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This chapter is from the book

UltimateTV

Microsoft is the Johnny Come Lately of the video IED business, introducing its UltimateTV months behind schedule in early 2001. However, with its substantial mass—dwarfing tiny TiVo and ReplayTV—Microsoft ought to be able to quickly make up for lost time (see Table 3.7 for additional details on the company).

Recruiting Sony as its initial manufacturing partner should help fill in any credibility gaps that Microsoft might encounter in the consumer electronics space.

Table 3.7 – Microsoft Vital Statistics

Status

Independent public company (MSFT) 2001 revenues: $25.29 billion

Business model

Developer of microcomputer software and related services

Founded

August 1975

Founder, Chairman and Chief Software Architect

William H. (Bill) Gates III

UltimateTV business partners

Sony, DirecTV, Thomson (RCA)

Headquarters

Redmond, Washington


Hardware

When it comes down to a straight comparison of features, Microsoft's UltimateTV lives up to its name. Its out-of-the-box ability to watch and record two live TV channels simultaneously set it firmly apart from any other offering (at the time of this launch), as did its integrated Web surfing and e-mail capabilities.

For a discussion of the relative merits of UltimateTV's Web surfing features, see "Internet Access and Interactivity."

Although UltimateTV seems in many respects a step behind its competitors on the software front (see the following discussion on "Software" in this chapter), the hardware needs no apology. Owing perhaps to Microsoft's previous experience building the EchoStar DishPlayer, the UltimateTV has the look and feel of a solidly constructed and well thought out piece of equipment. Although it might have lost some of its competitive luster when TiVo finally enabled its second satellite tuner, UltimateTV definitely has a bright future and a growing base of satisfied customers.

Currently, only two UltimateTV devices are available through retail channels. Both are listed in Table 3.8.

Table 3.8 – DirecTV Receivers with UltimateTV

Manufacturer/Model

Hours of Storage

Works With

List Price*

Thomson/RCA DWD490RE

35

DirecTV only

$299

Sony SAT-W60

35

DirecTV only

$450


*Current as of December 2001

UltimateTV Keyboard Shortcuts

As the newest video IED to enter the market, users simply haven't had adequate time to uncover many of UltimateTV's secrets, its shortcuts, Easter Eggs and miscellaneous peccadilloes. However, UltimateTV's DishPlayer heritage has resulted in a few carryovers chronicled in the pages of DishPlayer user groups, such as those at http://www.dbstalk.com and http://www.echostaruser.org.

For example, in addition to typing e-mail and video search terms, you can use your UltimateTV keyboard as a giant remote control for your IED. Following are some keyboard shortcuts derived from the DishPlayer:

  • To advance the programming guide by 12 hours, press and hold CMD and press the right arrow.

  • To jump back 12 hours, hold down CMD and press the left arrow.

  • To jump to the top or bottom of a page, press Scroll Up or Scroll Down.

  • To bring up a Picture In Picture (PIP) window, or to remove it, press CMD and W.

  • To move the PIP window left or right, press CMD and M.

UltimateTV's roster of exterior hardware features is impressive—at least until you realize what they do—and in some cases don't do.

The front panel offers status indicators for power, service connection, messages, and new recordings (called My Shows in UltimateTV parlance).

Taking a cue from TiVo rather than ReplayTV, the UltimateTV offers a full set of front panel controls to allow operation without the remote or keyboard. These include buttons for Power, Guide, Home (UltimateTV's version of TiVo Central) and Select, along with directional arrow buttons for onscreen navigation. The front of the device also sports two smartcard readers. One is for the DirecTV access card. The other's use has not been specified, but it is expected to eventually support gift cards and other transaction-based smartcard services.

It's in the area of inputs that some consumers have found disappointment. You will find inputs for RCA audio, composite video, and a microphone jack in the front panel area, whereas the back panel includes enticing inputs for additional audio and video devices (analog and S-video). Unfortunately, none of these is designed for use outside of UltimateTV's e-mail functions.

Want to connect a DVD or VCR player to UltimateTV? Think again. The composite video and S-video ports were intended to let you capture and send multimedia e-mails, not to let you simplify connections to your TV. UltimateTV setup guides show VCRs and DVD players connected directly to the TV or running through an A/V receiver, not to the UltimateTV, which lacks a pass-through feature to route signals from these external devices to the television set. As if to add insult to injury, UltimateTV currently does not support the video and audio e-mail features either, so the multiple inputs are essentially useless.

