Tech-Back Tuesday: Remembering the ReplayTV DVR

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ReplayTV DVR

You’ve heard of TiVo, no doubt. But how many of you remember ReplayTV?

Step into the Wayback Machine for a moment while I wax rhapsodic about my very first DVR — a device that changed the way I watch television. And let me be clear. I. Love. Television.

The year: 1999. The place: The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The product: Something called TiVo, a VCR that didn’t use tapes; instead, it recorded shows to a built-in hard drive, thus enabling some amazing features. This wasn’t a video cassette recorder; it was a digital video recorder.

ReplayTV remoteBut at the very same show, a competitor emerged: ReplayTV debuted its own, eponymous, DVR. Like TiVo, it could pause live television, skip past commercials and record two shows while you watched a third!

And, lo, a rivalry was born. Just as VHS and Betamax would duke it out for videotape supremacy in the late 70s and early 80s, so would ReplayTV and TiVo compete for the DVR crown during the dawn of the 21st century.

I bought a Panasonic-brand ReplayTV box (heretofore known as just “Replay”) sometime in late 1999. Though I wasn’t what you’d call an early adopter, one look at a neighbor’s TiVo was all it took for me to realize I had to have this technology. So what made me choose Replay? Although the box itself cost more, it came with a lifetime subscription to the program guide that was so critical to the experience. I hated the idea of paying TiVo a monthly fee on top of my monthly cable bill, so I splurged on a Replay instead.

And ohmygod. We’re spoiled by DVRs now, but back then, what a revelation. The idea that you could pause a show when the phone or doorbell rang, then resume from where you left off? Pure magic. And skipping past commercials 30 seconds at a time? Suddenly you could watch an hourlong TV show in 44 minutes, or a two-hour movie in an hour and a half. Using Replay was like finding time in a bottle.

ReplayTV logoAlas, ReplayTV would not win the DVR war, despite the introduction of upgraded models that could share recorded shows with other Replay owners and automatically detect and skip past commercials. Rather, these features sparked lawsuits against SONICblue, the company that had acquired ReplayTV in 2001.

In 2003, the company filed for bankruptcy, and eventually the boxes were discontinued — followed years later by the ReplayTV backbone service. In the interim, TiVo managed to hang on, despite the arrival of lesser DVRs supplied by cable and satellite providers.

As it became clear to me that ReplayTV wasn’t long for the world, and while North American broadcasting was transitioning from analog to digital, I abandoned my box in favor of Windows Media Center, which layered some attractive DVR features onto a traditional Windows PC. That setup served me well for a few years, but ultimately I learned a hard lesson: Don’t leave Windows in charge of something as important as television.

Today, I’m a TiVo user, and while it offers a number of decidedly modern features, I miss my old Replay at times. It was a snap to program, a pleasure to use and a truly transformative technology. Every modern DVR owes it a vote of thanks.

What was your first DVR? Share your fond memories of timeshifting television in the comments.

Photo credits: Panasonic, ReplayTV

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