External hard drive vendors eye DVR upgrade market

When San Francisco resident Keith Abrams ordered his digital video recorder (DVR) from TiVo Inc., 40 hours of recording time seemed like an enormous amount. But Abrams and his roommate wound up saving far more episodes of favorite shows than they had anticipated, and the resulting storage crunch has meant fewer shows that meet his interests are recorded each week.

Hoping to cash in on the growing need for extra DVR storage, external hard drive companies Maxtor Corp. and Seagate Technology LLC are planning to work with cable and satellite providers to develop and market external hard drives for DVRs from companies like TiVo Inc. or Echostar Communications Corp.

About 4.2 million DVRs were shipped worldwide in 2003, with about half that number shipping to the U.S., according to market research from IDC. Last year, shipments to the U.S. grew by 180 percent, IDC said.

Most DVRs available today provide a minimum of 40 hours of storage. DVRs with higher capacities are available, but when most users initially purchase the device they don't understand how quickly their DVRs will fill up with content, said Rob Pait, director of global consumer electronics marketing for Seagate.

Abrams and his roommate didn't realize how much extra storage capacity would be used by higher-quality versions of their favorite shows, he said in an e-mail interview.

And as more and more consumers switch to high-definition television (HDTV) services, those storage requirements will skyrocket, Pait said. HDTV programs can require up to nine times the storage capacity of conventional programs, he said.

Adding a larger internal hard drive isn't something most users of consumer electronics products are comfortable doing on their own, Pait said. Also, satellite and cable providers do not want to train support technicians or make house calls in order to upgrade hard drives on DVRs, he said.

TiVo allows users to upgrade their boxes with kits that walk the user through the process of opening up the DVR and installing the new hard drive. TiVo customers can also send their DVRs to the company for upgrades.

But both Maxtor and Seagate believe that cable and satellite operators that are entering the market will want to offer external products that consumers can simply plug into the back of an existing DVR without having to open the case, send the machine back to the manufacturer or coordinate a service call with the cable or satellite provider.

Seagate plans to work with the service providers as well as set-top box manufacturers such as Scientific Atlanta Inc. to make sure its external drives will work with existing DVRs and forthcoming products, Pait said. The company outlined its plans for the market and demonstrated several devices at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association show in New Orleans Monday.

Last week, Maxtor unveiled the QuickView Expander external drive, designed for DVRs. It will come with 160G bytes of storage, and will be available early in the third quarter, said David Barron, director of digital entertainment for Maxtor. Pricing has not been disclosed.

Maxtor will sell the QuickView Expander products through online Web sites directed at consumers as well as relationships with the cable and satellite providers, Barron said.

External hard drives are a popular storage upgrade option for PC users, said Stephen Baker, director of industry analysis with NPD Techworld. Sales of external hard drives for PCs are growing more quickly than internal hard drives as consumers have looked for easy ways to store their growing libraries of digital pictures and video, he said.

Much of this growth has been made possible by standards such as USB 2.0 (Universal Serial Bus) and Firewire, which have led to faster transfer rates between PCs and external storage devices, Baker said.

Seagate and Maxtor are working with set-top box manufacturers to make sure their DVRs ship with support for at least one of those two standards. TiVo's Series2 DVRs have USB 2.0 ports that will be able to take advantage of external storage units, Maxtor's Barron said.

The consumer electronics world is also preparing an answer for DVR users hamstrung by shrinking storage capacity. A coalition of companies led by Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd., Pioneer Corp. and Sharp Corp. has developed a standard for a portable hard drive that can plug into both PCs and consumer electronics devices.

A product based on the IVDR (Information Versatile Disk for Removable usage) standard is expected later this year from IO Data Devices Inc. That product will come with 20G bytes of storage and will use the USB 2.0 standard for transferring data.

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