April 4, 2003 12:00 PM PST

Sony DVR to sport broadband

Sony is continuing to make its network strategy a reality with three new digital video recorders that have broadband connectivity and can be programmed from a cell phone.

Sony will release in Japan three new digital video recorders (DVRs), each with a broadband connection and Web browser, the company announced earlier this week. All are part of Sony's CoCoon line of DVRs, which are available in Japan and are expected to come to the United States once the consumer electronics giant can establish a DVR service.

Toshiba and Panasonic have similar devices, which include a hard drive and DVD recorder, but Sony is the first to add a broadband connection to receive program guide information and to access Web pages. The NDR-XR1, set to launch on April 12 for about $1,200, is a combination DVR and DVD recorder, while the NAV-E900 and NAV-E600 are combination DVRs and DVD players with an AM/FM radio tuner.

The NAV-E900 comes with a 600-watt amplifier and will cost around $950 and the NAV-E600 comes with a 500-watt amplifier and will cost about $700. The NAV devices are set for an April 26 launch in Japan. Sony representatives declined to comment on a U.S. launch.

The devices represent Sony's latest effort to network its electronics products to allow for broadband access. Its network strategy would allow the entertainment and electronics giant to make its content available over its consumer devices. Sony is also working on a plasma screen television project, which also fits well into its network strategy. Sony owns film studios, music labels and a games unit in addition to its huge electronics division, giving it all the pieces to connect the digital entertainment universe.

However, infighting between the entertainment and electronics divisions over fears of piracy and the need to distinguish products has slowed collaboration efforts to date.

Another obstacle to the realization of this networked vision has been the slower-than-expected adoption of broadband access, which is essentially the pipeline to the outside world for connected devices. However, with subscriptions for high-speed Internet access on the rise, the company's vision is getting a much-needed boost.

Additionally, increased awareness of DVR capabilities is boosting sales, and interest from consumer-electronics makers are rising, according to a recent report from research firm In-Stat/MDR. DVRs record television programs, storing them on a hard drive for quick access and can temporarily pause live broadcasts. The devices have been very popular among their owners, receiving an 83 percent satisfaction rating, according to In-Stat/MDR, but they haven't amassed the following that many predicted.

However, shipments are expected to rise significantly as manufacturers add DVR features to more common appliances such as DVD players. Worldwide shipments of DVRs reached 1.5 million in 2002, and should increase to more than 11 million in 2005, according to In-Stat/MDR. Satellite set-top boxes are expected to be the main driver behind the growth.

Sony's NDR-XR1 and NAV devices all come with an 80GB hard drive, but the NDR has the ability to record in DVD-R/-RW format. All three devices come with a DV link for importing footage from video cameras, a Memory Stick reader for importing still images, and playback of DVD-R, DVD-RW and DVD+RW, DVD video and various CD formats.

Through the always-on broadband connection, the devices can connect to an Internet-based program guide, which allows for automated programming of the device. With a subscription to the program guide service, users can program the DVR via a PC or Internet-connected mobile phone. Users can view Web pages in a picture-in-picture display while they watch television.

The first DVRs, including the popular TiVo service, appealed to consumers for their automatic program guides and the ability to pause live television, but could record only on the built-in hard drive. A few newer devices such as the NDR-XR1 and the Panasonic DMR-HS2 record to a hard disk, but allow users to archive programs on DVDs, which can be played back on a PC or another DVD player.

Michael Ramsay, chief executive of DVR maker TiVo, said current devices are too expensive to become a mass-market hit. "The biggest swing factor right now is price," Ramsay told Reuters on Thursday. "When we get the price down it will make a big difference to the volume (of sales)."

 

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