In the same vein, the parallel printer port is not yet enabled, and the device's two USB ports only support connections to keyboards. If you have a wireless keyboard that came with your Sony-built unit, the USB ports are particularly pointless for the time being. The only good news here is that future revisions of the software could potentially enable these dormant features, giving the UltimateTV some interesting new functionality.

The back panel does include some other useful inputs, however, such as a place to plug in an IR blaster for VCR control. (This allows you to record UltimateTV programs onto videotape. Note that this requires routing UltimateTV output to the VCR as well as to your TV during the setup process.) You will also find an RJ-11 telephone jack, an A/C power cord, two F-type satellite inputs, and an F-type antenna (UHF/VHF) input.

In terms of outputs, the UltimateTV presents a full range, from multiple audio (RCA and optical SPDIF digital) jacks to composite, S-video, and F-type video.

The exterior features of the UltimateTV are detailed in Figure 3.19.

Figure 3.19 Front and rear views of a Sony-made UltimateTV device.

Internally, UltimateTV relies on a 250MHz version of the 32-bit RM5231 CPU chip that is manufactured by PMC-Sierra's MIPS Microprocessor Division (formerly Quantum Effect Devices), which is the same 64-bit RISC processor found in Sony's popular Aibo2 robotic dog.

The real guts of the system, however, is the Solo2, designed by the WebTV team in 1999. Named after WebTV founder Steve Perlman's German Shepherd, Solo, the chip was Perlman's final effort after he sold WebTV to Microsoft for $503 million in 1997. Perlman left Microsoft soon after to found a new video IED-related startup called Reardon Steel.

Meanwhile, Microsoft contracted with Toshiba Corporation to manufacture the Solo2. Working in conjunction with a second chip that was mysteriously—and some might say ironically—labeled WebTV FUD v.2.0 (Microsoft has long been accused of disseminating "FUD," a popular acronym for fear, uncertaintly, and doubt), the chips combine to provide UltimateTV's Internet browsing, interactive television, and video recording features. August 2000 reports indicated the Solo2 chip contained about 2.2 million transistors, and hinted that Microsoft was already working on a more powerful version said to contain about 9 million transistors (roughly the same as an Intel Pentium 2).

For memory, UltimateTV appears to rely on four Micron 32MB SDRAM chips. A Conexant Bt835 VideoStream III Decoder supports the machine's NTSC, PAL and SECAM, and S-video video decoding and display capabilities. A bus-mastering OPTi FireLink 82C861 chip serves as the system's USB hub controller. UltimateTV's dual "smart card" capabilities are provided by a Philips TDA8004T smart card interface chip.

For a glimpse inside the UltimateTV, check out Figure 3.20.

Figure 3.20 UltimateTV's internal layout is surprisingly uncluttered.

Software

Whereas TiVo's use of ultra-stable, ultra-unobtrusive Linux is one of the product's major strengths, UltimateTV's reliance on Microsoft's homegrown Windows CE is considered by some to be the product's Achilles Heel.

One example of Windows CE's potential pitfalls occurred in April and May 2001, when Microsoft was forced to release a patch for a problem that inadvertently shrunk viewers' available recording time. When UltimateTV subscribers paused a program during recording and then tried to delete it, the show would disappear from the My Shows listing without actually being deleted from the system. The detritus of these undeleted shows continued to take up space on the IED's hard drive, leaving subscribers unable to record additional shows, while also unable to view the shows that were clogging their hard drives.

Was Windows CE the cause of the programming mishap? It might well have complicated and delayed the creation of the fix. The primary knock against Windows CE in the UltimateTV appliance is related to the speed of processing user commands.

Aside from the OS uncertainty, check out any online forum discussion of UltimateTV, and you'll find one prevalent complaint: too slow. Many people find they have a certain period of adjustment to endure before they become accustomed to the pace of channel and program guide changes on the UltimateTV. The unit just seems to take its own sweet time in responding to your request, leading many first-time users to assume their remote control isn't working, and repeat the command several times. When the commands start taking effect, only fractions of a second later—although it can seem like hours when you're impatient—the delayed reaction might make the device seem as if it's behaving erratically. In fact, it's just carrying out orders, but not as crisply as its ReplayTV and TiVo counterparts.

The other major criticism of the UltimateTV—or UTV as it's often abbreviated by owners—is the subtle absence of certain "fit and finish" features that TiVo and ReplayTV users have come to expect. Some of these little things include the ability to record only the latest episode (while automatically erasing older episodes), the ability to turn off the system sounds that correspond to remote control commands, the ability to "protect" or "guarantee" a particular recording and ensure that it won't be overwritten by a subsequent recording command.

