Now, cable operators are primed to respond to customer requests with the
introduction of digital video recorder cable boxes like the newly released
Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000. Equipped with a hard drive and all the
technology necessary to receive digital and on demand programming, the
Explorer 8000 attempts to deliver a one-box solution to existing cable
subscribers contemplating a switch to satellite or investing in a standalone
Tivo or Replay unit.
Larger than most cable boxes, the Explorer barely squeezes into equipment
stacks, and like some of its predecessors, it's best placed atop other
equipment, because it generates considerable heat.
The 8000 series can be custom configured by cable operators with different
size hard drives. Time Warner of Rochester, NY (one of Time Warner's test
markets) deployed Explorer 8000's with the Maxtor 4D080H4, a value line 80
gig 5400rpm hard drive, capable of storing from 30-40 hours of programming,
depending on whether the recorded channel was on an analog or digital tier.
The unit makes almost no noise.
The 8000 integrates the digital video recorder with the critically-panned
Scientific Atlanta standard interactive program guide (the one that starts
with programming lists two hours in the future) and assigns a pseudo-channel
on the digital tier for viewers to view and access their recorded
programming. Users can also manually configure recording times for the
The box is targeted to customers who want the convenience of digital video
recording without upfront equipment costs. The box is provided on a
month-by-month rental basis. In the Rochester test market, the rate is
$9.95 per month in addition to the standard monthly $5.60 digital equipment
fee (and a .35 cent per month fee for the remote control). Time Warner
points out that competitors like Tivo make you purchase the equipment and
still pay a fee of up to $9.95 per month for the program guide (which is
also a way for these companies to recoup added costs).
Among the major benefits of the Explorer 8000 is its graceful integration
with digital cable service. Recording most cable programming that requires
a cable box with external equipment (a VCR or DVR) requires consumers to
jump through hoops in setting up the equipment to interact properly and keep
their fingers crossed. Since the Explorer 8000 is a one box solution, no
extra steps are required to configure the box.
Also, the Explorer 8000 contains two tuners capable of recording two cable
channels at the same time, which is unique in the field of current
generation recorders. It incorporates a software-based picture-in-picture
feature so that users can review programming on two channels even if their
television did not come with this feature (or P-in-P became irrelevent with
the addition of a cable box that outputted all programming on a single
Programming the Explorer 8000 is generally done by accessing the standard
Scientific Atlanta-provided program guide. Users can scan for programming
for up to seven days in advance by channel, program theme, date, time or
title. Simply highlight the desired program, hit a key and the 8000 will
bring up a menu asking if you want to record this program once or each time
it airs and how long you wish to save the program. Users access recorded
programs from a list. Once viewing, the user can stop the program and it
will remember where it left off, even if selecting another program.
The unit is also capable of pausing live television, and users can store
programming in a one-hour buffer for accessing upon return. Spend 10-15
minutes in pause mode and chances are one can skip through the commercials
during the remainder of the program.
The unit's firmware can be updated by the cable operator as needed without
user intervention, but will usually shut the box off and make it
inaccessible until the update is complete and the program guide is reloaded.
Complete technical information about the 8000 can be accessed by pressing
and holding the SELECT key (there are two intersecting grooves on the button
indicating a "+" sign) on the unit itself until the mail light indicator
begins flashing, then press the INFO button. More than 20 pages of
diagnostic information are available, but users can't change any of the
data, and much of it is very cryptic.
The Explorer 8000 is now largely deployed by Time Warner and Cox Cable in
test markets at this time, and for good reason. Both cable conglomerates
are resting their hopes on the widespread deployment of Explorer 8000's in
the coming months to try and reduce the number of subscribers defecting from
cable for competing services. Scientific Atlanta touts the Explorer 8000 as
a complete solution ready for widespread deployment today, but frankly, it's
anything but ready.
I have been testing the Explorer 8000 at my location in Rochester for nearly
a month. I have given the unit a major workout and ran through menu
entries, filled the drive to capacity, watched several software upgrades,
and recorded more than 100 hours of programming. My overall impression of
the Explorer 8000 is that it is a product in beta level testing and is not
at all ready for widespread national deployment. Several serious flaws and
unit failures have been noticed during my testing, and after collecting
impressions from more than a dozen other local users, these flaws are quite
common and seriously affect the unit's stability and a consumer's impression
of it and the company providing it. Here come the negatives:
The 8000 is a poor cousin to the far more mature Tivo and Replay recorder
lines. Ergonomics, intuitive design, and uniformity in menu structure are
all top notch with Tivo and Replay, but elude Scientific Atlanta's 8000.
