Another bug DirecTV has yet to address is that the option to extend a scheduled recording past its standard stop time doesn't work consistently. When recording a basketball game, for example, we tried to set it to record an extra hour to account for possible overtime, and it failed to do so. On a couple of occasions, inserting this kind of "padding" actually caused the HR20 to crash. As a workaround, we simply recorded the shows that came on after the game, but of course, we'd like to see this feature function properly.
The MyVOD list of recorded shows is automatically grouped by title, a feature borrowed from TiVo that really saves on screen real estate. A quick menu option can expand or collapse the groups, Windows Explorer-style, to see the individual episodes. A status bar along the top tells you how much disk space is left in percentage terms, although we'd like to see how many hours are left too. There's also a Showcases tab that, although unpopulated at the moment, will eventually "add content options to consumers via pushed download," according to DirecTV. Similar push types of content, for example, trailers, tie-ins, and videos from sources including CNET, can found on Dish and TiVo DVRs.
Pay-per-view and interactivity
Like all satellite receivers, the DirecTV HR20 requires an analog phone line to order pay-per-view programs; we tested our connection with our Vonage service, and it worked fine. When we asked exactly what the phone line was used for, DirecTV's rep told us that it's currently the only method for the box to communicate with DirecTV, and that by connecting it, the consumer experience can be improved. We went for four months without the phone line connected, and the HR20 worked perfectly well--it gets its EPG data and software updates from the satellite, not via the phone jack.
As does Dish, DirecTV offers an interactive service that includes local weather (currently freezing in New York), lottery info (we lost), a horoscope (happy birthday, Kevin Costner!), and a couple of sponsored sections including today's television highlights. Unlike with Dish, you can't view your account info or pay your bill here, nor go shopping at The Sharper Image--yet.
There's also access to DirecTV's mix channels that show live feeds from eight sports, news, or kids channels simultaneously--but thankfully, only one audio track at a time. While checking out the sports mix, a popup appeared, explaining that we could hit the red button to see, only on DirecTV, What's Hot: A List of the Most Popular Shows in Your Time Zone on DirecTV. Curious? At 5:27 ET on a Thursday, they were: 1. Around the Horn (ESPN); 2. The Big Story with John Gibson (Fox News); 3. Pokemon (Cartoon Network); 4. Charmed (TNT); and 5. Spongebob Squarepants (Nick). And yes, it's updated in real-time; soon new shows appeared and others moved up and down the list, and for 10 blissful minutes we experienced a voyeurism more riveting than any reality show on TV. Then, predictably, we got bored.
Hardware and connectivity
The nuts and bolts of the DirecTV HR20 compare favorably with other late-model HD DVRs on the market. Its hard disk can hold any combination of as much as 200 hours of standard-def, 30 hours of MPEG-2, or 50 hours of MPEG-4 programming, which should be plenty for most folks. It has two satellite tuners that necessitate two wires coming down from the rooftop satellite dish--for what it's worth, the Dish ViP622 needs just one--and requires a big 26x30-inch 5-LNB dish (typically included in the installation at no charge) for full functionality.
A recent software upgrade has also enabled the HR20 to tune and record over-the-air ATSC channels when connected to an antenna. We tested this feature against the tuner in a ViP-622, and both grabbed the same channels with roughly the same signal strength. Of course, as with all antenna connections, the channels you're able to receive depends greatly on your location. The option of tuning an ATSC channel allows the HR20 to record high-def shows not available on the company's HD local satellite feed, such as PBS and the CW. We also like that you can record as many as two ATSC shows simultaneously. Unlike the ViP622, however, the HR20 cannot record a third show at the same time; it'll still be limited to only two simultaneous recordings--although you can always play back a third, previously recorded program.
The DirecTV HR20 offers plenty of connections, including one HDMI and one component-video output to handle high-def, along with two composite-video outputs with stereo audio, an S-Video output (owners of Slingboxes, VCRs and DVD recorders will appreciate the extra standard-def outputs), and an optical digital output for Dolby Digital soundtracks. Unlike with the original DirecTV HD TiVo, all outputs are active simultaneously.
HDTV aficionados will love the option to choose an all-native output mode, which delivers high-def channels in their original resolutions (e.g. 720p for ABC, Fox, and ESPN; 1080i for the rest). The Dish ViP622 lacks an all-native option, although the TiVo Series 3 has one.
Like most of its kind, the HR20 has its share of jacks labeled for future use. These include an Ethernet port, a serial ATA port, and a pair of USB ports--one in front and one in back. The Ethernet port can connect with a home network via an Intel Viiv PC to display photos and play music, and the companies are promising the ability to stream video from Viiv PCs later this year (we haven't yet tested Viiv compatibility). We could speculate that the USB ports might connect to portable devices, much like Dish's PocketDish players, or that the serial ATA port will allow hard-drive expansion, but given DirecTV's track record of hobbling networking and TiVo To Go features on its previous TiVo-enabled DVRs, we're not holding our breath.
