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Sony SAT-T60 TiVo/DSS Receiver Print E-mail
Friday, 01 June 2001
ImageSony’s SAT-T60 combines TiVo, the most popular personal television service, with DirecTV, the most popular satellite service. This means that the SAT-T60 will not only save you some space in your entertainment center or equipment rack, it will also let you keep up on the latest television shows and still have a life. Before personal television units such as TiVo and ReplayTV, we were forced to manually program VCRs and were at the mercy of damaged, worn-out tapes and/or power outages. Then came VCR Plus, but that wasn’t exactly the most intuitive system, and it was never a huge success in the eyes of consumers. Sure, it was cool to see the little VCR+ logo on your VCR, but who wanted to hunt though the TV Guide to find a particular show’s special code number? With TiVo’s service, you simply browse through a complete list of the coming two weeks’ worth of programming. Using the extremely simple menus, even the most technically inept TV watchers can record their favorite shows.

Built to look more like a stand-alone TiVo unit than a DSS receiver, Sony SAT-T60 is a muted silver/gray box that is 17+1/4 inches wide, three-and-seven-eighths inches tall and 13+1/8 inches deep. It is quite heavy for its size at nine pounds, one ounce, but that is understandable, considering how much technology is packed inside. As of this writing, the SAT-T60 sells for approximately $399 in most electronic stores and Sony is offering a $100 mail-in rebate, bringing the total down to a more reasonable $299. Unlike ReplayTV, which charges more for machines but doesn’t charge a service fee (the PVHS 2000 Panasonic showstopper is $549.99 and a mail-in rebate will get the price down to $449.00), TiVo charges a $9.95 monthly service fee, with the alternative option of a one-time $250 fee. The latter was just upped from the previous amount of $199, so TiVo obviously feels strongly about their market penetration in the category of personal television recorders. You can also purchase the SAT-T60 with a Sony satellite dish (Model SAT-T60D).
Under the SAT-T60’s hood is a hard drive that has enough capacity to hold 35 hours of programming, as well as the hardware for the satellite receiver. Needless to say, this baby can get pretty hot, especially when it’s recording. There are rubber feet on the bottom to allow air to flow underneath it, but these are quite small. I would like to have seen an additional eighth to a quarter of an inch more to help keep the unit running a little cooler. I happen to have a VCR sitting on top of the TiVo and a receiver just to the left of it, both of which further add to the heat issue. Fortunately, I have yet to experience any negative performance due to overheating, but it could be a factor if you were to add this to a rack that already has a heat problem.

The Sony SAT-T60 was quite easy to set up, by simply plugging the coax feed directly from the satellite dish on my balcony into the input on the back of the TiVo labeled "Required." When looking at the unit from behind, you can see an "Optional" input to the left of the main input that comes with a plastic cap over it. Just for kicks, I tried both connections and the picture looked exactly the same. What is the point of having two separate satellite inputs on the back of the unit? I have a feeling that the developers at Sony and TiVo have plans on the horizon for a software upgrade that will allow two satellite signals to be fed into the SAT-T60 using a dual LNB dish, so that you can record on one channel and watch another or, better yet, record two programs simultaneously. Microsoft’s Ultimate TV service is currently the only one that allows you to do this, and if they want to keep up, TiVo certainly needs to find a way to allow its users this luxury.

For some strange reason, the power cord that came with the machine didn’t like to fit all the way into the back. Upon further inspection, I realized that there was a small excess piece of plastic around the edge of the plug, no doubt left over from the mold, but a quick trim with an Exacto knife (with the cord NOT plugged into the wall) got it to fit perfectly into the receptacle.

For the video, I ran the provided S-video four-pin mini-DIN cable into my Sony 32-inch Trinitron TV and ran the analog audio out of the RCA outputs on the back of the TiVo into my receiver. There is an optical output that allows you to hook up the SAT-T60 to a Dolby Digital or Pro Logic surround receiver. If your television does not have an S-Video input, you can use the composite video out or go really old school and used the RF out with a coax cable. It’s a no-brainer that the S-Video will give you a significantly better picture, so if you have the ability, this is certainly the way to go. If this is not an option for you, using the composite video out and a quality set of RCA cables will give you the second-best results. Sony has conveniently added an extra set of outputs for you to archive shows onto videocassette if you desire. If you have a higher-end Sony VCR, you can also take advantage of a nifty little feature called Auto VCR Transfer that allows you to instantly transfer a program without having the skills of a big shot Hollywood editor.

An eight-inch cord connects between the TiVo and the Sony VCR and locks the two machines together. In the TiVo menu, an option called "save this program to a VCR" allows one-touch archiving. My Sony VCR was made before this feature was even thought of, so I could not try it out.

The included remote looks and feels much better than the original Philips TiVo remote, which could have been mistaken for a prop from the 1960s "Star Trek" TV show. The remote worked perfectly with my Sony Trinitron television and Sony VCR without having to program any special codes and it felt well-balanced in my hand. However, if you are trying to create a more happening home theater system, I recommend programming the TiVo commands in a Philips Pronto and put the Sony remote away in the remote drawer.

