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.
On the outside, the DirecTV HR20 gets all-silver coloring, a few important buttons, and numerous useless lights. Our eyes were immediately drawn to the circle in the center of the unit's face, which incorporates a four-way directional keypad and Select button, along with a circle of 12 bright blue LEDs. When the receiver is turned on, the LEDs glow steadily unless you fast-forward or rewind, which causes them to begin a mesmerizing rotation in the appropriate direction. Aside from the light show, the face also sports Power, Guide, Menu, and Record buttons (the last illuminates yellow during recordings) to the left and Active, Info, and Res buttons (the last, a very convenient option, toggles through 480i, 480p, 720, or 1080i outputs) to the right. The rectangular box measures about 15.1 by 2.8 by 12.3 inches (WHD) and weighs 9.5 pounds.
While the typical DVRs look relatively unobtrusive, the HR20's incidental sights and sounds became noticeable after awhile. The blue lights were distracting in a dark room when the box was within line of sight. (Tip: you can disable the lights by pressing the left and right arrows on the front panel simultaneously; doing so four times extinguishes the lights.) The DirecTV HR20 also runs noisier than any other DVR we've tested; its subtle computer-sounding whine was audible from about 10 feet away, and we noticed it a couple times during quiet passages in movies, for example. For this reason we'd prefer to stash it in a (well-ventilated) cabinet.
The remote's best feature, however, is RF capability. Like the ViP622's secondary remote, you can take the HR20's clicker across the house and still control the action. Now, Grandma can aim at the TV itself--instead of at the receiver--and still change the channel, or you can stash the blinking box inside a cabinet and still get full control. DirecTV claims a range of 200 feet, and we were able to control the receiver in apartment from outside in the hallway. The main downside to putting the box and the remote in RF mode is that it disables standard IR (infrared) reception capability, so you can't use an IR-dependent device such as a Slingbox.
Like any DVR, the DirecTV HR20 is always recording everything you watch, and it buffers the last 90 minutes of the show as long as you remain on the same channel; the ViP622 buffers an hour. Controls for live and recorded programs include pause, stop, play, fast-forward and rewind (three speeds for each); as well as slow motion, frame-by-frame, and a 30-second reverse skip. So far so good, but users will find one major thing missing compared to (hacked) TiVo and Dish: there's no true 30-second forward skip. Instead, when you press the skip button, the HR20 fast-forwards ahead 30 seconds for each button-press. Happily, DirecTV has seen fit to speed up the 30-second "skip" in one of its software updates, so the fast-forward takes only about 2 seconds instead of the 6 it took before. It also took moment for sound to come back on after a skip.
Lack of a true 30-second skip is a blatant concession to advertisers, since the most important part of most ads--the logo--will still be plainly visible during such a slow fast-forward. Compared to a real skip, the HR20's version is also a waste of time. On the other hand, we were happy to see that DirecTV added a fourth, extra-fast, conventional fast-forward speed, which is great for blasting through long programs.
We did like the HR20's unique ability to bookmark recorded programs. Pausing a recording during playback and pressing the green button creates a bookmark, denoted on the progress bar with a little notch, and we created 20 such bookmarks during an hour-long show with no problem. To move to a bookmark, you simply select it from the quick menu (see below) and the DVR jumps directly there.
As a whole, the HR20's user interface is among the best we've used, and certainly up to the tough competition. People used to TiVo might miss the animated graphics and plain-language menus, but we appreciated the HR20's relative simplicity and the speed at which it moved. The old DirecTV HD TiVo is positively pokey in comparison, although the menus of both Dish and TiVo Series3 move at about the same speed. DirecTV's blue-and-yellow color scheme is great for highlighting various items, and the use of tabs and left-hand navigation menus will be familiar to anyone who's spent time browsing the Web (Dish's graphics, with their rounded edges and oversized type, look antiquated by comparison). There's even a convenient Back button that takes you to the previous screen.
Our favorite interface feature is the context-sensitive, popup-style Quick Menu. Think of it as the "right-click" in Windows, which offers common options depending on what you're doing. If you're watching a live or recorded program, for example, the menu gives you audio options, favorite channels, your list of recorded programs (DirecTV calls it--confusingly--MyVOD), search, recent phone calls from the caller-ID function, help and settings, and parental locks. If you're in the EPG, the audio options disappear, replaced by category sort, date and time search, and pay-per-view options in addition to the others. From the MyVOD list, the options change to sorting, mass delete (a very welcome feature), and control of program groupings. Users unfamiliar with all the capabilities of the DVR will find the menu a great way to intuitively explore and access all of its functions. That's a good thing, because the thin manual included with the HR20 is brief to the point of uselessness about most of the receiver's capabilities.