Its current menu structure is not uniform and almost appears to be a patch
over Scientific-Atlanta's older 2000 line. For example, the use of the
existing Scientific Atlanta program guide was a very poor choice. Its guide
is notorious for insisting that viewers must not be interested in learning
about what is on at the moment they access it, but rather what is on two
hours from now. Inevitably, that means scrolling backwards to the current
time and then scrolling through sometimes enormous programming lists to
determine what is on, where. The 8000's responsiveness is far more sluggish
than the 2000 line, which means users occasionally must wait up to five
seconds for a key press to be registered by the unit. Its key press buffer
makes it easy to overshoot menu selections, and scroll times can be much
Additionally, while searching by program, the 8000 incorporates every
channel into the list, and if your system offers Music Choice and several
dozen PPV channels, you'll be holding the button for a long time. Looking
for Star Trek? You can only select program titles based on the first
letter, so if you scroll forward, you'll find Star Trek only after seeing
Shallow Hal on the lineup more than 50 times, spread across several airings
on several PPV channels. Scrolling backwards works as well, but PPV and
Music Choice program entries will slow you down every time. Unfortunately,
the guide frequently omits programming from its title list even if it shows
up on the "by channel" listing, especially if the program is less than 30
minutes (Space Ghost: Coast to Coast was a recent example).
The 8000 is only capable of storing a week's worth of program listings on
today's large digital-tier cable systems, and there is no way to program the
equivalent of a "Season Pass" a-la Tivo to record every instance of a
program, regardless of channel, until further notice. The 8000 can only
record programming it sees at that moment in its program guide. Users must
regularly re-program it. Further, since the data provided by Scientific
Atlanta's guide is not updated as often as some web-based program guides
(and that of its competitors), incorrect information often creeps into the
guide. A recent example was Oxygen's on-again, off-again schedule change
for the Sunday Night Sex Show, which airs daily at midnight ET. A plan to
move the show back an hour was made, then pulled back. Web based guides
kept up with the program changes - the 8000 did not. Now the 11pm ET show
time is back on, but not for the 8000's program guide... at least not yet.
Programming the unit is tedious at best with the included program guide and
its annoying nuances and sluggish responsiveness.
Scientific Atlanta has been squashing bugs with the Explorer 8000, and
firmware updates have been coming fast and furious from the company since
the product was introduced locally. During the first week of use, the 8000
crashed repeatedly (it unceremoniously shuts off and goes dead until it
polls the cable company servers for new software/program guide information).
A software update reduced the frequency of crashes. The menu system has
also been a work in progress, as the 8000 had several obvious flaws in menu
design (trapped in an endless loop menu, the inability to escape a menu
while recording a program without cancelling the recording, unintuitive use
of the color-coded "A," "B," and "C" keys on the remote, and highlighting
menu bars in colors that left the user wondering which item was selected.)
One major irritant fixed in the last software update is the unit exiting the
program guide after selecting a program to record instead of returning to
the menu guide where the user left off to select additional programs for
The latest software update as of writing was released to us on September
4th - PVT OS v6.0.2sp (115) - FLASH v1.80.37a6s9 (0) - SARA v1.80.37a6.
While it corrects some interface flaws, it does nothing to correct the
Explorer 8000's killer bugs which have resulted in more than a few users
dumping the unit altogether for a Tivo or Replay:
Fatal Bug #1 - By far the worst bug of all with the 8000 is its inability to
consistently record selected programming. After a week of use, I found the
unit began to simply refuse to record certain programs, despite repeated
scheduling using both the program guide method and the manual recording
method. I chose a daily program as an example, the aforementioned Sunday
Night Sex Show on Oxygen. It uniquely airs seven days a week at the same
time. The unit capably recorded the program during the first week or two,
and then subsequently refused to consistently record it any longer, no
matter what. Even efforts to manually start recording with the remote
control's RECORD button failed to kick the unit into record mode. Even some
cable employees are having this problem.
