VideoGuide

VideoGuide is one of the neater pieces of consumer electronics that I’ve run into recently. It’s a set-top box designed to make the process of finding and using television programming easier.

IMPORTANT NOTE: VideoGuide service was abruptly discontinued in early September, 1997. See the notes at the end of this review.

 

Some Background (and Solutions that Weren’t)

My needs are actually pretty simple. I don’t watch very much television, but there are a few programs which I enjoy. I’m rarely around when they’re on, so I tape them and watch later. It’s a simple concept, really; you’d think it would be easy to automate.

It’s not.

First of all, I’ve got a set-top box for my cable system. Thanks to the industry’s complete inability to come up with a standardized way to control access to subscription programming, I’ve got a television and VCR permanently set to channel 3. I bought one of those VCRplus remote controls in 1991, not because it made programming simple, but because it could control both the cable box and the VCR.

VCRplus didn’t work out all that well. The idea is that you enter a code number, published in a printed program guide, which encodes the time, channel, and duration information (this is the “ease of use” part). It works great, but only a fraction of the available programs have listed code numbers. here’s a 900 number you can call (for $1/minute) for programs which don’t have listed code numbers. No thank you. The device also has its own clock, which you must keep set (and updated for daylight savings time). Oh yes, the clock drifts (mine lost about a minute a month).

I thought Sony had solved my problem when the introduced a new line of VCRs, so I bought one. The VCR comes with a little puck (they call it a “cable mouse”–go figure) which emits infrared signals to control the cable box. And it picks up the time-of-day information from the vertical blanking interval of the TV signal from the local PBS affiliate (in my case, WETA). It has the VCRplus interface built in, so you can use the little code numbers if you have them; otherwise, you can program the VCR in the traditional fashion.

This didn’t work well either. WETA is completely incapable of maintaining the time-of-day clock which they transmit in their VBI. Their clock lost about a minute a day, and frequently had the date wrong too. You can set the clock manually, which I resorted to doing. Pretty lame, wouldn’t you say?

VideoGuide

VideoGuide solves most of those problems. You look at the program guide on-screen and choose a program; it sets up the cable box. You can mark a program for recording simply by clicking on it. News, and (for those who care) sports information is also available.

The VideoGuide folks have a Web site if you’d like to go read the glossy marketing information. As marketing sites go, it’s a pretty good one, particularly the technical description of how the system works.

The box itself intercepts the RF output of the cable box (or antenna, if you don’t use cable) so that it can present on-screen displays. Power comes from yet another one of those little transformers designed to take up at least two spaces on a power strip. It also comes with a couple of infrared emitters for cable box/VCR control (which may not be necessary because there’s a pretty powerful set of emitters built into the front of the unit).

A stubby little antenna on the top of the set-top box picks up the data which the box displays (transmitted via the MobileComm/BellSouth wireless paging system). Time-of-day information is also transmitted, and thus far, it looks like the folks at the other end of the connection seem to understand that it’s a good idea to keep the clock synchronized with reality.

VideoGuide’s interface is extremely well-thought-out. Even the initial setup is simple. You tell the unit your zip code, then teach it your remote controls (TV, cable box, and VCR). Then you just wait for the data to come rolling in.

There are actually a number of subtleties that the box has to be aware of (for example, if you’re not using a cable box, the TV has to be retuned whenever the VideoGuide interface is activated); it’s a real tribute to this product’s design that the end user need never consider these in order to use the product.

News and sports information will show up within an hour or two, but the television listings are sent out overnight. If your cable system has multiple subscription packages (mine does), you’ll have to choose a channel lineup code from a list in the morning; once done, the box is fully operational.

The box ships in an uninitialized state; when first configured, it comes up pre-activated for one-month subscriptions for all services (TV listings, news, and sports). Once the free month is up, you subscribe to the data stream(s) you want.

TV listings are part of the basic subscription; to this, you can add news and/or sports data. News stories are taken from the Associated Press wire; it’s much more detailed and useful than I thought it might be. I’m not a big sports enthusiast, but the sports data looks complete and well-integrated with the broadcast information.

Listings are, without question, the heart of the system. The basic display shows you a grid with channels and times. The remote control has a little joystick you can use to maneuver around this grid; if you pause briefly over a listing, a description appears at the bottom of the screen.

A single button press on the remote will mark a program for recording; another button press will tune immediately to a program.

The VideoGuide unit tracks these tuning events; after a while, the channels you tune to most frequently will float to the top of the listings screen.

It’s also possible to view listings in a smaller format which packs more data onto the screen or an alphabetical format sorted by program name.

