Editors' note: The Dish Network DTVPal DVR has been replaced by the virtually identical Channel Master CM-7000P.A lot of penny-pinching home theater enthusiasts get the same idea--free over-the-air HDTV looks great, so why not cancel my cable/satellite subscription and get a standalone HD DVR? The problem is that the only current consumer product that qualifies is the TiVo HD, which will cost you $300 for the hardware and $400 for a lifetime service plan (or $13 a month). So much for saving money.
The Dish Network DTVPal DVR ($250) looks to fill the niche for a budget HD DVR, offering the ability to record free over-the-air HDTV--including two programs at once from a single antenna--without any monthly fees. Unfortunately, the caveat list is long and ugly for the DTVPal DVR: there's no way to set up true season passes for a program or eliminate repeats on regular recordings, the user interface is bland and lacks polish, there's only a 90-day warranty from Dish and there are no returns allowed, and online forums are filled with horror stories about frequent crashes and reboots (although our experience was mostly glitch-free.) The DTVPal DVR is a great value if you only need basic recording functionality, and we really wanted to like its cheapskate style, but Dish's stingy return/warranty policy makes it really hard to recommend.
The DTVPal DVR is clearly a utilitarian device. It makes no effort to dress itself up, sticking with a plain gray case with only the white DTVPal logo and some grating on the top to break the monotony. Up front there's a single green status light for power, and below that is a credit-card-like "DTV card." The manual makes absolutely no mention of it, and we were able to take it out without any effects.
The included remote is nearly identical to the clickers found on standard Dish Network DVRs. There are a lot of buttons, but the layout, colors, and sizing of the buttons make it easy to navigate. We especially appreciated the 30-second skip button, allowing us to easily blast by commercials with just a few button presses. While neophytes may prefer TiVo's simpler remote, Dish's clicker is better suited for the tweaky audience the DTVPal DVR will appeal to.
The menu system is bland, too. The electronic programming guide (EPG) has a boxy grid layout, and the blue-and-gray color scheme is in stark contrast to the colorful interface found on a TiVo. There are three text size options for viewing guide data; we preferred small text to see the most of channels at once.
The usefulness of the EPG is dependent on the quality of the over-the-air program guide data in your area. The DTVPal DVR can pull guide info from two sources, the standard, broadcaster-supplied info included with new digital TV broadcasts and also TV Guide On Screen data, where it's available. If your area has TV Guide data (like us), you'll get about a full week of program info; if you don't get TV Guide, expect just a few days of program info. Even with solid TV Guide data for most stations, we got absolutely no guide data for our local PBS station; those are the kinds of drawbacks you'll have to live with on the DTVPal DVR versus a more expensive cable-company-supplied DVR or TiVo HD.
If you know the show you want to watch but don't want to hunt for it in the EPG, you also have the option to search for it. If you have good guide data in your area and know the name of the program you want to record, this works pretty well. We had no problem finding every timeslot and channel that "Seinfeld" airs on (which is pretty much all day, every day.) Again, we didn't find this as useful as TiVo's searching capabilities, which enable you to set up "wishlists" for your favorite actors and directors, and the TiVo will automatically record any program they're in.
Recorded content shows up under My Recordings, which is easily accessible by hitting the DVR button. The layout for browsing recordings feels cramped, showing only six programs at a time. The lack of consistent program info is problematic here too; you won't always know who the guests are on late night shows or if the sitcom you're watching is a repeat or new.
There were other areas where the DTVPal DVR lacked polish compared with the TiVo HD. When you finish watching a program, the TiVo asks you if you'd like to delete it or keep it, while the DTVPal just sends you back to the main title screen. That's a nitpick, but it goes a long way toward making sure your DVR is free of programs you've already watched.
The standout feature of the DTVPal DVR is something it doesn't have--a monthly fee. While TiVo charges a monthly fee for service and cable companies charge a monthly fee to rent the box, the DTVPal DVR costs nothing beyond the initial purchase price. This is definitely a trade-off--as we've mentioned, the free data quality clearly isn't as good--but for those that just want basic recording capability, it will do the job.