Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000 Review

Simply put, the Explorer 8000 is the best and least expensive DVR option for those with digital cable.
Simply put, the Explorer 8000 is the best and least expensive DVR option for those with digital cable.
Simply put, the Explorer 8000 is the best and least expensive DVR option for those with digital cable.

Highs

  • Integrated digital cable tuner; dual tuners allow two recordings at once; digital audio out.

Lows

  • Lack of advanced recording features; many supported features not implemented yet.

DT Editors' Rating

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Summary

If we had written this review only a few weeks earlier, we would have given the Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000 a poor rating because of the extreme remote lag and its odd recording behaviors. However, a recent software update has made the Explorer 8000 a highly responsive and useful DVR. There is absolutely no remote lag – something that even TiVo and ReplayTV can’t claim – and its recording options are much better than they were before the update.

The Explorer 8000 beats TiVo and ReplayTV with several exclusive features such as dual tuners, the ability to natively tune digital cable stations, and in its overall costs. Scientific Atlanta has also proved its commitment to improving the product by issuing automatic software upgrades that take care of the product’s problems and its users’ complaints. The company also offers an HDTV version of the Explorer, another option not available from TiVo and ReplayTV.

If you are looking for a cost-effective DVR that works seamlessly with your digital cable service the Explorer 8000 may be your only choice. Fortunately, it is a pretty solid choice that keeps getting better. Simply put, the Explorer 8000 is the best and least expensive DVR option for those with digital cable.

Introduction

In our DVR technology article we compared three different hard drive-based solutions that allow you to digitally record TV shows – a TiVo or ReplayTV DVR, a cable company-provided DVR, or a home-built solution using a PC and Snapstream’s BeyondTV3 software. With the right product, the solution that may be the most appealing and cost-effective to many users is the DVR provided by their cable company. This is because a cable company DVR requires no upfront cost, is usually less expensive than the monthly fee for TiVo or ReplayTV, and can tune your digital TV stations – something the other options can not do.

The digital video recorder that seems to be most popular among cable operators in the U.S. and Canada is the Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000. The Explorer 8000 Home Entertainment Server supports digital video recording (DVR), picture-in-picture (PIP), plus all of the latest interactive services such as video-on-demand (VOD), and movies on demand.

Available only from your cable operator, subscription costs vary but are usually around $8 to $10 per month with no upfront purchase cost and no commitment.


The Explorer 8000 is offered by cable operators in the U.S. and Canada.

Features and Design

The component-width Explorer 8000 is a gray and silver box about the height of a standard DVD player. It features a center-mounted four-character display, onboard controls, and a programmable universal remote control.

Scientific Atlanta’s Explorer 8000 has two major advantages over competing products – the ability to record two shows at once, and the ability to tune in digital TV stations. Other DVR products require you to have a cable company tuner as well as the DVR since they can not decode the digitally protected content.

With dual digital TV tuners, the Explorer 8000 can tune in your cable company’s digital cable stations and record two shows at once. The dual tuners also allow you to record two shows at a time, record one show while watching another, or even record two programs while watching a third recording. Programming is recorded on a 5400RPM, 80GB Maxtor hard drive which is a bit whiny, but not too noticeable when your TV audio is at normal listening levels. The 80GB version is rated to record about 50 hours of programming, but that number is hard to quantify. Recording times will be reduced if you record analog channels because they take up more space. In our testing, we were able to record at least 35 hours of both analog and digital stations.

The Explorer 8000 connects to your TV with an S-Video output, analog composite video, or a coax cable. It features a digital audio out as well as analog RCA jacks. There are also some interesting non-working ports on the Explorer 8000. It features a front USB port, a smart card reader, and two rear IEEE1394/Firewire ports. Scientific Atlanta states in their documentation that these ports can be enabled by future software upgrades, but have not explained what they will or can be used for. One feature that has recently been activated for some users is the “VCR out” connections. These are RCA jacks for composite video and analog audio that allow you to connect the Explorer 8000 to a VCR and transfer your digital recordings to tape.

In typical DVR fashion, the Explorer can also pause and rewind live TV. It features up to an hour of buffer, allowing you to rewind to the beginning of an hour-long show. Also incorporated in the Explorer 8000 is picture in picture, parental controls, the ability to view and purchase video on demand, and an integrated TV guide provided by your cable operator. The Explorer 8000 also has 14 different color schemes for its TV guide and settings pages, a sleep and wake-up timer, show reminder timers, user-definable favorite channels, and the ability to block channels.

Usage and Testing

Setup of the Explorer 8000 is usually performed by a cable company technician. But if you want to do it yourself or want to move the unit, setup is a very easy task. Simply plug your cable TV cable into the “cable in” port and your TV into the “TV out” plug. The 8000 can also be hooked up to a home theater system or receiver with analog and/or digital connections. Only shows that broadcast digital audio will use the digital output. Once all connections are made and the unit is powered up, it will run through a series of tests and be ready to use in a few minutes.

The remote control included with the Explorer 8000 is a universal remote, able to control not only your DVR, but also your TV, VCR, or DVD player – up to three additional devices. Your cable installer can also program the remote, but Scientific Atlanta also includes detailed instructions if you wish to do it yourself.

When we first started using the Explorer 8000 there was one problem that we thought would sway most people away from the product – an extreme amount of remote control lag. While changing channels, inputs made on the remote control would often take several seconds, even up to 30 or more, to register on the unit. This was frustrating to say the least and made even more annoying by the fact that you didn’t need to hit an Enter button to change channels, often making the Explorer 8000 go to the wrong station while it lagged. For example, if you wanted to tune station 701, the remote lag would wait a few seconds, input 7 and 0, and then tune to channel 70. Then it would catch up and input 1. Of course by this time you may have thought the input wasn’t recognized and tried to enter 701 again, thus creating an annoying cycle of incorrect inputs and slow channel changes.

