There's a good chance your cable company will soon be offering cable boxes with built-in digital recording functionality in the forthcoming months (if it isn't already). The news is even better for satellite customers: DirecTV is offering its own TiVo-powered tuner for a scant $99. Alternately, DirecTV customers who ante up some extra cash can go with the nearly identical Philips DSR708 ($300 list), which gets you twice the recording capacity and a considerably more attractive console. Both units have an incredibly convenient feature that Dish Network's "free"lacks: two tuners so that you can record one live channel while watching another. Either one is a great solution for DirecTV customers looking for a DVR upgrade.
Philips's product design is generally a cut above the pack's, and the DSR708 is no exception. It's a stylish, smart-looking silver box highlighted by a mirrored stripe on the front panel. Its modest dimensions--15 inches wide by 12 deep by 3.25 high--aren't much larger than that of a standard DirecTV receiver.
The sparse front panel has a handful of buttons, but you'll want to use the included remote, which is nearly identical to the one that ships with standard TiVos. It's one of our favorites and is equally adept at controlling DVR functions and navigating the hundreds of channels in the electronic program guide (EPG) menus. It can also be programmed to control the basic functions of nearly any brand of television (and volume functions on a receiver), thus eliminating one more remote from the coffee table.
The TiVo service is completely and seamlessly integrated into the satellite tuner. Rather than the functional menus and EPG grids of a standard DirecTV box, you get an attractive, streamlined TiVo interface. It remains the best graphical user interface we've seen to date.
The DSR708 includes all the great features that made TiVo a household name. You can pause and rewind live TV; store 70 hours of programming; search program listings and create wish lists by actor, director, genre, and other keywords; and use the Season Pass option to automatically record your favorite shows whenever they air. That final, TiVo-only feature is a great convenience and something you won't find on competing products such as the Dish Network's and Scientific Atlanta's Explorer 8000.
The unit's ample connectivity speaks to its versatility. In addition to the two RF satellite inputs, there's an additional RF pass-through (nonrecordable) input for an off-air antenna or cable connection. Twin A/V outputs are provided, including an S-Video connection for optimal video quality, plus an optical digital audio output. An RF output ensures compatibility with older televisions. And the DSR708 automatically downloads its software updates and 14-day EPG from the satellite, so the phone-line connection is relegated to pay-per-view events and the like. The back panel even features serial and IR blaster ports, but since channel changing is handled internally, we assume they're just a legacy of the DSR708's TiVo circuit board.
We were disappointed to find that DirecTV still won't allow its hardware vendors to activate the cool Home Media Option upgrade that's available to standard TiVo owners for a one-time $99 fee. The DSR708 has the USB ports--and, presumably, the software--to handle the necessary networking features, but until DirecTV determines how to handle the presumed customer-service issues that would follow, users unfortunately won't be able to listen to music and view photos from their PCs, share video with other TiVos in their home, or program recordings remotely over the Web, all via the DSR708.
Standalone TiVos require users to pay a monthly $13 charge or a one-time $300 fee for service. By contrast, adding a TiVo-powered DirecTV DVR such as the DSR708 costs just an additional $5 per month, charged straight to your satellite bill.
This Philips box offers more advantages over adding a standalone TiVo to your satellite TV setup. Because the hard drive stores the raw MPEG signal in its original digital form, there are no Low, Medium, or High video-quality choices. That means recordings look just as good as DirecTV's live transmissions.
The same story applies to digital audio. Dolby Digital soundtracks are recorded in their original form, so you can enjoy live and recorded programs in full 5.1-channel surround sound when a compatible home-theater system is connected to the DSR708's optical digital output.
Another advantage of the DSR708's integrated, all-in-one design: Channel changing is faster since it's not passing the commands to an outboard tuner. That answers the prayers of many a TiVo surfer frustrated by the comparatively slow channel changes on standalone DVRs.
As if this DVR weren't already enticing enough, if you run a second LNB (low noise block) from your satellite dish, the DSR708's dedicated dual tuner will allow you to watch one live show while recording another or even record two shows while watching a previously recorded third. It's a feature that's also found in the nearly identical 35-hour DirecTV DVR with TiVo.