April 19th, 2006 • 9:15 am
Apart from the numerous user interface flaws that affect Bell ExpressVu’s software on its various receiver models, there are hardware-related problems that appear to be specific to certain models.
Before purchasing my 9200 receiver in August 2005, I was using a 5800 receiver. It was one of the first-generation PVR models, with a single tuner and a 60-hour recording capacity.
The 9200 has two tuners, which allows you to record two different programs at the same time (and watch a third, pre-recorded one as well). It also has a much larger hard drive, which holds up to 180 hours of programming in standard definition (SD) or up to 25 hours of programming in high definition (HD).
I don’t have an HD TV yet, so I am only using the 9200 to record SD programs.
The first 9200 receiver I got in August 2005 was incredibly noisy (probably due to a defective hard drive), and I immediately requested a replacement unit, which I got soon after.
The replacement unit (which is the one that I am still using now) is much quieter—although not as quiet as the 5800 model. Unlike the 5800, the 9200 actually makes noise even when it’s turned off. It’s hard to tell what causes the noise. It just comes and goes. It is a fairly low-level fan noise, but it’s noticeable in a very quiet environment such as our house. It doesn’t really bother us—we have other background noises in that area of the house that we are used to—but it is noticeable.
The real problem with the 9200 is that, unlike the 5800, it appears to suffer from significant playback flaws. The problem is that, when you are watching a pre-recorded show (i.e. the receiver is reading it on the hard drive), sometimes the picture starts stuttering and becomes choppy, with a significant number of dropped frames. The audio is not affected: the soundtrack of the show continues to play smoothly, even while the video stutters.
Sometimes the stuttering goes away by itself after a few seconds. Sometimes it continues for several minutes.
Since I have a fair amount of experience with video playback on computers, I have tried various things to circumscribe the problem.
The stuttering is definitely not in the recording itself. Quite often, when the video playback starts stuttering, I can just use the remote to jump back by 10 or 20 seconds, and then the video playback resumes and is perfectly smooth for the exact same section of the recording. So the problem is not in the recorded video signal. It is most definitely in the playback process itself.
Sometimes just stopping the playback altogether and then resuming it clears the problem.
In one of my many phone conversations in recent months with the Bell ExpressVu tech support staff, I was lucky enough to get someone who appeared to be fairly knowledgeable and friendly, i.e. someone with whom I immediately sensed that I would be able to explore issues in more detail, because he understood right away that I knew what I was talking about and was using the proper technical jargon to describe the problems that I was experiencing.
So I mentioned this stuttering issue to him, and he acknowledged that it was a known issue. He also confirmed that it had nothing to do with the actual recorded signal (which was fine), and also that the stuttering was not in any way related to whatever else the PVR unit was doing at the time. Since the unit is able to record two shows at the same time and play a third pre-recorded show as well, I wondered if such activities were not stretching the capabilities of the hard drive itself, thereby explaining the stuttering of the video playback.
He denied that this was an issue. He said that the hard drive was quite capable of handling several tasks at the same time, and the stuttering could occur even when nothing else was taking place at the same time as the video playback—which has indeed been my own experience.
He mentioned something about hard drive “static” and the fact that resetting the unit sometimes helped with the problem for a while—although it wasn’t a permanent fix. He described to me a procedure to reset the unit with the remote control, which involved a specific sequence of buttons. (Unfortunately, I know that I have written it down somewhere, but I can’t find it at the moment.)
In my own personal experience, the problem is not bad enough to warrant returning the unit to Bell ExpressVu and asking for a refund. It occurs from time to time, but not all the time. There are days when it doesn’t occur at all. On other days, it occurs once or twice, but then the workarounds mentioned above usually work just fine to eliminate the problem.
I am afraid that the other benefits of the unit are too significant to give up as far as I am concerned. But the stuttering is most definitely a problem, and it sounds like there are other Bell ExpressVu users who are affected in a much more significant way. I certainly could not live with stuttering occurring “every two minutes or so continuously.”
Based on my experience and on what others have been told, it sounds like it’s a problem that could be fixed with a software update. Unfortunately, I have yet to see a significant software update for the 9200 unit. (The problem with the Caller ID feature, for example, still isn’t fixed as far as I can tell.)
What does this mean? Does this mean that Bell ExpressVu’s engineers are experiencing unforeseen difficulties, or that they simply haven’t bothered to start seriously working on an update yet? Communication with their customers has never been their forte, and I am afraid that it is pretty much impossible to get a proper answer from anyone about software updates and bug fixes. So all we can do is wait, and live with the occasional stuttering for now.
Like I said, it’s not a deal breaker as far as I am concerned. As much as I’d like to always have a crystal-clear picture with perfectly smooth playback, I also remember the days of cable TV with grainy picture and mono sound, and VCRs and VHS tapes with tracking issues, mechanical failures, etc. Compared to that, today’s situation is really not bad at all. It’s not perfect, but the benefits of digital picture and sound and a PVR unit, especially one that can record two programs at the same time and hold up to 180 hours of SD programming, are simply too great to be significantly spoiled by occasional stuttering.
Still, I suppose that, one of these days, I will get on the phone again and try to speak to someone in a managerial position about these on-going problems, which really ought to be fixed.