DStv PVR Decoder
22 November 2005
by Mandy J Watson
South AfricaCape Town, South Africa

Article Update: 2006
brainwavez.org receives many hits each month from people wanting to know more about the PVR decoder. In fact, if you search Google using the term "dstv pvr decoder", I am proud to say this article consistently appears on the first page of the search results in the top-10 listing, which probably has a lot to do with the large amount of traffic.

Most people seem to be searching for general information or pricing infomation, but I've even had the odd keyword search terms that indicate that people are wanting to know how to pirate movies off the hard drive. (Shock! Horror!)

Since it's now about six months since I posted the original article, I am considering writing a follow-up piece. Some of what I would like to know includes:

  • How many decoders have been sold?
  • What new features (if any) have been made available via the automatic downloading functionality?
  • Have any revisions been made to the launch hardware?
  • When will the single-view (/two-channel-record) version be available?
  • What has MultiChoice learnt from customer feedback? (And will someone be willing to tell me? There are some interesting complaints on hellopeter.com.)

If there is anything in particular that you would like to know but haven't been able to find out, please email me (watman "-at-" brainwavez "-dot-" org) and I will add it to my list.
This month MultiChoice launched its latest DStv decoder, the PVR (Personal Video Recorder), and I was fortunate enough to have been able to attend the Cape Town launch, where I was given a personal demonstration of the PVR's functions and features.

Essentially the PVR is a South African version of the US TiVo system (or ReplayTV in the UK) but, rather than being a technological import from overseas, the device was developed locally for MultiChoice by UEC Technologies, a Durban-based company that is a subsidiary of the Altech group. The PVR has been in development and testing for two years - some people have already been using one in their homes for about a year to test the features - and, as of this month, it has been made available to the general public. MultiChoice is convinced that it will change the future of television in this country.

Present Features And Future Possibilities
In a nutshell, the PVR allows you to: fast forward and rewind live TV; bookmark favourite moments in live TV or recorded programmes so that you can jump to them instantly and watch them over and over; watch instant replays of live or recorded television; and play back recordings in slow motion (two different speeds are available). With the PVR you can watch two channels simultaneously, on two different televisions, much like the current dual-view decoder, as well as record a third channel to the device's built-in hard drive, which is capable of storing up to 80 hours of recorded television. I was told that the quality of the playback is a digitally perfect copy of the original, but I wasn't particularly impressed with the quality of what I saw of the live feed (via PVR playback) on the dual television sets that were connected to the demo PVR unit. However, I don't know whether this was due to the feed, the televisions, or the PVR, so I cannot comment further here.

The PVR also functions as a slightly "smarter" VCR: you can program it to record your favourite programmes, up to eight days in advance. You can either input a timeframe and channel manually and tweak additional settings, such as whether it should record this item daily, on weekdays, weekly, or as a once-off, and you can give the recording your own title; or you can scroll through a list of all the available movies for the month and select those that you would like to have recorded. Should you fill up your drive, you can connect the PVR to a VCR and transfer some of the stored programmes to video tape, and then delete them off the PVR to free space for more recordings. If your drive is full (and there is an indicator to tell you how much space you've used and how much is left), I have been told that the PVR will not record anything else until you delete some of your recordings to free up space. The MultiChoice people to whom I spoke about this issue tried to downplay this, assuring me that 80 hours is plenty and I am unlikely to fill it up, but, to be honest, I don't believe that there's such a thing as enough storage space. Eighty hours is a great start, though.

DStv PVR Decoder

Some upgrade features will be made available next year, but that doesn't have to stop you buying a PVR now, if you want one, as the device has been designed to be able to download upgraded features and functionality automatically, so - theoretically - you will never end up with an outdated version of the PVR (even though, for some thoughtless reason, the name printed on the actual hardware is written as "PVR I", which unfortunately presents a subconscious suggestion that there is a "PVR II" coming and you should wait).

