High Five Wayback Machine - 5 Best Home Theater Components from a Decade Ago

Let's fire up the Wayback Machine and take a look at the Top Five tech items from a decade ago! 

("Wayback Machine": a reference that is, in itself, so dated that it makes me seem older than a post about VCRs and CDs.)

10 years ago, I was a second-year attorney in downtown Chicago. The Cubs were starting a magical season that would end.... well, it would end just tragically.

And for the first time, I had some disposable income. And I did my best to dispose of it. I was a fixture at the North and Clybourn Best Buy, and constantly tracked eBay (and later, Craigslist) for bargains.

These days, it's difficult to find a true "bargain" on eBay - everyone seems to know precisely what everything is worth, and if you describe/photograph your item properly, you can more or less guess the final auction price. 

eBay functions about as closely to a "perfect market" as anything this side of the NYSE, which is amazing when you consider that there are no standardized products - people are largely buying and selling used goods, in various states of disrepair. 

Today, it's an automated flea market, where every buyer and seller is armed with 15+ years of historical bid/ask and sales data. 

Back in 2002 and 2003, eBay was different. You'd occasionally see auctions end for far less than they should have, because the sellers (and often, the buyers) had no idea what something was worth. Or they'd misspell a title, or describe an item improperly, and no one would see it. It was a flawed market, but that was kind of exciting. 

Anyway, I purchased most of this stuff from eBay. And it got me by - our home theater setup was the envy of the 26-year old Wrigleyville lawyer set. 

While eBay and the internet have changed - they haven't changed nearly as much as gadgets and tech. Just a decade ago, we all all owned so many compact discs that "compact disc storage racks" became a serious consideration for our apartments. HDTV was new and exciting, but incredibly difficult to figure out. Home wi-fi was essentially useless, which was fine because the only items we owned that were capable of internet connections were our desktop PCs. 

But it was pretty cool to see all those black boxes, and all those glowing LEDs in the stereo rack. 

Now, a nostalgic look at my component rack from 2002....

5. Sony MiniDisc Player - This High Five starts off with an item that never really fit in - in my living room, or in the market at large. MiniDiscs were essentially a cassette tape replacement - but really, were just another in a long line of Sony proprietary format failures. But for 2002, it was useful in some unique ways.

First off, the MiniDisc player could record audio from television, as a digital stereo file. It was very useful for making MP3s of live music TV events and performances from the Grammys. 

Secondly, you could easily bootleg concerts (which, by 2002, was usually legal and often encouraged.) My friend had a handheld MiniDisc recorder with a built-in microphone. (For taking dictation, maybe?) It was fantastic for recording concerts - a real step up from recording to cassette tape - but you had to be just as quick when it was time to change discs. 

A couple of years later, these uses were unnecessary. Any performance from any TV event would be available on iTunes. And one great concert recording (usually from the soundboard) was all that was needed or wanted, and that would be immediately available on the internet. By 2004, I sold the MiniDisc player on eBay for about $90 - about what I'd paid 2 years prior. 

4. Sony Progressive Scan DVD Player - I was an early DVD adopter. The kind of guy who tracked what movies weren't available on disc. Just getting away from VHS was exciting, frankly. My first player - a Toshiba - must have cost $300. I upgraded to a progressive scan player in 2002, paying another $250-plus, and convinced myself that I could tell the difference. 

It was... subtle. Some would say nonexistent. Looking back, I'm not even sure if my TV could display progressive content. 

Today, a DVD player with this functionality costs around $35.

3. Sony Playstation 2

These days, the only video games in our house are my son's Xbox 360 (Skylanders and Kinect games) and Nintendo 3DS (Mario Kart). Those are great systems, but I'm not really interested. Now ten years ago, I had a lot more time for (and interest in) video games. I'm not sure why I stopped playing, really, but it coincided with getting married and having a kid.... I'm guessing those may be the root causes. 

In law school, we had a lot more free time (especially in third year), and obsessively played Gran Turismo 2 and Tony Hawk Pro Skater for the original Playstation. 

The Playstation was great - but the PS2 was just a fantastic console. It was a DVD player, back when DVD players were pricey and that meant something. You could add a network adapter to play online (I did) and a hard drive for some reason (I did not). 

What else can be said about the PS2, really? It had Madden, Grand Theft Auto, and the PS2 versions of Tony Hawk and Gran Turismo. It was awesome. 

2. Samsung Rear Projection HDTV - Yes, we are living in complicated times. But at the very least - at the absolute minimum - our tech has gotten a lot less complicated over the last 10 years. 

