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.
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 DTVPal DVR contains two ATSC tuners, like the TiVo HD. This enables it to record two programs at the same time from a single antenna. You can even be recording two programs and watching one off the hard drive at the same time.
The DVTPal DVR's connectivity is standard. There's an RF input to connect your antenna; remember, you only need to connect a single antenna to use both tuners. There's an HDMI output, capable of outputting high-definition video up to 1080i resolution and handling multichannel audio. Audio connections include an optical digital audio output, as well as a stereo analog audio output. Rounding out the connections are a USB port and an Ethernet port, both of which are used only for firmware updates.
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 (pictured) to see more channels at once.
As with any DVR, in addition to recording programs, you can also pause and rewind live TV. There's a 10-second "skip back" button to quickly replay what just happened. On recorded content, we also really appreciated the 30-second "skip forward" function, which makes it easy to blast through commercials. Standard rewind and fast-forward isn't quite as fluid as TiVo's (there's no "jump back" after fast-forwarding), but the ability to fast-forward at 300x is great for quickly scanning a program.
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 time slot 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 "wish lists" for your favorite actors, directors, etc., and the TiVo will automatically record any program they're in.
To make a recording, the DTVPal DVR functions more like a high-def VCR than a modern DVR. The main reason for this is that it uses time-based recordings rather than name-based recordings. Most DVRs offer name-based recordings, so you can tell it to record all the new episodes of "30 Rock", and the DVR will adjust its recording schedule accordingly. With the DTVPal DVR, all you can tell it is to record every Thursday at 9:30 on NBC. It won't skip repeats, extend for hour-long special episodes, or adjust if the show changes its time slot.