[opendtv] Will DVD recorders succeed despite user interface problems?

  • From: "Manfredi, Albert E" <albert.e.manfredi@xxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <opendtv@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 15 Dec 2005 11:25:55 -0500

I'm sure the URL will get hopelessly trashed. There are two equals
signs in it, and it's way too long. But I copied the entire

My Philips DVDR works very well, overall. It suffered from some
PC-like firmware glitches early on, but the firmware updates seem
to have cured those problems. Actually, it was one of the early
updates of the firmware that caused some strange glitches, not
the original load.

IMO the biggest problems are not the recorder or the software,
which is very easy to use in my case. I see the problems being
first that consumers aren't told what these devices do. Everyone
knew that VCRs were great for time shifting. For unexplained
reasons, this obvious function of DVDRs is hidden from the
buyer. It's a secret that there's a TV tuner built in, even if
all are analog only, as far as I can tell.

Another problem is occasional copy protection by broadcasters,
which I still can't tell if it's intentional or not. NBC says
unintentional. This might be why some people think they aren't

Another possible issue, especially among those who pride
themselves in their inability to program a VCR, is that no
one seems to publish VCR+ codes anymore. So you have to enter
the info manually. Turns out that takes no longer than entering
a weird code anyway.

A DVDR with good 5th gen ATSC receiver built in would make a
great STB, even if the DVDs can't record true HD.



November 30, 2005

Will DVD recorders succeed despite user interface problems?

By John Barber

Chinese manufacturers are pulling no punches with price drops
for DVD recorders. Recent drops from Wal-Mart's private label
brand "iLo" (actually manufactured by EastTech) to $99 are an
indication that the DVD recorder market is finally in the
position to take significant share away from DVD players.
However, previous lackluster sales of DVD recorders in the
market due to an unintuitive user interface highlight a
significant issue that could create barriers to this volume
potential. Most U.S. consumers are familiar with drastic
price drops in consumer products. One of the main factors in
this drop is the aggressive integration of semiconductor
intellectual property into a single piece of silicon, or
system on chip (SOC), reducing the amount of overall silicon
and, hence, total cost of the product.

This integration has, however, contributed to a significant
challenge for Chinese contract manufacturers who are
competing with low-cost DVD recordable platforms. As the
hardware complexity and level of integration of SOC devices
and application-specific standard products (ASSPs) has
increased, so has the role and sophistication of the software
embedded in these chips. The DVD recorder market's slow sales
illustrate the problems that can arise from poorly designed
embedded software.

The biggest mistake that many Chinese contract manufacturers
made is to assume that DVD recorders are just extensions of a
DVD player. In reality, a DVD recorder is immensely more
complicated than a player. For instance, every DVD recorder
has a region-specific tuner and special optical properties to
handle very complicated read/write functions. The DVD player
handles only decoding of digital data, whereas a recorder
must take in and process analog and digital data from the
tuner, A/V inputs, and IEEE-1394 (Firewire) input from
digital camcorders. The DVD recorder must also handle most,
if not all, of the DVD media formats like DVD+R, DVD-R, and
DVD-RW. While DVD recorder SoC hardware has been developed to
process these formats, embedded software development has
lagged behind, leading to lackluster sales in the retail
channel. Even with drastic price drops, consumers are
returning their DVD recorders at levels reaching 30% to 40%,
often citing the hard-to-use interface (which is driven by
the embedded software) as the reason.

For the box manufacturers, choosing an SoC or ASSP with poor
embedded application software can lead to severe
consequences. Well-designed and flexible embedded software is
vital for the success of consumer electronic devices.

Who's to blame?

Don't be quick to point the finger at Chinese equipment
manufacturers for this user experience issue. In the past,
consumer electronic manufacturers developed some of the
embedded software themselves, but today's highly integrated
and highly complex SoCs require a huge amount of software.
As a result, the responsibility for developing a user
interface now lies with the chip maker, leaving most contract
manufacturers with primary task making only minor "look and
feel" changes to the user interface. The user-interface layer
of embedded software needs to control an ever-growing list of

The user interface provided to OEMs as part of the software
embedded in SoCs or ASSPs has been nonintuitive, resulting in
hard-to-use products. Semiconductor vendors should include a
fully functional, intuitive user interface in their embedded
software. In theory, OEMs can include the unmodified user
interface in their products, but the ultimate goal is to
provide flexible software tools that allow contract
manufacturers to customize the look and feel of the user

Manufacturers of SoCs and ASSPs need to improve the quality
of their embedded software and make it more flexible. The
key to doing this is to use modular software design
techniques. Well-written, modular software will also help to
reduce costs by making it easier to reuse existing code,
shortening the time it takes to bring new SoCs and ASSPs to
market, and cutting software support costs.

Some semiconductor vendors are developing an embedded Java
and HTML interface to support new DVD recorder and set-top
box designs. This interface will include tools the OEMs can
use to modify an application user interface quickly and
easily. Companies that provide dedicated Java and HTML tools
to support such needs include Planetweb and iPanel (Embedded
Internet Solutions).

Tipping point

Retailers and Chinese equipment manufacturers have responded
to lackluster sales the only way they know how: they're
slashing prices. Lite-On, a low-cost manufacturer of DVD
recorders in the U.S. retail market, is expected to cut its
price for its DVD recorder, which also features the "Easy
Guider" menu to navigate through the various recording
functions. Lite-On naturally claims its interface is very
intuitive, and at such low prices, the consumer's decision
between a DVD player and a DVD recorder is just about

Will the DVD player or recorder win the market share? The
ultimate test plays out this holiday season in an
electronics store near you.

John Barber is an analyst with Gartner Dataquest. He can be
contacted via e-mail at john.barber@xxxxxxxxxxxx

Reader Response


I have returned three DVD recorders--not because of clunky
user interfaces, but because of unreliable operation.

The CyberHome machine which started it all is identical to
the ilo machine mentioned in your article.

It worked fine--when it worked, but it made too many
"coasters" during various operations. Read more on my blog
at: www.livejournal.com/~russj/10926.html.

- Russ Josephson
United States


I can't believe it is the user interface, as the two units
I have the firmware bugs are much worse. Are you sure only
30% are returned? Are the rest put in the trash? One unit
that I purchased will reset the date and time if you press
a key at the wrong time. And the states are just not right.
You have to eject and insert disk to get the menus to sync
up with the correct state.

The second unit I have, different brand, always manages to
crash the firmware, at which point, it does not respond.
You have to pull the plug in order to reset it! There is no
way the average consumer can use these. I can't believe the
people who wrote the firmware ever used these either! They
could have done some QA to verify that the basic
record/playback work.

I waited too long, can no longer return these. And I haven't
been able to find any firmware updates to fix any of the
problems, even though this was a selling point on one of the

- Paul
United States
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