These features are routine on competing Replay and TiVo models. As "Synchro" from Northern Virginia opined in his posting on the AVS Forum, why didn't Microsoft "stand on the shoulders of giants, and at least match most of the features other PVRs have had for years?"

Perhaps the answer is that those competitors did not reach "giant" status overnight; several revisions of their software were required to refine the basic feature set that seems to satisfy the majority of customers. Microsoft will undoubtedly get there, but it might take many more months, a year, or more. After all, it took them three iterations of Windows CE for handheld devices to hit on one that didn't draw staunch criticism in comparison to the Palm OS.

Regardless, whether the issue of slowness can be fixed through a software download, or if it's some inherent and incurable latency in the Windows CE operating system or even the hardware, remains to be seen.

Many vocal owners defended their beloved UTVs despite admitting to its faults. The dual-tuner capability alone probably has gone a long way toward endearing the UTV to its consumer base. Being able to tape two live shows while watching a third previously recorded program might have done more to save marriages and keep families together in the latter half of 2001 than the efforts of doctors Joyce Brothers and Ruth Westheimer combined.

For those who remain critical of UltimateTV's less-than-ultimate speed and feature set, Microsoft's UltimateTV Digital Recorder Forum moderator "jleavens" offers this solace: "Give your UltimateTV a chance. PVRs are... the first consumer electronics that can only get better over time without buying a new unit."

Making UltimateTV Better

As if to prove the point, Microsoft rolled out a Fall 2001 software upgrade, specifically featuring two requested capabilities: Keep Until (the ability to save a recorded show until you erase it) and Custom Recording (the ability to set a specific start time and end time for a recording session).

The purpose of the Keep Until feature is self explanatory: Nothing is more frustrating than recording the big show you've been waiting for, and then finding that your smarty-pants machine decided of its own accord to dump it in favor of recording another show. (According to Murphy's Law, this other show is bound to be something you already saw or something you never really wanted in the first place.)

The custom recording capability offers more creative uses. Why not record just the last, most exciting quarter of that playoff game? Or perhaps you just want to see the first few minutes of the nightly news to get the top stories, or you're only interested in the weather or sports segment that comes on at a certain time. You're no longer locked in to recording entire programs, as listed in the program guide.

To access the Keep Until feature, perform the following steps:

  1. Go to My Shows.

  2. Select the show you want to keep.

  3. Choose Keep Until.

  4. Choose how long to keep the recording.

  5. Choose Done.

To access Custom Record features, follow these steps:

  1. Go to My Shows.

  2. Scroll to the bottom.

  3. Choose Schedule Recording.

  4. Choose Using Custom Settings.

  5. Choose the day to begin recording.

  6. Choose the start and stop times for your recording, and then choose Continue.

  7. Enter the channel using the numbers on your remote control, and then choose Continue.

  8. If everything is correct, choose Continue, and then choose Done.

A few, less conspicuous features have also been rolled into some recent UltimateTV upgrades. The new security features, Channel Settings and Block Channels, allow subscribers to customize how channels appear in the Channel Guide, and to set limits on which channels can be viewed.

The Channel Settings feature gives you the ability to disable channels so that they do not appear in the Advanced Programming Guide. To access the feature, follow these steps:

  1. From TV Home, select Settings.

  2. Choose Channels.

  3. Remove the check mark from any channels you want to remove from the Channel Guide. You also have the option to check All or None. Be careful here! The occasional slowness of the UltimateTV to respond to remote control input has led some impatient subscribers to inadvertantly delete all channels from the Channel Guide, and forced them to painstakingly rebuild their channel preferences. If the screen doesn't respond to your key press, wait a moment before continuing.

  4. Choose Done.

The Blocked Channel feature is designed to let you block certain channels from being accessed via the remote control or the keyboard. Follow these steps to block TV channels:

  1. From the TV Home screen, select Settings.

  2. Choose Locks & Limits.

  3. Select the channels to which you want to lock access.

  4. Create a password if this is your first time to access this feature.

  5. When you successfully create a password, you will be reminded to write it down (always sage advice).

  6. Choose Done.

Diagnostics and Other Housekeeping

Interested in what's going on inside your UltimateTV? Here's a shortcut for checking it out, for running diagnostics, and for performing other housekeeping items:

  1. Turn off the UltimateTV. Wait for the green power indicator light to stop blinking and go out completely.

  2. Press 411 on the remote control.

  3. Turn the UltimateTV back on. You will see the lights on the unit flash, and then it will display the Technical Information screen (see Figure 3.21).

