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War of the remotes

War of the remotes
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First Published: Tue, May 04 2010. 08 37 PM IST

In your hands: (left) Airtel’s remote is ergonomic, but the button layout leaves a lot to be desired; the Tata Sky+ remote is better thought-out.
In your hands: (left) Airtel’s remote is ergonomic, but the button layout leaves a lot to be desired; the Tata Sky+ remote is better thought-out.
Updated: Tue, May 04 2010. 08 37 PM IST
I’d been searching for a local version of TiVo for years, and when Tata Sky launched its Tata Sky+ service sometime last year, I was one of the first to hop on to the bandwagon. As wonderful as owning a digital video recorder (DVR) was, the fact that it had been a one-horse race had made me uncomfortable. Not that I had complaints with the service, but competition is always good for the consumer.
Debunking the jargon
In your hands: (left) Airtel’s remote is ergonomic, but the button layout leaves a lot to be desired; the Tata Sky+ remote is better thought-out.
Ignore it all. Digital signals are digital signals. They’re better than analogue and that’s it, nothing more. Although you’ll hear claims of “superior” technologies, and have jargon thrown in your face about satellite technologies such as DVB-S and DVB-S2, the fact of the matter is that it’s all pretty much DVD resolution and not high definition (HD)—except if you opt for HD channels such as Discovery HD on a service such as Sun’s HD direct-to-home (DTH) service.
I’m going to focus mainly on the DVR capabilities, because if you’re thinking of shifting over to DTH, you’re reading the wrong article.
Interface and remotes
Considering that a DVR device is something that everyone in the family is going to use, the ease of use of the interface and remote is important.
On the one hand, Airtel’s remote is decently ergonomic to hold, but the button layout leaves a lot to be desired. Tata Sky’s remote, on the other hand, seems like a much better thought out and put together implementation—serial channel surfers will like it. Perhaps it’s the Sky moniker adding experience and good design sensibilities to the mix, because this round clearly goes to Tata Sky. Button layouts aside, the fact that you can program Airtel’s remote to control the basic functionalities of your TV, and thus act as a universal remote, shifts the advantage straight back to Airtel.
Connectivity
Airtel wins hands down here, because it’s just nice to see an HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) connector on a device that’s mostly going to be used with HDTVs. Although it may only reduce cable clutter, and not really offer any significant picture improvements, since neither is offering anything near HD quality video, I still think cable clutter is reason enough to have an HDMI-out.
Channel surfing
This is an important aspect to the whole DTH and DVR phenomenon. Both offerings have easy-to-use scan menus that tell you what’s on the other channels, without actually changing the channel. What this means is that you can record that saas-bahu serial without missing a second of your cricket match. When you change to a new channel, the Airtel box lags a bit more before displaying the channel. Not a big deal if you just go to the next channel, but it can be irritating when you’re channel surfing. Tata Sky+ wins here.
Pause, record, etc
Here’s what you’re buying a DVR for in the first place, so read carefully. On both offerings, you can set a 90-minute buffer, which means that if you haven’t changed the channel, and are watching it, you will be able to pause or rewind live programming up to 90 minutes earlier. Of course, every time you change a channel, this buffer starts filling from scratch, so this is only useful when you’ve been watching a particular channel for a long period.
When recording, Airtel can be set to record a maximum of 20 minutes before and after the programme ends; Tata Sky offers up to 30 minutes. Twenty minutes is more than enough for 99% of the programmes you’d ever watch, but every now and then, with soccer finals going into extra time, it’s better to have some more buffer. However, the higher this setting, the lower the total number of programmes you can record. I recommend that you set this to 5 minutes, and to ensure that you record special events fully, just record the next programme as well—works well for me.
If there’s one particular function of Tata Sky+ that’s given me nightmares, it’s the Series Link function. The theory’s simple. If you like a particular programme, series-link it, and it’s automatically recorded every time it’s aired. However, with Tata Sky+, sometimes the option just appears auto-magically, but most times it’s just impossible to find.
With Airtel, this option is easily accessible, and easy to set, but in no way can I say that Airtel has got this right. For example, I series-linked Friends, and when I tried to change the channel to watch some sports, it promptly told me I could not, because two channels were already being recorded—Zee Café and WB. “When did I tell it to record WB?” I thought. Flicking over to WB I found my answer. Airtel was trying to record all programmes called “Friends” on all channels. Hardly what I’d call a satisfactory solution, but still a lot better than my Tata Sky+ experience.
Favourites
Although this is a feature that’s not really limited to only the DVR boxes, I have to mention the implementation of Airtel’s Favourites feature. While Tata Sky offers up to 20 channels that can be set as favourites, Airtel has four sets of 15 favourites each. This is well thought out, because assuming the average family has four people, this means each of the four can set their favourites. However, as I mentioned before, you have to go through a few more clicks to get there in Airtel than in Tata Sky+, which has a dedicated button that directly takes you to the first channel in your Favourites list. One additional feature that Airtel offers here is Most Viewed, which lists the channels you’ve spent most of your time watching. Clearly, Airtel wins in this regard.
Not that it happens very often, but if you want to reset your favourites list, Tata Sky users will find this easier, as it has a delete all favourites function—while Airtel needs you to deselect each channel individually from the long list of channels in the guide.
The extras
Apart from all of the above, both service providers come with some really cool features that you should know about. Airtel launched with a feature called Mobile Recording, which allows you to download a little app to your mobile that will let you instruct your set-top box (STB) to record a programme, from literally anywhere in the world. Now this was a really cool feature that set Airtel’s offering apart, but now Tata Sky+ has announced that all subscribers to its DVR service will be able to instruct their STBs to record any programme from not just their mobiles, but also any Internet-connected device. Ah, the joys of being a consumer in a hotly contested market.
One?Airtel-only feature is widgets. You get cricket updates, stock reports, weather in your city and more, all displayed in a small box on your screen. What this does is, for example, help you keep track of a cricket score while watching another programme, without changing the channel.
Decisions, decisions
Honestly, if you’re already a subscriber to one, there’s no real value in switching to the other provider, just for the recording capability. Like the mobile provider wars, this segment is all set to get crowded, which will mean more features, more entertainment, and at cheaper prices. The battle’s only just beginning, but currently, Airtel seems to have a very slight upper hand in terms of features.
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First Published: Tue, May 04 2010. 08 37 PM IST