One of the next-generation features that will be made available will be the ability for the PVR to auto record favourites for you by scanning the television schedule for the next eight days, based on keywords you specify, as well as present recommendations. The device will also be able to track schedule changes automatically (something for which M-Net has a particularly bad track record), so if your favourite programme starts 15 minutes late due to some sporting event running over, for example, the PVR will note this and then start and end the recording 15 minutes later than scheduled so that you won't miss the end of the programme. Lastly, instead of a dual-view version, users will be able to opt for a single-view version that, instead, will be able to record two simultaneous channel feeds for later viewing.

Potential Pitfalls
Firstly, there is a lot of worry in the industry that enabling people to pause and fast forward live TV will be the death of the commercial break as we have come to know it. This has already sparked furious debate as to what the future may hold for this traditional form of advertising. Some feel that this will help to promote better ads, as they envision people saving and bookmarking favourite ads to watch over and over again (and, admittedly, I've been known to do this), while they completely ignore ads that fall flat. This would, undoubtedly, send a strong message to the advertising industry regarding consumer (in)tolerance of annoying, ridiculously stupid, and just plain bad advertising, as well as to the corporate world that they should be more careful in how they present their brands to the increasingly sophisticated (and less tolerant) consumer.

DStv PVR Decoder

Others, however, see the complete end of commercial breaks and new forms of advertising taking hold in their place. At the forefront of this stream of thought is product placement, a practice that is taking hold in feature films, as well as TV programmes such as Egoli, and which has nauseated me, immensely, in most circumstances. Another possibility is more sponsorship of programmes, a practice we are already seeing in action on all the local channels.

As for what may happen, only time will tell, but I suspect that MultiChoice has put a lot of thought into this, and we are in for an interesting ride. It seems likely that prime-time television will become a thing of the past as consumers will now increasingly be able to watch what they want when they want, fitting television viewing to their schedules and not the other way around.

Another of my concerns is education. One of the selling points touted at the launch was that VCRs are so difficult to program (apparently: I've never had a problem programming VCRs or tuning TVs, but I'm willing to accept that this may be so for many people). In contrast, the PVR, it is claimed, is easy to operate. Is it? My head was spinning by the end of my demonstration. Admittedly, I was shown what it does rather than allowed to test it myself, which usually helps me to grasp an interface and capabilities more quickly, but the interface, in some areas, seemed confusing, clunky, or not informative enough (depending on the specific feature) but it is possible that, with time, using the PVR becomes second nature. I therefore accept that I may be proven wrong on this point but I'm still curious as to how well the larger public will accept this new device, which, to me, is far more complicated than a VCR, and whether an educational campaign will have to be set up to address this potential issue. On a related note, the public will have to be educated as to the difference between the normal decoder that they are all used to (a device that receives and decodes a television signal) and the PVR, which has a built-in hard drive with a definite lifespan and which requires you to program "downtime" (select a timespan each day during which the drive can stop spinning, as, from what I understand, it continuously writes to the drive, in the same spot, as it receives programming throughout the rest of the day) - and, incidentally, the optional warranty (theft, fire, lightning) doesn't include hard-drive failure.

Price is another issue about which I have reservations. The PVR costs R2999 (presently - I think this is a special introductory offer), and the monthly subscription is R449. These prices include VAT but exclude the dish and installation. Apparently the cost is the same as the current dual-view decoder but with the amount of (seemingly endlessly) repeated content on the DStv channels, and - comparatively - small number of channels that we have access to, does this all amount to value for money? It may depend on the individual but I know that I'm not ready to buy one just yet, as much as I would love to own one.

Finally, and this is a small observation, while watching the demonstration I became quite intrigued by the scroll wheel on the PVR remote and couldn't stop wondering what the lifespan of it may be, as it seemed to be made of dodgy-looking plastic and wasn't nearly as slick as the scroll wheel of the iPod.

Final Thoughts
I was impressed - make no mistake. Despite my reservations, I'm glad that we finally have a device like this available to us, and that it was developed in South Africa using our own technological expertise. We are being leaders in television entertainment and technology and it's good to know that we can compete successfully with the rest of the world in this arena, rather than following, grudgingly, behind. I don't know how quickly the public will embrace the PVR but I am looking forward to it becoming an important component in people's home-entertainment setups, and the possible consumer-driven television revolution that may follow.