No software upgrade has yet addressed this problem, and it occurs randomly
with a range of programming. It has been reported as the single major
reason why consumers are returning the 8000 to the cable company. If you
thought VCR's were unreliable, the 8000 is far, far worse. There is no
solution for this problem at this time.
Fatal Bug #2 - Record Stops When It Drops. A newly discovered bug is the
unit's random decision to begin recording a selected program... and never
stop. It will continue to record the selected channel until the drive
becomes full, and has been known to then corrupt the drive to the point
where all of your previously recorded programs are zapped in the process.
The only solution to this is to keep an eye on the box, watch for the Record
light being stuck on, then yank the plug from the wall. When the box
resets, visit the recorded programs list, identify the last program
recorded, and without attempting to view it, delete it from the list. If
you attempt to view it, it can lock your box up to the point of having to
pull the plug again.
Fatal Bug #3 - One subscriber attempting to use the feature of off-loading
programming from the 8000 to a standard VCR using the video and audio
outputs discovered they where not functional. Customer service reportedly
told the customer this feature was not enabled and might be sometime in the
future. This despite standard marketing material promoting the fact
subscribers could archive programming from the 8000 onto another video
source using the supplied outputs. Note I have not yet tried to do this
myself, so I don't know for certain if this is a widespread issue.
Now for many other annoyances of the 8000:
- When watching a program, if you previously had two programs set to record
at overlapping times, a warning box appears on your screen two minutes prior
to the recording time alerting you it needs both included tuners to handle
recording of both shows (so get off the channel you are watching and do
something else! :-). Unfortunately, the unit will not consistently record
both shows if that warning box appears, even if you turn the box off, as it
appears a software bug has prevented the 8000 from always learning that you
have freed up the second tuner for recording use.
- Recording PPV programming can be a nightmare with the 8000. You must
first order the event to record and then program the 8000 to record it. The
unit will not record the program if you reverse the process, and in any
case, considering Fatal Bug #1, I wouldn't guarantee it would record it
- Program descriptions provided by the program guide are not transferred to
the 8000's recorded program list. Record Monk consistently and you'll
probably need to start each one to figure out which episode is which.
- There is no indication of the amount of disk storage used or remaining.
The unit does not handle a nearly full hard drive well at all. Video
glitches begin to occur as the drive nears capacity, and recordings will
unceremoniously stop mid-point. Your only warning comes when attempting to
program a new show, when "disk space is low" finally appears on screen.
- Programming such as Monk, Law & Order, NYPD Blue and others that appear on
multiple channels are not consistently recorded when programming to record
every instance of a program that the interactive program guide knows about.
Instead, you must program the unit to record every instance of a program
seperately for each channel.
- While recording digital tier programming, any video artifacting occuring
(the 'raining screen of pixels' effect, or the screen freezing) either
because of satellite reception problems, or signal weakness or ingress from
a leaky cable plant, is not handled well by the 8000. It will freeze the
screen for up to 15 seconds, lose sync information (you hear the audio out
of sync with the video), or degrade the recording for up to a minute after
- The unit can become confused and take up to 30 seconds to return to the
DVR menu when a program reaches its conclusion.
- The more the unit stores and does, the slower the unit will respond to
user commands and inputs.
Obviously, the Explorer 8000 continues to be a work in progress, and its
many serious flaws absolutely must be corrected before this box is widely
deployed. I suspect it will never approach the graphical quality and user
interface of the Tivo and Replay, which are single purpose units, but it
must do better than what is out there today. Cable companies and Scientific
Atlanta are working towards incorporating some features into the 8000 that
are standard with its competitors ("Season Pass" being the most important),
and they have to if this box will succeed.
AT&T Cable has spent more efforts on exploring the incorporation of Tivo
into its cable boxes, which may be telling for the nation's largest cable
operator (especially with the Comcast merger). But #2 Time Warner and
several other players like Cox are resting a lot of hope and money on the
Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000, and screwing it up will only make
subscribers direct even more wrath at local cable operators.
I will report on future upgrades and news about the 8000 as it happens from
here in the Rochester, New York test market.
"Phillip Dampier" <dam...@hotmail.com> wrote in message