Low End Theory

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Time Bandits


By Brendan I. Koerner

You might recall a little incident down in Florida a few years back, when a bunch of Wal-Mart shoppers stampeded over one another like so many cracked-out longhorns. Their excuse for acting more like beasts than men? A DVD player going for the then-unheard of price of $29.87. It was, at first glance, a sad day for humanity, not to mention for that one lady who got knocked unconscious.

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But you know what? As a fellow cheapskate, I understand where these folks were coming form. Not to say I'm itching to pancake someone in pursuit of an Apex DVD player, but let's face it—when a once unattainable product dips below the magic $30 barrier, those of us with shorts arms and deep pockets tend to lose our minds. How could this happen? Pshaw, why doesn't it happen more?

I share this depressing thought by way of introducing the newest member of the sub-$30 club: the personal video recorder. That's right, the TiVo has been low-ended into the $29.99 I/O Magic PC PVR, which brings time shifting and live pausing to the masses—well, at least the masses willing to tinker with their PCI slots. It's by no means the end of the set-top box—you can still buy some more atrocious free agents for the Knicks, James Dolan—but the proliferation of budget PVRs does hint at the growing sophistication of low-end consumers. Ruminations and recriminations after (you guessed it) the jump. PLUS: Low-end spam, scourge or menace?

The downward trend in PVR prices is notable mostly for its rapidity. This, of course, is mainly thanks to the WinTV line from Hauppauge, starting with the popular WinTV-PVR-150. If memory serves, these listed at $99 as recently as the spring—a pretty good deal, no doubt, but not quite low-end territory. Now look: aside from the I/O Magic bargain-basement unit, there are sub-$50 options from Kworld, AVer, Bytecc, and some other brands whose ads you definitely won't be seeing during the Super Bowl.

When our discount pals in Shenzhen get cranking on a product this quickly, it obviously indicates a couple of things. First off, the technical details must be relatively straightforward, or at least easy to copy off publicly available documentation. (I'll give everyone the benefit of the doubt here and assume—totally, totally naively—that corporate espionage only happens in America.) Secondly, there are low-end retailers willing to stock the product, with the full expectation of turning a profit. And that means there's an assumption of demand among a demographic not known for its technological acumen.

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The Kworld PVR is USB 2.0 compatible, but the rest of the lot are for PCI slots. All of us know what that means—lots of troubleshooting, especially for those unfortunate XP Home users who never upgraded to Service Pack 2. (Or, like myself, left my damn antivirus software on while doing so, and ended up with the OS equivalent of Quatto, minus the telepathy.) But we've reached a level where those who've missed the TiVo boat are willing to put up with a certain level of tech discomfort in pursuit of the PVR's seemingly magical benefits.

Though technically more sophisticated than in years past—thanks in small part, I hope, to our sister site Lifehacker—low-end consumers must still possess strong stomachs. That's because the dime-store PVRs not only lack the nifty menus and recommendation engines of pay services like TiVo, they also are still rough around the edges when it comes to performance. I haven't tried the sub-$30 I/O Magic unit, but I can vouch for the fact that the Kworld USB 2.0 unit has some quality issues. Yes, it time shifts as advertised, but you also have to figure out that a driver update is required, as well as noodle with some typically godawful bundled software. And the picture quality is a notch below TiVo at its most compressed.

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Fortunately, low-enders like myself are used to deprivations of this nature. Heck, I watched the entire 2005 NFL playoffs on a 13-inch Apex tube TV that was covered in a thick layer of dust. (I swore off Windexing for Lent last year, and just kept on going.) But just because we're cheap doesn't mean we don't want to take part in the PVR revolution, and I gotta hand it to I/O Magic and its off-brand cohorts for realizing that late adopters need love, too.

This image was lost some time after publication, but you can still view it here.
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Now it's time for the TV makers of the world to step up to the plate. You hear me, Coby and jWIN? We want sub-$100 tube TVs that'll work with PCI cards without extensive modifications. I'm sure there's some way to work this mod as-is, with the aid of many gold-plated Radio Shack cables, but my life's a wee bit too hectic to learn it—the wife's buggin' me to grout the ledge, and the third season of The Wire just came out on DVD. Please, help us TiVo without the TiVo (not to mention the monthly fee).

GADGET SPAM: I've long wanted to do a Low End Theory on gadgets that can be purchased via spam solicitations. I'm hip got hipped to a Thai company called Inex Global thanks to one of those annoying little e-mails, and I'm trying to do some due diligence. But I'd also like to throw open the chore to y'all, gentle readers, and ask the question: has anyone out there ever purchased a gadget off a spam? If so, what was your experience? Did your identity end up getting swiped by a 16-year-old Bulgarian Java programmer, or were you actually happy you took the plunge? Lemme know (in comments, if you'd like), and the, uh, immortality of a mention in this glorious space could be yours.

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Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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