayTV, which have strong loyalty among users but have been slow to gain mass market adoption.

DVRs allow users to record shows onto a hard drive, and to pause, forward, and rewind live broadcasts.

Forrester Research predicts that the U.S. number of households with a DVR will grow from 1.7 million in 2002 to 39 million in 2007.

Satellite operators EchoStar and DirecTV have offered set-top boxes with built-in DVRs for several years. Time Warner was the first cable company to deploy DVR-equipped boxes last year.

Two Media Center models are available. One has a single tuner and a 40-gigabyte hard drive. The other has two tuners, an 80-gigabyte hard drive, broadband capability, and a built-in DVD player.

By May Wong