Hard disk-based digital video recorders (DVRs) will be showing up in more and more video equipment--DVD recorders, TVs, and tuners--over the next few years. That spells bad news for "classic" standalone DVR products such as TiVo and . A perfect example is Dish Network's least expensive combination DVR/satellite tuner, the DVR 510. By least expensive, we mean free--but there is a catch that goes beyond having to put a dish on your roof. The satellite provider is offering the 510 for no charge to new customers who get at least a $25-per-month programming package for 12 months. And unless you subscribe to the $74.99 America's Everything Pak, there's also a $4.98 monthly service charge. So while there are a few strings attached, and the 510 lacks some features compared to the other boxes, it still gives you plenty of DVR goodness for very little money.
The nondescript exterior of the 510 is adorned with a curved faceplate, which has a smattering of buttons that allow control of major functions. We enjoyed using the silver remote. Its transport keys (play, fast-forward, pause, and so on) are particularly well laid out, and after couple of days, we were able to use it completely by feel. Two minor complaints: The important page-up/-down buttons aren't prominent enough, and the numeric keypad is tiny. This isn't the best controller for people who like to access channels directly.
Most users will browse the program guide instead. You can choose between a full-screen list with eight lines or a four-line list below a live, picture-in-picture-style video window. The big font is highly legible, but we would have liked more than four lines on the video window version. Six color-coded lists of favorite channels allow you to effectively create six different guides, and a convenient All Sub option shows only the channels to which you subscribe. Unfortunately there's no way to nix pay-per-view channels without programming a Favorites list manually.
Although the 510 lacks the elegant animated menu of TiVo, it's nearly as easy to grasp. The separate menus for recorded content, major functions, and search could be integrated better, but overall, the well-labeled choices and plain language shouldn't intimidate anybody. A clearly written manual and a dedicated Answers channel make things easier.
The 510 differs from its predecessor, the, in one important aspect: hard disk capacity. The 510 can hold a whopping 100 hours of programming, which soundly trumps TiVo (80 hours max) and all but the two highest-capacity Replays, not to mention every DVR competitor from DirecTV (save the ).
Standard DVR features are supported, including the ability to pause and rewind live TV, record anything on the program guide, and search the guide listings by keyword to schedule recordings. There's a 30-second-skip button that whizzed us past commercial breaks in four button-presses, and the 510's unusually fast 60X and 300X search speeds can blow through a two-hour movie in seconds. We enjoyed the slow-motion and frame-advance features too.
The biggest missing link in the 510's repertoire is an equivalent to TiVo's Season Pass feature, which lets you record every episode of a particular show regardless of time or channel. The 510 let us program future recordings by entering time, date, and channel. Daily and weekly recurrences are available, as well, but that made the 510 seem too much like a VCR. We could search by name or theme, but once we found a particular program, there was no feature that let us record every showing. Full-text search is also the only way to find programs by director, actor, and so on; there's no index to browse.
On the connectivity front, there's the typical assortment of jacks, including an S-Video output, a pair of A/V outputs, and an optical digital audio output, which lets you listen to the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack broadcast that comes with some shows. One of our favorite extras is the remote's RF capability, which allowed us to control the box from anywhere in the house or stash it out of sight. There's also the standard phone connection to order pay-per-view movies, which--when plugged into a caller ID-enabled phone line--allows the caller's name and number to appear onscreen.
Since it records the MPEG video stream exactly as the satellite broadcasts it, the 510 doesn't offer any picture-quality modes. Instead, everything is recorded at the highest possible quality, including full Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtracks, where available.
To judge picture quality, we first compared the 510 with a live feed from Time Warner Cable New York. Video on Dish Network looked softer on every channel, with duller color and fuzzier text. Next, we sent the cable feed through a TiVo Series2 set to highest quality, and the 510 suddenly looked a lot better. Sharpness and color were about even, but the TiVo was plagued by more MPEG compression artifacts, which appeared, for example, in the shadows on faces as crawling motes of indistinct color.
The 510 behaved well during testing, responding quickly to our commands. RF functionality was great; there didn't appear to be any slowdown compared to operating the box via infrared. We didn't experience any freezes or lost shows, although at one point, the box lost power and didn't respond when we tried to turn it back on. The next morning, however, it had fixed itself and worked properly.