We were disappointed to find that DirecTV still won't upgrade its firmware to activate the cool Home Media features--streaming digital music and photos from networked PCs, program sharing among TiVo boxes within the same household, remote programming, and TiVo To Go--that are available to owners of all standard TiVos. The HD TiVo has the USB ports to handle the necessary networking features, but given the chilly relations between TiVo and DirecTV of late--the satcaster has announced plans to launch its own, non-TiVo (and non-HD) DVRs later in 2005--it's a smart bet that corporate politics and other factors will keep the networking features from ever seeing the light of day.
As for service fees--well, as you may know, users of standalone TiVos are required to pay a monthly $13 charge or a onetime $300 fee for service. By contrast, DirectTV charges you just $5 per month to use the TiVo service with any of its TiVo-powered DVRs, including this model. However, if you haven't upgraded to HD yet, it is worth noting that DirecTV does charge extra for receiving HD channels.As expected, the HD version of the DirecTV TiVo receiver performed just as well as previous standard-def models, such as the SD-DVR40 or the . Thanks to the TiVo interface, searching for and selecting shows to watch or record, in standard or high definition, was an easy affair. Likewise, managing recorded programs and Wish Lists was simple and straightforward. And because the TiVo is always on, you can pause and rewind live TV at any time.
Unlike standalone DVRs, the HD TiVo records the raw DirecTV signal feed, so there's no signal degradation. As a result, recordings look exactly the same as live feeds. That means most standard channels, and even some high-def networks, exhibit softness or noticeable jaggies, at least on large displays, thanks to DirecTV's aggressive compression techniques. But programs on the best-looking networks--Discovery HD, HDNet, and Universal HD--look great, especially when viewed through the unit's all-digital HDMI connection. Annoyingly, though, the HDMI and component-video outputs cannot be active simultaneously, which may cause headaches for users with advanced multimonitor or picture-in-picture setups. Fortunately, the composite and S-Video do work when either the HDMI or component connections are engaged (and set to 480i), so downconverting HD content for DVD/VHS archiving is a snap.
The HD TiVo impressed with its recording finesse. It had no problem recording two HD programs simultaneously while playing back a third, previously recorded show. Another bonus: the unit's flexible resolution control makes it easy to lock into a resolution (1080i, 720p, 480p, or 480i) that's best for your monitor.
Where did the HD TiVo fall short? Compared to standalone models, this one was significantly more sluggish when navigating the onscreen menus. It's far from a deal breaker, but it was noticeable. Also, while the aspect-ratio control was decent, it wasn't comprehensive. The HD TiVo could easily stretch non-HD channels to fit a wide-screen display, but it couldn't stretch or zoom standard content broadcast on HD networks (local news, syndicated programs, and so forth), so you'll want to make sure that your HD monitor can address this shortfall. Additionally, while the 250GB hard disk is quite capacious, the 30-hour limit to HD recordings could cramp avid viewers. That said, we didn't experience the audio dropouts, signal loss, hard-drive crashes, and picture stuttering that some users on certain Internet forums have reported.
In the final analysis, the HD TiVo is the best HD DVR we've seen to date. Yes, we wish it had TiVo's networking and multiroom capabilities. And yes, we wish Direct TV would match the Dish DVR 921's significantly lower price tag ($549). But its superior interface and stability give it the edge over that Dish model. Furthermore, with DirecTV slated to dramatically expand its HDTV offerings over the next couple of years--and no alternative high-def DVR currently announced or available for the service--we can safely recommend the HD TiVo to satellite customers looking to maximize their high-def viewing.