Figure 3.21 UltimateTV's 411 screen provides access to the unit's vital statistics.

The initial screen displays information on:

  • The current DTV client software version

  • Boot software version

  • SSID, chip, and SysConfig information

  • Modem information

  • Hard drive model number

  • Available memory

At the bottom of the Information screen are selections allowing you to view satellite information, force a service connection, or power down the unit. The Satellite Information tab brings up a screen containing even more information (see Figure 3.22).

Figure 3.22 UltimateTV's initial Satellite Information screen is a portal to system diagnostics and satellite reception options.

In addition to information on satellite signal strength and the software version of the demodulator, at the bottom of the screen, you will find additional tabs for changing modes and running a system test.

The system test can help diagnose problems you might be having with your reception, program guide information, or other aspects of the UltimateTV's hardware and service. It runs some brief diagnostics on the phone connection, the satellite reception, the unit's two satellite inputs, and the access card, ideally returning the message OK for each device.

From the diagnostics screen, you are offered a choice to further investigate your system. Selecting System Information yields details on the hardware's manufacturer and model number, along with the device's subtype (DTV 1.0) and serial, SSID, and control numbers to aid UltimateTV's record-keeping as to which machine this is and to whom it belongs. An Upgrades button then appears at the bottom of the screen. Selecting it renders the date of your last system software upgrade, and whether a new one is scheduled. Selecting More Information leads you to an additional System Information screen, this one offering a list of services that is supported on your machine (DirecTV Multi-Sat, Dolby Digital Bitstream Out, WebTV Internet Service, UltimateTV, and so on), and a readout of your total recording capacity, in hours.

The Satellite Information screen's Change Mode selection provides a choice of changing the operational mode of your satellite receiver from Normal to Special. Special mode suppresses all introductory pages, even after a software upgrade.

UltimateTV's Ultimate Future

Although UltimateTV's relatively recent debut and its use of a closed, proprietary operating system initially thwarted grassroots efforts to "customize" the device beyond the manufacturer's specifications, a determined effort by the video IED underground has apparently yielded some significant fruit.

When it first became available, hackers had their fingers crossed that the UltimateTV would be as easily upgradable as its predecessor, the venerable DishPlayer. Expanding the storage capacity of a DishPlayer is a breeze, involving little more than extracting the old hard drive and plugging in a new one. If you managed to remove and replace all the correct wires and screws without electrocuting yourself on the unshielded power supply, you were treated to instant gratification. Just compare this procedure to the horribly involved and painstaking process of upgrading a TiVo or ReplayTV! (See the description of how to hack a TiVo in Chapter 11, in the section "Tweaking Your Video IED.")

Unfortunately, upgrading the UltimateTV proved not so easy. The device steadfastly refused to recognize the new drives. The hardcore hackers scurried back to their drawing boards to begin carefully reverse engineering the product and peering into its arcane files and formats.

Then in late December 2001, a holiday present appeared in the form of a post in the UltimateTV community on the AVS Forum. A user reported that he had successfully upgraded his hard drive to 100GB. The secret was so simple that UltimateTV hackers across the country began viciously kicking themselves: All they had to do was use a Western Digital hard drive.

Numerous confirmations have now been posted, along with more detailed instructions, for replacing the original UltimateTV hard drive (a 40GB Seagate "U" Series 5 drive in the RCA unit) with a Western Digital 80GB, 100GB, or 120GB drive. The usual risks apply (kiss your warranty goodbye, and be careful what you touch), but one happy upgrader description of the 20-minute upgrade process says it all: "SUCCESS! That was so easy it's ridiculous... 120GB of lovin'!"

Discoveries such as this can have a profound impact on the future of a particular IED platform. After all, once word of this feat is widely publicized (which is sure to have happened before this tome ends up on your bookshelf), anyone with a mind toward upgrading their video IED would have to think long and hard about buying a TiVo or ReplayTV instead of an UltimateTV. Why fiddle with downloading software utilities, installing and uninstalling and mounting and unmounting hard drives in a PC, and then transferring them in and out of your IED, when Microsoft has unintentionally done all the work for you?

Then again, when Microsoft learns of the hack, what's to prevent them from introducing a bug in the next software revision that nullifies the upgrade?

Only time will tell. In the meantime, happy hacking! Microsoft might soon come to realize that this unannounced, probably inadvertent feature might be the secret weapon that clobbers the competition.

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