The final step in setting up the SAT-T60 is hooking up a telephone line to the unit so that it can constantly download the new TiVo/DSS program guide and system software updates. It is also necessary have the phone line hooked up if you want to order a pay-per-view event or movie.
The first few weeks that I had the Sony SAT-T60 hooked up to my system, I was disappointed to find that, when watching shows that were recorded on the TiVo, the picture would occasionally become pixilated and would often leave ghost images across the screen for a few seconds. This pixelation was seemingly random and I had never had this happed to me with my old RCA DRD 420 RE DSS receiver. I thought that the fact that I was using an RCA dish could have been a factor, but after speaking to a rep at Sony customer service, I was told this was probably not the case. My next guess for the problem was that the hard drive in the TiVo was causing this digital distortion. After swapping out the Sony SAT-T60 for a new one, the problem continued, so I tried to figure out what else might be causing this distortion. When I began my evaluation of the Sony SAT-T60, the weather in the Los Angeles area was overcast and rainy for a few weeks. It turned out that the thick cloud cover and adverse weather weakened the signal just enough to cause these problems when the signal was recorded onto the hard drive by the TiVo, although it would still appear perfectly clear when watching live programming. Adding a simple Radio Shack signal amplifier in line with the satellite connection has since solved the problem. It’s probably not necessary at this point now that the weather is back to sunny and 70 degrees, but I’ve just left it in the loop and have never had this glitchy signal problem since. Video purists may scoff at adding a Radio Shack component to the signal path, but I have absolutely no complaints now about the quality of the picture, both live and when played back on the TiVo. I have seen the playback of a ReplayTV and I find the picture with TiVo to be superior. With the TiVo, there is a touch of excess color saturation and the images are not quite as sharp as the live signal, but the picture quality is head and shoulders above that of ReplayTV. If you are looking for the ultimate off-the-hook way to record programs, get a $25,000 Digibeta and a personal assistant to tape stuff for you. If you have your priorities in check, the TiVo, even with its slight loss of quality, looks good enough for me and probably will for you, too.

I am watching more television than ever before because of the Sony SAT-T60, but I feel like I’m not wasting as much time in doing so. This is a huge issue for busy people. The fact that TiVo makes it possible to watch a 30-minute show in about 22 minutes is a beautiful thing. Featuring three speeds of fast-forward, TiVo lets you blaze through commercials or the boring parts of a movie. When using the 2x and 3x speed fast-forward, the TiVo automatically backs up a pre-determined amount of time. By the time you see the part of the show you want to watch, you have already gone past it. The TiVo solves this problem with the back-up feature. At first, it can be a little frustrating, but you’ll develop your own method for getting through commercials to the desired part of the program in no time flat. Note that that the slowest speed fast-forward plays from the current point when you push "play."

If you are a big fan of a particular show and don’t want to miss a single episode, you can use the Season Pass feature, which will automatically record the entire season’s episodes for you. Another great feature is the scope of the TiVo program guide, which allows you to search for programs by a variety of criteria. If you enjoy a particular performer’s work, you can put his/her name onto a list and TiVo will automatically record anything that has that person’s name in the program description. You can search and record by category, genre and/or critics’ ratings of movies, as well as keyword. If you enjoy boxing, you can tell the TiVo to automatically record anything it finds in the program that has the word "boxing" in it. Another feature that TiVo has is "Thumbs Up" and "Thumbs Down." If you are watching a show and like it, you can push "Thumbs Up" and the TiVo will record any future shows that it thinks are similar. Conversely, "Thumbs Down" will tell the system to avoid any shows that are like the one you don’t like. It sounds good in theory, but I ended up getting more junk on my TiVo than I knew what to do with, so I really don’t employ this feature.

All of the shows that you have recorded will be stored into a list called "now playing" and will usually have a small colored circle to the left of the title. A yellow circle means that the show has been recorded but has not been viewed yet. Once the show has been viewed, the yellow circle disappears. If you stop watching a show and then want to finish it later, the TiVo will remember what point you were last at and will resume playing from there. This is incredibly useful when watching a long movie or sporting event. As the TiVo nears its capacity, it will start recording over older shows. If there is something that you absolutely don’t want taped over, you can lock it in the menu and then a green circle will pop up to the left of the program to show that it has been locked in place. It then won’t be recorded over until you delete it or unlock it. A red circle will appear next to any program that is currently being recorded.

Advantage Over Regular TiVO
The biggest advantage of the combination Tivo/DSS receiver over a stand-alone Tivo is reliability when it comes to recording shows. I have friends who have TiVos connected to their cable boxes and external satellite receivers. There have been times when the TiVo and cable box or satellite receiver were not quite in synch and a show did not get taped properly. DSS satellite service is much more reliable than most cable systems, so even when something such as a power outage happens, your shows will tape once the power comes back on because all of your information is stored magnetically in the TiVo’s internal brain.

