SONICblue Marches Ahead with New DVRs

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Things are coming in threes for SONICblue Inc. these days: The maker of the ReplayTV family of personal video recorders is now shipping its latest ReplayTV 4000 PVRs.

And a coalition of major TV networks recently withdrew part of a pending lawsuit against the company, which was meant to halt that rollout.

The company also announced that it has lassoed a key patent for digital video recording technology.

SONICblue, which bought out ReplayTV Inc. earlier this year, is aiming the Replay 4000 at broadband Internet users with home networks.

It comes in four versions: the $699 Replay TV4040, with 40 hours of video storage; the $999 ReplayTV 4080 unit, with 80 hours of storage; the $1,499 ReplayTV 4160, with 160 hours of storage; and the $1,999 ReplayTV 4320, with 320 hours of storage.

All of the 4000-series boxes can record programs without commercials, and each includes a broadband connection that can be used to send video around a home network. They can also swap Internet video files among fellow ReplayTV users.

So far, sales are above projections, the company reported. The most popular unit is the 4080, according to SONICblue CTO Andy Wolfe.

"We're selling more expensive units than we had originally expected," Wolfe said. "I think people believe that this is a platform that will get new capabilities over time, so a lot of people want the extra storage to take advantage of the capabilities as they come out."

The technology still faces a lawsuit filed earlier this fall by a cadre of major television programmers, including Viacom Inc. units CBS and Viacom International Inc., NBC, and The Walt Disney Co.'s Disney Enterprises Inc.

The coalition's suit claims that the ReplayTV 4000 series and the older Go Video DDV2120 Dual-Deck VCR could seriously damage their advertising-dependent businesses because they give viewers the ability to automatically skip commercials when recording.

The coalition also claims the Replay 4000's ability to make perfect digital copies of programming and send those copies to others violates their copyrights.

Late last month, the coalition amended the suit, dropping mention of the Go Video VCR. Wolfe suspects that is intended to avoid associating it with the landmark Sony court cases that established consumers' rights to record programming on VCRs for personal use.

"They are trying to rely on the voodoo factor of saying this is a digital device; it's not a VCR," he said. "Digital, therefore, is dangerous."

But NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Tompkins said the amendment was intended to shift focus more toward the core issue.

"We've always drawn pretty good distinctions with what the Sony case said and the specific issues with this case, which extends beyond fair use," she said. "It was just a matter of tightening it and explaining that the issue was not about the PVR as a whole, but specifically with this functionality."

In the meantime, SONICblue has been awarded a patent for its digital video recording technology. The patent covers its process for recording shows, including how users can enter a description of the TV shows they want to record, find shows in the ReplayTV program guide that match the description and find a spot on the disk to record them.

"I personally would find it really unsatisfying to not have this capability in a video device," Wolfe noted. "We think there are a lot of people who will be interested in licensing this patent."

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