Happily, this must have been a software issue because in a recent overnight update, the lag was fixed and a few new features were added. Since the week of August 30, the Explorer 8000 we tested with Time Warner Digital Cable in Albany, NY stopped exhibiting this remote lag. Button presses were recognized instantly and there was no lag whatsoever.


The Explorer 8000 allows you to pause and rewind live TV as well as record digital cable programs.

Recording shows is as easy as pressing the record button and either changing the record settings or just accepting the recording as is. The recording options include adjusting the start and stop times, adding future recordings, and selecting the amount of time the recording will be kept on the hard drive. Save time options include 1 Day, 2 Days, 7 Days, 14 Days, or “until I erase”. You can select to record shows one episode at a time or schedule a recording for each instance of the selected show. One problem the older version of the software had with recording “all instances” is that it really did record all instances of the show each week, including repeats and replayed episodes. If you planned on recording syndicated shows such as Seinfeld or The Simpsons, which are played on several channels several times a day, the hard drive quickly filled up with repeat episodes from all channels. But since the latest software upgrade, the Explorer 8000 gives you the option to record all episodes on a specific channel or all episodes on that channel only for the specified time slot. This makes much more sense and is very easy to manage.

Playing Recorded Programs

To play back recorded shows, simply hit the “list” button on the remote control and you are presented with the list of all recorded shows. The list shows the name of the program, the original air date and time, and the length of the recording. From this list you can hit the “info” button for a program description or hit the “select” button to see other options. You can play, block or erase the program, change how long it will be saved on your hard drive, or copy it to a VCR. The “copy to VCR” option was just added in the recent software update, and it allows you to easily transfer your recorded shows to a VCR connected to the analog “VCR out” connections on the back of the unit.

The new update also added a few useful options to the recording preferences menu. One option we were glad to see is the “recording space used” feature. This shows you the percentage of hard drive space used and the number of recordings currently on the drive. By checking this periodically, you can manage future recordings to make sure you have enough room. The upgrade also added “auto erase” which can be enabled or disabled in the recording preferences menu. Auto erase will erase your oldest recordings to make room for new scheduled recordings. The other useful option on this menu is the ability to change your recorded show view from an alphabetical list to a list sorted by original air date.


Viewing the “Recorded List” gives you access to all recordings and recording options.

If your recording setup results in scheduling conflicts, such as selecting three shows to record at once, the Explorer 8000 will notify you of the conflict and allow you to delete one of the recordings.

The Explorer 8000 is constantly recording live TV, allowing you to pause and rewind television as you are watching it. This feature is pretty straightforward and works as we expected. By hitting the rewind button at any time during a program, you can rewind at one of three different speeds. Hitting play will play back the recording and hitting it a second time will play in slow-motion. Hitting the “live” button will bring you back to live TV. There is also an instant-replay button that will automatically replay the last 10 seconds of a program.

With the Explorer 8000’s picture-in-picture (PIP) feature, you can also watch two shows at once. Since the Explorer is rendering the second picture, PIP can work on any TV, even those that don’t natively support PIP. The PIP can be moved from corner to corner and you can switch from the main screen to the PIP show with the click of the “swap” button. The Explorer 8000 allows you to record both shows as well. The only downside to the PIP we could find was the tendency for the Explorer 8000 to “pixelate” the show in PIP – presumably because the image is “downscaled” by the Explorer’s software.

Is it a TiVo Killer?

Scientific Atltanta’s Explorer 8000 DVR does not have the networking capabilities or advanced scheduling and recording options available with ReplayTV or TiVo. However, in many respects it is just as useful as those competing products and it wins on a few points, most notably the dual tuner feature.

It’s hard to say what can be done with future DVR solutions since digital rights management comes into play. Manufacturers such as Scientific Atlanta may not be able to add the networking or DVD recording capabilities to their products that many home-built PC-based DVRs offer because of copyright infringement threats.

With the prospect of future updates, we’re looking forward to seeing what Scientific Atlanta has in store for the Explorer 8000 and other DVR products. We’d like to see the ability to edit recorded shows, schedule recordings remotely via the web, and share recordings with other DVRs in the house. The company’s literature on the Explorer 8000 also mentions future e-mail and web browsing capabilities but we are unsure of how and when such features would be implemented.

A more robust scheduling feature and the ability to show digital images either through a network or via the USB or 1394 ports will be welcome additions, as would the ability to search for specific shows by title, actor, or genre. If Scientific Atlanta keeps progressing with their Explorer line of DVRs and adds networking capabilities and enables the USB and FireWire ports, it will certainly give TiVo and ReplayTV some hearty competition.

Conclusion

If we had written this review only a few weeks earlier, we would have given the Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000 a poor rating because of the extreme remote lag and its odd recording behaviors. However, a recent software update has made the Explorer 8000 a highly responsive and useful DVR. There is absolutely no remote lag – something that even TiVo and ReplayTV can’t claim – and its recording options are much better than they were before the update.

The Explorer 8000 beats TiVo and ReplayTV with several exclusive features such as dual tuners, the ability to natively tune digital cable stations, and in its overall costs. Scientific Atlanta has also proved its commitment to improving the product by issuing automatic software upgrades that take care of the product’s problems and its users’ complaints. The company also offers an HDTV version of the Explorer, another option not available from TiVo and ReplayTV.

If you are looking for a cost-effective DVR that works seamlessly with your digital cable service the Explorer 8000 may be your only choice. Fortunately, it is a pretty solid choice that keeps getting better. Simply put, the Explorer 8000 is the best and least expensive DVR option for those with digital cable.