SARA, The Steampunk DVR OS?


As I mentioned yesterday, the cessation of TiVo multi-room viewing (MRV) and ongoing SDV tuning adapter resync annoyances has me playing the field. Over the years, I’ve known a few people running Scientific Atlanta’s 8300HD line of DVRs. I haven’t used one in a couple years, but the issues that bothered me then are still in play on the unit I’ve rented from Cox. (Something like $26/mo including an additional outlet fee).

In many ways, SA’s SARA software sort of feels like a pre-TiVo, pre-ReplayTV DVR. Except those were the first. And you’d think the DVR experience would have evolved in some way over the last ten years. Yet the pixelated graphics, aliased text, and an inability to pause/play without an interstitial black screen sure seems like an alternate history unit from the mid 90s. Also, maybe it’s an option I just couldn’t track down on AVS, but I found the 4:3 UI on a 16:9 screen somewhat jarring and wasteful – I’ve got the space, use it.

Having said that, the 8300HD (actually, it’s an 82*0) does what it should. It’s not as polished as most other DVR experiences, but the retro visuals belie some fairly sophisticated recording options. Perhaps more importantly, it opened our household to the world of OnDemand programming – which is inaccessible from retail one-way CableCARD devices like TiVo. Content may be king… and we enjoyed most of HBO’s True Blood, Season 2 over a few days without needing a Season Pass.

Stay tuned for additional coverage as my experimentation continues… I’ve got a drill and an RF remote. I’ve also got a Slingcatcher. And Ceton’s upcoming Windows Media Center M-Card tuner, coupled with extender hardware, looks promising.

15 thoughts on “SARA, The Steampunk DVR OS?”

  1. Are you subscribed to Cox now? Cox is the worst in terms of UI. It made me long for Comcast. The OnDemand is horrible too. That is why I jumped as soon as Fios became available.

    Have fun.

  2. Don’t do it Dave! I’ve looked at TWC’s SA DVR before and the experience was horrible!

    MCE on the other hand looks interesting. I’m keeping a close eye on recent MCE CableCard news…

  3. Alex, Kevin, This was merely an experiment (and a chance to catch up on True Blood). In fact if enough shows land on iTunes/AppleTV or Amazon VOD AND I can get some OTA HD reception, I could dump cable all together. Ben, yeah I keep trying to think of DVRs I like less and I’m having a hard time.

    In Cox’s defense, while they don’t have the RedZone channel, they are giving customers (in my area?) ESPN360 starting 9/30. But I need Roku or Boxee to get on board with that service.

  4. “…pixelated graphics, aliased text, and an inability to pause/play without an interstitial black screen…”

    That describes my *current*, 2009, U-Verse experience. Plus…

    1. Cannot record a HD channel and watch a different HD channel at the same time.

    2. No slow motion playback of recorded shows or rewind of live TV ( Um football? Hello? )

    3. “On demand” expire, result in “demands” going unfulfilled.

  5. This is all true; However, Comcast gave me a free year of DVR service and it turns out that saving the $15 a month Tivo fees is worth it. So, yes, it hard to upsell people on better quality DVR.

    My other theory is once you’ve invested enough pain in the SA DVR you are emotionally bound to it and can’t admit how much better Tivo is.

  6. Yeah that SARA guide is pretty grotesque. I think it comes preloaded on the set tops, so whatever’s cheaper for the provider ya know?

    SA boxes are very capable hardware though. They just need the right software to drive them correctly. Passport works pretty well, and they even support Multi-Room DVR. SA boxes can do logo’s, interactive games, caller ID on screen with history, picture in picture, and guide element transitions – but only all with the proper software. Sadly though the dual RISC based processors seem to go underutilized because of the cheapo cable operators don’t care to upgrade their interface. What they need to realize is that their UI is part of their bland. Who want’s to have such an archaic look to their brand? I believe Cox has gotten NDS to produce a whole new 16:9 flavored guide. On page 6 of this PDF it shows one screen capture of the new Cox / NDS guide:

  7. I believe Comcast is starting to roll through guide updates now that create a significant improvement over the existing SARA guides in their systems. (Don’t know about Cox) I’d heard about the limitations of SARA before, but I’ve never seen pics. Thanks. :)

    On the VOD side, when I finally switched over to digital cable (was living off my no-monthly-fee ReplayTV for a long time) I was surprised at how much I *liked* VOD. After all the complaining, I was expecting the experience to be really rough. Not so. There is definitely room for improvement, but I love me some VOD.

  8. Cox will be rolling out a new tru2way IPG from NDS on new STB’s. No plans on when the older boxes will get it but then again those older legacy SA boxes don’t have enough performance to run tru2way in a decent state. The new IPG will also be 16:9.

  9. I suffer with the SARA in NY with Time Warner. It’s horrible. Just horrible. I also have a ReplayTV and TiVo. You are so correct when you say that SARA looks like some pre-2000 DVR attempt.

    At least your On Demand looks better than mine. Here, TWC just removed the old Adelphia logos and never replaced it with their own. Still. So there’s all these blank spots all over the On Demand UI. Ridiculous.

  10. Mari, I’ve got more pics if you need. But I no longer have the unit. Which leads into Chris’ comment… My On Demand and Menu buttons did not work. On Demand did nothing, Menu brought up a screen saying it was trying to load and then would time out after a minute or so. That’s the SD On Demand screen which I was only able to find by tuning to 001. Cox’s solution was to schedule a service visit for this brand new box, so I just brought it back and said they could keep it.

    cypher, That’s why I was very specific in attacking SARA versus the SA hardware. I’ve played with better experiences on the same boxes. Still trying to find out if I can get FiOS TV in my building. We’re wired for Internet/fiber and our jurisdiction has approved their television services… so I’m hoping there’s an easy way.

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