Aside from the few things we've already mentioned, one of our major complaints is lack of adequate aspect-ratio control for high-def sources. In a perfect world, every show would be wide-screen, but in reality, some HD networks--we're looking at you, TNT--incorrectly "stretch" 4:3 shows to fill the wide-screen, making everyone appear short and fat. Most HD DVRs, such as the Dish, the TiVo Series 3, the old DirecTV HD TiVo, and even many cable company offerings, can resize these images properly, but the HR20 does not allow aspect-ratio control with high-def sources. During an episode of Charmed, for example, Alyssa Milano just didn't look her skinny self via the HR20, and pressing the format button didn't change the image at all. With standard-def sources, the HR20 offers the three most basic options: 4:3 (called pillarbox, and available with either black or gray side bars), wide-screen (stretch), or zoom (crop).
The HR20 also lacks picture-in-picture, a feature offered on the Dish and many other cable DVRs, but not on the Series3 TiVo. And while it does incorporate a screen-saver after a certain period of inactivity, the DirecTV receiver cannot turn itself off to save power, an ability of the Dish's that we really appreciate. The HR20 lacks TiVo's Record to VCR option, but of course, you can do so manually, as with any other DVR. Many posters on Web forums are also complaining that the HR20 lacks "dual live buffers," which allow a user to switch back and forth between the two tuners freely when both are playing back time-delayed, non-live programs, without having one jump to the live show.
Naturally, most of these omissions could conceivably be addressed software and firmware updates. We have no doubt that the HR20 will experience numerous changes and upgrades, but for now, it offers fewer extras than Dish or TiVo Series3.
We had the opportunity to compare the DirecTV HR20 directly to the Dish ViP622 and look at their picture quality on the same monitor. First, we connected both to a Belkin HDMI switch and watched a selection of HDTV material on a Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK plasma TV. In short, we had no complaints about the HD picture quality.
Our first stop was HDNet, which is typically among the best-looking channels on any system. We watched Nothing but Trailers, a collection of high-def movie trailers, and the HR20 did not disappoint, delivering razor-sharp detail in the finest areas such as Will Farrel's curly hair and the textured wall in his apartment in the Stranger then Fiction trailer, and the writing on the boxes during Jennifer Garner's move in the Catch and Release. Flipping back and forth between the HR20 and the Dish, no real difference was apparent; even the brief breakups during fast transitions were identical between the two.
DirecTV has gotten some criticism for its rendition of HBO, so we went there next. Compared to Dish network, the showing of The Associate, a mid-'80s Whoopi Goldberg flick, the HR20 had the same flaws and good points, from the noisy walls and books in the background of Dianne Weist's office to the fine grid on her suit jacket, which seemed to break up in exactly the same way with both boxes. We also watched a few more modern movies, including War of the Worlds and North Country, and found the images similar on both boxes.
The story was the same on all the HD channels we compared, from ESPN to Discovery, to the high-def local channels. The difference between Dish and DirecTV with high-def channels was negligible, and both looked more or less great to our eyes.
We also checked out some standard-def programming, starting with a Mets game on local sports channel SNY. We were able to detect some subtle differences between the two; the score box and other graphics appeared slightly less stable on the Dish at 720p--although at 1080i they were fine--but otherwise, the two looked very nearly indistinguishable. We switched over to recordings of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, and Steven's studio did look a bit better on the Dish; its blacks were definitely darker, for whatever reason, and we detected a bit more MPEG noise in the background with the HR20. There was no black-level difference on CNN, however, although some of the graphics did look very slightly more detailed on the Dish. A black-and-white film on Turner Classic Movies looked basically the same, but there did seem to be a tiny bit more noise on DirecTV's IFC. In other words, the differences between the two boxes' standard-def picture quality was pretty slim, although we'd give the slight nod to Dish.
Other performance notes
As we mentioned at the beginning of this review, we've been living with the HR20 for four months, and it has functioned smoothly most of the time. Recently, however, we've experienced audio dropouts on some recorded programs, from HBO HD, Discovery HD, HD Net, and others, that muted audio every few seconds and made the programs essentially unwatchable. The audio dropouts were accompanied sometimes by scrambled, pixellated video. This issue didn't surface with live programs, just recorded ones, and it has cropped up only in the past couple of weeks of using the unit. It's also sporadic and doesn't occur on all HD recordings--or any SD recordings, so far. As a result of these issues, however, we've lowered the unit's performance score.
Overall operation was very smooth otherwise. The HR20 has crashed a few times; once, when we changed channels, the screen went blank, along with the EPG, the menus, and a list of recorded programs; although happily, normal operation returned after we unplugged and replugged the power cord--simply holding down the power button had no effect. We also experienced a crash when setting up "padding" as decribed above, and during one program search. Our original experience with the Dish was less smooth although, to Dish's credit, our ViP622 hasn't crashed in the months since then.
Other random issues with the HR20 were relatively minor for a DVR this complex and new. The most annoying was that it missed recording a Mets game (luckily they'd already clinched), instead displaying a blank screen and refusing to fast-forward. The picture froze once after changing resolution settings, pausing and staying paused without being able to restart play, but we changed channels, and it reset without a hassle. The remote, whether in IR or RF mode, would sometimes send our command twice, which was a minor hassle when changing channels or inputting information.