There’s a screen where you can review the programs to be recorded; you can mark a program to be recorded regularly (rather than one time only) from this screen. Regular recording is pretty neat, since it seems to work by program name, channel, and timeslot; this means that if a program moves to another day of the week but stays in the same time slot, the VideoGuide unit will still record it correctly. It seems to me like this could be even more useful if program name and channel (only) were used, but this isn’t the way it works.

In short, VideoGuide is one of the first pieces of consumer electronics which looks like it was designed with ease of use and functionality in mind; it’s obvious that lots of thought went into it. It works, and it works well.

Nothing is Perfect

Impressive as the VideoGuide unit is, there are some flaws. Here’s what I’d change if I could:

  • Remove the annoying messages – Around Christmas, the VideoGuide folks got the bright idea that they should hype gift subscriptions with on-screen messages. So, for a couple of weeks, one was reminded the first time that the set was turned on for the day that GIFT SUBSCRIPTIONS ARE AVAILABLE! Since I’m paying for the data, I’d rather not have to read more advertising, thank you!
  • Add a “play-through” audio setting – When looking at the VideoGuide screen, the audio from the television is muted. There are sound effects (little clicks and beeps) associated with actions taken from the remote, but these can be turned off. It would be really nice if the audio from the program whose video is hidden could play through. My guess, though, is that this isn’t easy to do; it would involve interpreting and remodulating the incoming video signal rather than just switching it in and out.
  • Allow the removal of channels from the listings – My cable system has 120 channels, about a dozen of which are pay-per-view. I don’t use the pay-per-view services and probably never will; it’s aggravating to have to scroll over the program listing for the PPV channels. Ditto the home shopping channels, etc. I’d like the ability to hide channels.
  • Reduce the one-day lag in setup time – Program data is transmitted only overnight; it apparently takes hours to deliver it. A new box takes a day to get any information–unless you’re like me and start setting it up after the day’s transmission of program data has started, in which case it takes two days. Yuck. Some of this is probably a bandwidth issue; paging data is generally sent at 1200 or 2400 bits/second, and there’s about half a megabyte of memory to fill; overnight may be the only practical time to transmit voluminous data.
  • Provide delayed-start program information – Sports events that run over can disrupt an evening’s schedule; it sure would be neat if there were some way that the taping schedule could be updated automatically. The hardware can probably do this easily enough; I’ll bet the problem is figuring out how the schedule will be altered in time for the information to be useful.
  • Reconsider the multiple-unit discount structure – The basic data stream isn’t that expensive, but it adds up if you have multiple units active. There is a discount (25%) for additional units, but it seems to me like it should be closer to 75%. This is especially irritating since even the cable companies (marketing geniuses that they are) have figured this out.
  • Fix the cable box control – The remote control provides “universal remote” service for a cable box, but it doesn’t work well. On my cable box (Zenith), the volume up/down and channel up/down functions of the VideoGuide remote overshoot. It’s particularly difficult to change the cable box by one channel in either direction, which is really annoying.
  • Deal well with large numbers of channels – As I mentioned before, my cable system has a lot of channels. This makes a number of things, particularly the alphabetic program listings, really slow to use. When there are a lot of channels, some of the alphabetic divisions in the program guide by name are just too large.
  • Put the tape-to-be-used indicator someplace visible – The box has a way to display the amount of videotape needed for the next 24 hours; this is a great idea, but it requires too many keystrokes to access.
  • Fix the customer service problems – I had major problems with VideoGuide’s customer service/technical support operation (see below).

Geeky Stuff

If you’re reading this section, you should definitely read VideoGuide’s own technical description if you haven’t already done so.

I’ve noticed a couple of really interesting things about the box since I got it.

  • The on-screen serial number encodes more than the unit ID – When I called to set up the VideoGuide subscription, I read the operator the on-screen serial number of the unit. From this, the operator knew exactly when the 30-day free subscription would end, despite the fact that the RF section of the VideoGuide is strictly a receiver. My guess is that the on-screen serial number is actually a composite of the unit’s hardware serial number and the first time packet received after power-up.
  • VideoGuide seems to have a pretty smart data prioritization algorithm – I know from the published technical information that the VideoGuide unit has a half-megabyte of RAM. When I first set up the unit, I had a choice of three cable channel lineups available (based on my cable company’s service offerings). After I chose one, program data was immediately available, but no program descriptions. Even now, descriptions are sometimes only available for the next several days’ worth of programming (though basic channel/date/time data remains available for the full week). My guess is that the VideoGuide unit selectively discards information as the memory gets full, and program description information is less important than, say, program listings. Pretty smart.
  • On-screen fonts are beautiful – so beautiful, in fact, that I’m pretty sure that there’s some fairly serious anti-aliasing going on; I’ve never seen on-screen output from a consumer electronic device look this good.

