The Good Receives and records new MPEG-4 AVC programming, including local and other HD channels not available on older receivers; can record two HD shows simultaneously while playing back a third; can record two over-the-air HD programs simultaneously; excellently designed interface includes contextual menu; easy one-touch recording from EPG or live TV; search function includes history; great range of EPG sort criteria; can bookmark scenes within recordings for easy access; RF-capable remote; impressive image quality.
The Bad Operational bugs include occasional dropped video and audio, crashes, and missed recordings; lacks true 30-second skip function; no picture-in-picture; generally lighter selection of local HD sports channels than cable; no aspect-ratio control with HD sources; EPG still cannot be limited to only subscribed-to channels; cannot properly extend end time of scheduled recordings; somewhat noisy when running.
The Bottom Line The DirecTV HR20 is easy to use and offers plenty of features, but its operational bugs make use more of a headache than with other DVRs.
DirecTV Plus HD DVR
Editor's note: The rating on this review has been lowered from 7.8 to 7.4, due to changes in the competitive landscape, including the release of the TiVo HD. We have also published a note regarding the disparity between our rating and the product's user rating.
In April 2004, DirecTV was one of the first companies to offer a DVR that could record in high-def, the DirecTV HD TiVo. Its successor is the DirecTV Plus HD DVR, or HR20 for short, and despite the passage of some 29 months, they're pretty darn similar. Both allow all of the now-familiar "pause live TV, fast-forward through commercials, record any show you want at any time" goodness of standard DVRs, both can record two high-def channels at once, and both cost more at the outset than HD DVRs that are available for rent from your cable company. But there are also a few major differences. The HR20 dropped the friendly, smiling TiVo interface and replaced it with a new, perfectly competent menu system designed by DirecTV. It costs a lot less, works a lot faster, and does a good deal more than the original, too--namely, it can receive and record a whole range of new HD channels, starting with local high-def versions of the four or five major broadcast networks in 49 metropolitan areas (as of the time of this writing), representing a majority of the U.S. population. These channels and all future DirecTV HD channels will utilize MPEG-4 AVC compression, which squeezes more information out of limited bandwidth.
DirecTV's major competition, aside from the cable companies, is fellow satellite provider Dish Network, which has had its next-generation MPEG-4 high-def DVR, the ViP622, on the market since early 2006. Given recent changes in both companies' pricing packages, and the similar costs of their respective HD-DVRs (depending on current rebate deals, they both cost from $199 to $249 for new subscribers), you're not going to pay too much more for one or the other. Both companies offer substantially different programming options, which you can find outlined here, and for the most part we recommend choosing between the two based on your programming needs first. (Sports fans, keep in mind that cable will almost always offer superior local HD sports programming to satellite, while DirecTV's exclusive NFL Sunday Ticket package remains a big draw for football fans.) Programming aside, we did end up liking the Dish better, and both outclass the typical cable company DVR, hands down. No, the HR20 didn't deliver quite the same consistency of performance we've seen on some other DVRs, and judging from the opinions of CNET users, some work well while a significant proportion do not. Of course, we expect DirecTV's constant software updates to improve performance, but if you buy an HR20 now, you should be prepared for bugs. Providing you get a model that works consistently, as our review sample has, the DirecTV HR20 is a well-thought-out, easy-to-use conduit to DirecTV's programming.