Case in point - high definition television. I purchased this HDTV in 2002. It was roughly the size of a clothing armoire. It was so big that it was on wheels. It cost north of $2,000. And it couldn't actually display high-definition content - you needed to buy another component for that. So I was off to eBay for a compatible Samsung HD tuner, which was the size of a DVD player. 

And it required a rabbit-ear antenna.
And it could receive about 2 and a half channels,
despite the fact that I lived in the middle of Chicago.

Back in 2003, selling televisions as "HD-Ready" was a thing. That meant that you were purchasing a monitor capable of 1080i (or 720p, but usually not both) content - but you'd need to buy some component to actually get high-def content INTO the TV. There were no Blu-Ray discs, and cable companies weren't offering HD boxes just yet. 

Still, once we got this thing working, it was something to behold. Our first day with the HD Tuner was almost exactly 10 years ago - January 26, 2003, for the Super Bowl between the Buccaneers and Raiders. 

Reception was crystal clear, at least 40 people showed up for our party, and for almost all of them, it was the first time they'd seen an HDTV broadcast. Our friends still talk about that night on occasion - my then-roommate grilled 20 pounds of hot-sauce marinated turkey breasts and then shredded it for sandwiches. My then-girlfriend (now-wife) won the 3rd quarter squares jackpot.

1. Tivo Series 1 (with Lifetime service, naturally) - This one changed everything. 

If I were to pick one piece of technology that had the largest effect on today's entertainment and tech world, it would probably have to be the MP3 codec, Napster, and the iPod. 

In about 2 years, we all went from buying $16.99 CDs every week, to downloading every piece of music that ever existed for free, to buying 99-cent hit singles. The music industry was fundamentally changed, many companies crashed and burned, and Apple rode that wave all the way to becoming the world's most profitable and valuable company. 

BUT, if I was to pick TWO pieces of technology that had the largest effect, the other would definitely be the Tivo DVR. Just 10 years ago, we actually had to plan our weeks around the broadcast times for our favorite shows. Think about that - people would change their plans in order to make sure they saw "Survivor" when it was on at 8 PM - because if you missed it, you missed it. 

Then the Tivo was released. And just like that, the world was different. 

From that point forward, we no longer cared if we had to be somewhere during "Scrubs". The Tivo would get it. 

From that point forward, we stopped watching commercials. And the entire economics of broadcast TV had to be re-thought. 

The Tivo Series 1 wasn't perfect: 
  • It could only record 1 show at a time, which led to all kinds of conflicts. (Between shows, and between spouses.) 
  • It couldn't record in HD, which became a problem by 2004 when Comcast started providing cable subscribers with HD cable boxes.
  • It needed a phone connection to function, which was already becoming a problem in 2003, as people were moving from landlines to cell phones.
  • Most importantly, Tivo didn't play well with digital cable set-top boxes at all. It needed IR blasters, just so that the Tivo could tell the set-top box to change the channel. If the IR blaster cable got pulled off by accident, or if sticky-side of the IR blaster wore off, you'd miss all of your recordings.
But back then, Tivo was a company that innovated. The Series 2 was released, adding a bunch of app-style functionality. Then the Series 2 Dual Tuner allowed for 2 simultaneous recordings.

Finally, the Tivo Series 3 brought it all together. It was pricey, but it was perfect. It used 2 CableCARDs, so you could get rid of your Comcast set-top box. It could record two shows at once, and in high definition. Its UI was great, and the physical quality of the device was ridiculously high. Polished metal on the front, sturdy black polished metal on the back. HDMI out. THX audio. OLED on the front!

Unfortunately, the Tivo Series 3 was probably the pinnacle for Tivo - it's largely been downhill from there. They stopped innovating, and started treading water and filing patent lawsuits. 

The TivoHD was a stripped-down Series 3, and the Premiere brought with it a flash-based UI overhaul that was beyond sluggish, and was constantly downloading graphics from the internet just to function. And for some unfathomable reason, the Premiere needed a wi-fi dongle to connect to the internet. They couldn't build in wi-fi?!

And over time, even the all-powerful Series 3 started to look and feel a bit old. New applications would bring strange changes to the UI (I'm looking at you, Netflix) instead of a seamless experience. 

We sold our Series 3 with Lifetime on eBay just 2 months ago - ending our relationship with Tivo after a solid 10 years as a customer. It was the last piece of 2000's-era tech to move out of our home theater setup. 

If Tivo could have come up with something as mindblowing and innovative as the DirecTV HR34 Genie, we'd be customers forever. But like all the tech on this list, all things must pass. So enough with the nostalgia! It's fun to look back, but it's even more fun to look forward.  


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