If you are stepping up from cable and you don’t yet have a DSS receiver or a TiVo, this machine makes perfect sense. If you already have a satellite receiver, it’s hard to justify the extra money, so you will likely want to consider a stand-alone TiVo. Now that TiVo and DSS have joined forces, any TiVo fees are combined with your DSS bill. You may have a heart attack the first time you get your DSS bill if you opt for the one-time service fee, but once you weather that storm, you never have to pay another TiVo subscription fee as long as you keep the machine. Even after exchanging my first TiVo, I was able to roll my service fee over to the new one. All it took was a quick call to DirecTV and I was good to go with the new one.

The first TiVo units allowed you to adjust to recording quality to provide more recording time. A 30-hour TiVo for example was really only a 15-hour machine when recording at the best quality. Sony has done away with this on the SAT-T60 and allows 35 hours of recording at the best quality and there is no option to record at a lower quality. As long as you keep up with your recordings and delete or archive stuff on a regular basis, 35 hours seems like plenty of room. I fit all four days of the Masters golf tournament on my TiVo with enough room left over for a boatload of "Simpsons" and "South Park" episodes, as well as a few movies and other sporting events. With all of the space that the SAT-T60’s hard drive provides, I highly recommend you go into the System Settings and tell it to record at least five to 10 minutes extra on all shows. When there is a sporting event or an awards show that you really want to see, assume that it is not going to finish at its regularly scheduled ending time. For these events, go ahead and add an extra hour or two to your recording when you set it up. Just imagine that time is running out in overtime of the big game. Kobe dishes inside to Shaq, but there is no shot and he dishes back to Kobe. The shot is up, and ... the picture freezes and says, "Are you finished with this program?" You’ll wish you’d thought ahead and told your TiVo to add an extra cushion to the big game.

One of Tivo’s greatest features is the default buffer that automatically records whatever you are watching. If you are watching a baseball game, for example, but don’t really care about saving it, the TiVo will always be recording and will archive the last 30 minutes of what you are watching. The length of this buffer can be adjusted in the system menus. If you need to hop up and get something from the refrigerator or need to take care of some business, you can pause the game, and come back later and un-pause it. You will then be able to blaze through any unwanted parts of the program or commercials. If you eventually catch up to where the event is live, the TiVo will automatically stop there and switch back to live mode. If you scrutinize the picture, there is a difference between the absolutely live picture and the one that plays from the system’s buffer, but as I said before, the signal degradation is small enough that it’s not an issue for my system. If you have a projector or a larger TV, you may notice a more dramatic difference in the picture quality, but until they come up with something new, the SAT-T60D is about as good as it gets for this technology.

The Downside
Leave it to Microsoft to shake things up. With their UltimateTV service, Bill Gates and company have created a service that has a distinct advantage over TiVo. Not only does UltimateTV allow users to record two shows at one time, it also allows viewers to watch two shows at once via picture-in-picture and has an Internet connection so that you can surf the web while watching shows. At $400 plus $9.95 per month, UltimateTV is more expensive than TiVo, but I feel you should at least see an in-store demo of it before you decide on the personal home recorder that best fits your needs. If TiVo and ReplayTV don’t come up with a way to address these issues, they may start sitting on store shelves while Bill Gates finds new ways to put more cheddar in his bank account.

The only other technical glitch that I found with the SAT-T60, besides the temporary pixilated picture was that once in a while, the TiVo would spin its wheels and lock up. It’s essentially a computer in a fancy box and is subject to crashes and lockups just like any computer. Since it’s not multi-tasking the way that most computers do, you’ll rarely have it freeze on you, but when it does, it can take a good five to 10 minutes to reboot after you have unplugged it from the wall. When frozen, sometimes the power button will not even work. This has only happened to me three times in four months. The TiVo seems it most susceptible to crashing if you fill the thing up to the brim with shows. As you delete shows, you’ll notice a slight increase in the speed on the menus. Perhaps they could have built some more operating system memory into the unit, but I’d guess that there isn’t much room for any extra components under the hood of the SAT-T60.

If you already have a DSS box that you are happy with or plan to switch to HDTV, it might not make sense to pay the extra money for the SAT-T60 at this point in time. You may also want to consider a 60-hour stand-alone TiVo unit for about $600 if you don’t need or want satellite service. Also note that there are currently no Personal TV units that can record a HD signal. If you have an old satellite receiver on its last legs and you are tired of the old eight-bit software but don’t see HD in your future, then the Sony’s box would make perfect sense. I got my SAT-T60 at a time when UltimateTV was not on the market, and there are times I wish I had the extra features that it allows. Having DSL on my computer at home, I’d probably never use an UltimateTV to surf the web, so that option isn’t important to me, but not being about to record two shows at once is the biggest bummer for me. If a software upgrade ever happens for the SAT-T60, then I’ll keep it in my entertainment system for many years to come. But for now, the Sony TiVo has been a most worthy investment.

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