The Competition

Another company has come up with their own version of the same thing. Called StarSight, it derives its program data from information transmitted in the vertical blanking interval of a TV signal. Its bandwidth is consequently potentially much higher than that of VideoGuide. It’s also built into a number of new televisions and VCRs.

Despite that increased bandwidth, the service actually seems more limited than VideoGuide’s (the news and sports data streams don’t exist, for example). The user interface for StarSight, while good by consumer electronics standards, is terrible by comparison to VideoGuide’s. It does, however, have somewhat better VCR integration; this is no doubt because it’s built in to the VCR in many cases.

Trouble in Paradise (March 13, 1996)

It’s altogether too rare to find a gadget as slickly designed and implemented as VideoGuide. No amount of engineering cleverness can make up for weak customer support, however.

On Saturday, February 24, something happened and the RF signal quality being received by the box plummeted. I have more than one box; after making sure that the problem appeared on more than one unit, I called the VideoGuide help line. I was told that they were aware of a problem in my area and that it should be working again shortly.

On Wednesday, February 28, I was still not receiving data, so I called them again. This time, they acted as if they’d never heard of a problem in the Washington, DC area; after about fifteen minutes of boneheaded diagnostics (“is the box plugged in?”), the technician told me that the problem was that their paging provider was switching to a satellite broadcast system in which the signal would be sent directly from the satellite to the subscriber boxes. I pressed him on this issue, but he was resolute: this was how it was being done. Considering that the box is equipped with a small omnidirectional antenna, this must be some satellite! After realizing that the front-line help desk staff was not Clue Certified, I asked to speak with a more senior technical support staffer. This was more encouraging; we walked through some diagnostics which seemed related to the actual problem. He agreed: the problem was clearly network-related, and he’d file the appropriate trouble report.

I called again on Friday, March 1. Still no data and no update on the signal problem. I was promised a return call on Monday.

Monday arrived and it will shock nobody to learn that I didn’t get a return call. I finally called them. I learned from the technician that I spoke with this time that it takes about a week to diagnose a signal problem and another week or two to fix these problems. I should just “be patient” and the difficulty would be resolved.

The difficulty, as it turned out, was with MobileComm, the paging service provider which VideoGuide uses to deliver the data. They’d done transmitter work which had created a coverage problem in my area and seemed relatively unconcerned about the difficulty, telling the VideoGuide folks that they’d have the transmitter back online “within a couple of weeks.” If I were VideoGuide, I’d be looking for a new service provider.

The problem was finally resolved on about March 20. By this time, I’d been handed off to a senior manager in the customer service organization who was quite helpful in giving me status updates; he also took the time to call back and make sure that the unit was working again.

Yet More Troubles (May 4, 1996)

I got a letter in the mail the other day from the VideoGuide folks apologizing for the signal problems in my area; it was sent to everyone in the affected region(s), apparently. They credited people’s subscriptions an additional 30 days to compensate somewhat for the inconvenience.

I got another letter the following day, though, which was requesting payment for a past-due subscription service bill. This surprised me a bit, since I’d long ago paid for my service. While the name and address on the letter were definitely me, the service ordered (and the unit serial number involved) definitely weren’t. I called VideoGuide and learned that some of these letters went out by mistake to customers who were affected by the earlier service outages, and that I should simply disregard it. Oops!

Summary

VideoGuide is a neat product; it’s a fine example of a gadget that successfully strikes the extremely difficult balance between ease of use and sophistication. It’s recommended provided you can live with the occasional major outage and associated customer service cluelessness.

Gone! (September 7, 1997)

On September 3, VideoGuide abruptly discontinued their service. An on-screen message instructs you to send the VideoGuide unit in to receive a refund; there’s no mention of whether the refund is for the unit itself, unused subscription time, or both.

I haven’t been able to find any official information regarding the shutdown, but here are a couple of key facts:

  • In December, 1996, VideoGuide was acquired by Gemstar (maker of VCRPlus, among other things)
  • In May, 1997, Gemstar and Starsight (vendor of an alternate program guide) merged.

Gemstar was no doubt faced with a choice between two competing products, both of which it owns. Since StarSight is integrated with a number of consumer electronic products, GemStar probably has licensing deals with the makers of that equipment to maintain the service.

This is certainly unfortunate. I still think VideoGuide was an extremely well-designed product; even nearly two years after I got the original units, there’s nothing better on the market. StarSight may be an acceptable alternative for some right now, but it’s going to be a while before a true replacement–in terms of function and quality of design–comes along.


January 8, 1996, with updates March 5, March 13, April 12, May 4, 1996, and September 7, 1997

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