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DirecTV HD DVR (HD TiVo) review: DirecTV HD DVR (HD TiVo)

DirecTV HD DVR (HD TiVo)

John Falcone Senior Editorial Director, Shopping
John P. Falcone is the senior director of commerce content at CNET, where he coordinates coverage of the site's buying recommendations alongside the CNET Advice team (where he previously headed the consumer electronics reviews section). He's been a CNET editor since 2003.
Expertise Over 20 years experience in electronics and gadget reviews and analysis, and consumer shopping advice Credentials
  • Self-taught tinkerer, informal IT and gadget consultant to friends and family (with several self-built gaming PCs under his belt)
John Falcone
6 min read
When it was released in 2004, the DirecTV HD TiVo, also known as the Hughes HR10-250, was hard to beat. While it lacked the impressive networking features of standalone TiVos, it remained the only option for recording high-def programming for DirecTV customers--and the only "true" TiVo that could record HD programming. In the intervening years, though, a lot's changed. TiVo has shipped its Series3 HD model (it works only with cable and over-the-air HD, not satellite); TiVo and DirecTV, once strategic partners, have gone their separate ways; and DirecTV has begun HD broadcasting in a format known as MPEG4-AVC, which offers more efficient use of bandwidth (more channels), but can't be received on older receivers such as the HD TiVo reviewed here. DirecTV is pushing its high-def customers to its own non-TiVo dual-tuner HD DVR, the HR20, which is capable of receiving its full range of HD channels, including an ever-expanding list of HD local stations throughout the country. With that in mind, does the old HD TiVo still deserve your consideration? Yes, it's on-screen interface is a lot slower than most of the newer DVRs, and it can't receive local HD channels--aside from the stock New York and L.A. ones, you'll need to attach an over-the-air antennas to receive and record your locals. But if you can live with those caveats and you're a die-hard devotee of the TiVo interface, the DirecTV HD TiVo remains an acceptable option--if you can find it at a close-out price below $300.

Editors' note: The good/bad/bottom line and introduction (above) of this review have been updated to reflect this discontinued product's competitive position in the DVR marketplace as of September 2006.

On the surface, you wouldn't know the HD TiVo is any different from DirecTV's other (non-HD) TiVo tuners, such as the SD-DVR40. Instead of silver, the HD TiVo is champagne/bronze-colored (yuck), and it has a small set of indicator lights that shows current output resolution: 480i, 480p, 720p, or 1080i. Compared to its behemoth crosstown rival, the , the 3.5-by-15-by-12-inch (HWD) HD TiVo is sized much more like a standard video component and will fit easily into any standard home entertainment system.

The sparse front panel has a handful of function and navigation 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 it's 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 power and volume functions on a receiver), thus eliminating one or two more remotes from the coffee table.

The TiVo service is completely and seamlessly integrated into the satellite tuner. You can choose to use DirecTV's standard grid EPG, but we preferred the attractive, streamlined TiVo interface and EPG. It remains the best graphical user interface we've seen to date.

The HR10-250 has all the great features of the standard "DirecTiVo" satellite tuner/DVRs, with a few enhancements thrown in to maximize its HDTV capabilities. You can pause and rewind live TV; store any combination of 30 hours of high-def and 200 hours of standard-def 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.

The HD TiVo covers all the bases we'd expect from a state-of-the-art high-definition box. It boasts four tuners--two satellite, two over-the-air (the latter requiring just a single antenna connection). With any two tuners operational, you can record two programs--high-def or standard--and play back a third previously recorded program, all simultaneously. (The onscreen programming guide won't work for the over-the-air feeds, however.) On the connectivity front, the back panel runs the gamut from basic (composite, S-Video, and analog audio outputs) to advanced (HD-capable component and HDMI). An optical digital audio output enables a single-wire surround-sound connection to your A/V receiver.

We were disappointed to find that DirecTV still won't upgrade its firmware to activate the cool Home Media features--streaming digital music and photos from networked PCs, program sharing among TiVo boxes within the same household, remote programming, and TiVo To Go--that are available to owners of all standard TiVos. The HD TiVo has the USB ports to handle the necessary networking features, but given the chilly relations between TiVo and DirecTV of late--the satcaster has announced plans to launch its own, non-TiVo (and non-HD) DVRs later in 2005--it's a smart bet that corporate politics and other factors will keep the networking features from ever seeing the light of day.

As for service fees--well, as you may know, users of standalone TiVos are required to pay a monthly $13 charge or a onetime $300 fee for service. By contrast, DirectTV charges you just $5 per month to use the TiVo service with any of its TiVo-powered DVRs, including this model. However, if you haven't upgraded to HD yet, it is worth noting that DirecTV does charge extra for receiving HD channels.

As expected, the HD version of the DirecTV TiVo receiver performed just as well as previous standard-def models, such as the SD-DVR40 or the . Thanks to the TiVo interface, searching for and selecting shows to watch or record, in standard or high definition, was an easy affair. Likewise, managing recorded programs and Wish Lists was simple and straightforward. And because the TiVo is always on, you can pause and rewind live TV at any time.

Unlike standalone DVRs, the HD TiVo records the raw DirecTV signal feed, so there's no signal degradation. As a result, recordings look exactly the same as live feeds. That means most standard channels, and even some high-def networks, exhibit softness or noticeable jaggies, at least on large displays, thanks to DirecTV's aggressive compression techniques. But programs on the best-looking networks--Discovery HD, HDNet, and Universal HD--look great, especially when viewed through the unit's all-digital HDMI connection. Annoyingly, though, the HDMI and component-video outputs cannot be active simultaneously, which may cause headaches for users with advanced multimonitor or picture-in-picture setups. Fortunately, the composite and S-Video do work when either the HDMI or component connections are engaged (and set to 480i), so downconverting HD content for DVD/VHS archiving is a snap.

The HD TiVo impressed with its recording finesse. It had no problem recording two HD programs simultaneously while playing back a third, previously recorded show. Another bonus: the unit's flexible resolution control makes it easy to lock into a resolution (1080i, 720p, 480p, or 480i) that's best for your monitor.

Where did the HD TiVo fall short? Compared to standalone models, this one was significantly more sluggish when navigating the onscreen menus. It's far from a deal breaker, but it was noticeable. Also, while the aspect-ratio control was decent, it wasn't comprehensive. The HD TiVo could easily stretch non-HD channels to fit a wide-screen display, but it couldn't stretch or zoom standard content broadcast on HD networks (local news, syndicated programs, and so forth), so you'll want to make sure that your HD monitor can address this shortfall. Additionally, while the 250GB hard disk is quite capacious, the 30-hour limit to HD recordings could cramp avid viewers. That said, we didn't experience the audio dropouts, signal loss, hard-drive crashes, and picture stuttering that some users on certain Internet forums have reported.

In the final analysis, the HD TiVo is the best HD DVR we've seen to date. Yes, we wish it had TiVo's networking and multiroom capabilities. And yes, we wish Direct TV would match the Dish DVR 921's significantly lower price tag ($549). But its superior interface and stability give it the edge over that Dish model. Furthermore, with DirecTV slated to dramatically expand its HDTV offerings over the next couple of years--and no alternative high-def DVR currently announced or available for the service--we can safely recommend the HD TiVo to satellite customers looking to maximize their high-def viewing.


DirecTV HD DVR (HD TiVo)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 6Performance 7