Electronic program guide (EPG)
We found using the EPG itself, which goes out to 14 days, a generally satisfying experience, and the DirecTV HR20 offers better options for finding programming than any DVR we've seen yet. In addition to the usual title, person, and keyword searches, you can search for actual channels, a great option given the hundreds available--and much quicker than paging through the Guide. A convenient list of past searches is kept automatically, so you don't have to retype them.
We also love the numerous targeted genre searches, which, of course, include sports, news, movies, and specials, but also unusual subcategories such as award ceremony and finale. Tweakers will appreciate the option to search for audio/video criteria, including HDTV, Dolby Digital, Dolby Surround, wide-screen, letterbox, and more. It was a disappointment, however, when some of the searches incorrectly came up empty. We know for a fact that numerous movies are in wide-screen, for example, but that search was blank. The same went for our Dolby Digital search. (Although DirecTV said it would address this issue after our initial review came out, four months later these searches still don't work).
Other EPG niceties include the ability to jump directly to a date and time--again, much faster than paging through; a 12-hour jump-ahead or -back; a great HD tag right next to high-def show titles, which immediately indicates which shows are actually in high-def; and the ability to fast-forward, rewind, and so forth, in the little inset window. Finally, there's a cool Showings option in the program information screen, which can automatically search for upcoming episodes of any selected show.
We did run into some major snags though. First off, it takes longer to page vertically through the guide or move forward in time than with the other high-end DVRs we've tested; the delay of about 2 seconds as the guide loaded the next screen was annoying, especially when trying to blast through the list. We also didn't like that pressing the Guide button brings up not the guide itself, but an interstitial screen requiring you to filter the guide by various criteria: all channels; movies and events; sports; news and information; entertainment and music; family and kids; local; and HDTV. While some people might like the option to quickly narrow down the innumerable channels every time they look at the guide, we found it tiresome after awhile, and quickly got used to hitting Guide twice, which took us directly to the all-channels list. It's also worth noting that some of the filters, such as the genre searches, didn't function correctly; the HDTV filter, for example, included a handful of standard-def channels as well as some XM music channels.
As usual, the all-channels list showed numerous channels we couldn't receive, such as west coast feeds of HD channels, local sports channels, and international channels. Unlike Dish or TiVo, however, those unreceivable channels weren't clearly marked, whether on the EPG or a search results list--we had to select one to find whether or not it was active. There is supposedly a way to restrict the Guide to only channels I get, but it is currently disabled, according to DirecTV. Although the company originally told us it would enable channels I get by the end of 2006, it still has yet to do so.
The HR20 does let you create two different favorite-channels lists (Dish gives you four and TiVo one), one of which you could substitute in place of the default all-channels list. Unfortunately, given the hundreds of channels, creating your own custom I get list using the favorites function is a real pain (see Tips & Tricks above). It's worth noting that with most cable DVRs, you get no control whatsoever over the default Guide, so the HR20's level of EPG customization is better than nothing, just not yet as good as TiVo's or Dish's.
When programming the ATSC tuner, the over-the-air channels get mixed in with the satellite channels, and DirecTV provides EPG information for both. Unfortunately, when we used the setup menu to try to remove the OTA channels that we couldn't receive from the Guide, they remained, regardless. We hope DirecTV addresses this bug with more enthususiasm than it showed with channels I get.
Here the HR20 introduces another refreshing, simple change: when you press the record button, whether while watching live TV or from the Guide, the DVR just begins recording the current program or marks the future program for recording, no questions asked. Other DVRs, such as Dish and TiVo, usually give you a mandatory screen in which you must set recording options before the recording begins, and that often becomes a pain--especially with the Dish, which defaults to "all episodes" of a show. You can easily adjust recording options separately if you want, but often it's not necessary. We would have liked to see an automatic "overtime" extention of an hour or two for sports programs though, a feature found on Dish and some cable DVRs.
Of course, you can schedule the HR20 to record every episode of a particular show, just first-run episodes, or just repeats (TiVo users: that's the same as Season Pass). Search results, whether from keywords, actors, or other criteria, can be automatically recorded (known as Wish List to TiVotees). You can adjust how many episodes to keep and when to delete them. There's the familiar to-do list that shows the upcoming scheduled recordings and also a history that shows past scheduled recordings--unique, in our experience. It's easy to keep track of purchases, a.k.a pay-per-view, as well as automatically prioritize season passes. Conflicts, which can occur when you schedule a third recording that overlaps the first two, are easily resolved manually or via the Prioritizer. We also liked the ability to manually schedule a recording by channel, time, and length, an option missing from some DVRs.
Another bug DirecTV has yet to address is that the option to extend a scheduled recording past its standard stop time doesn't work consistently. When recording a basketball game, for example, we tried to set it to record an extra hour to account for possible overtime, and it failed to do so. On a couple of occasions, inserting this kind of "padding" actually caused the HR20 to crash. As a workaround, we simply recorded the shows that came on after the game, but of course, we'd like to see this feature function properly.