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.
The MyVOD list of recorded shows is automatically grouped by title, a feature borrowed from TiVo that really saves on screen real estate. A quick menu option can expand or collapse the groups, Windows Explorer-style, to see the individual episodes. A status bar along the top tells you how much disk space is left in percentage terms, although we'd like to see how many hours are left too. There's also a Showcases tab that, although unpopulated at the moment, will eventually "add content options to consumers via pushed download," according to DirecTV. Similar push types of content, for example, trailers, tie-ins, and videos from sources including CNET, can found on Dish and TiVo DVRs.
Pay-per-view and interactivity
Like all satellite receivers, the DirecTV HR20 requires an analog phone line to order pay-per-view programs; we tested our connection with our Vonage service, and it worked fine. When we asked exactly what the phone line was used for, DirecTV's rep told us that it's currently the only method for the box to communicate with DirecTV, and that by connecting it, the consumer experience can be improved. We went for four months without the phone line connected, and the HR20 worked perfectly well--it gets its EPG data and software updates from the satellite, not via the phone jack.
As does Dish, DirecTV offers an interactive service that includes local weather (currently freezing in New York), lottery info (we lost), a horoscope (happy birthday, Kevin Costner!), and a couple of sponsored sections including today's television highlights. Unlike with Dish, you can't view your account info or pay your bill here, nor go shopping at The Sharper Image--yet.
There's also access to DirecTV's mix channels that show live feeds from eight sports, news, or kids channels simultaneously--but thankfully, only one audio track at a time. While checking out the sports mix, a popup appeared, explaining that we could hit the red button to see, only on DirecTV, What's Hot: A List of the Most Popular Shows in Your Time Zone on DirecTV. Curious? At 5:27 ET on a Thursday, they were: 1. Around the Horn (ESPN); 2. The Big Story with John Gibson (Fox News); 3. Pokemon (Cartoon Network); 4. Charmed (TNT); and 5. Spongebob Squarepants (Nick). And yes, it's updated in real-time; soon new shows appeared and others moved up and down the list, and for 10 blissful minutes we experienced a voyeurism more riveting than any reality show on TV. Then, predictably, we got bored.
Hardware and connectivity
The nuts and bolts of the DirecTV HR20 compare favorably with other late-model HD DVRs on the market. Its hard disk can hold any combination of as much as 200 hours of standard-def, 30 hours of MPEG-2, or 50 hours of MPEG-4 programming, which should be plenty for most folks. It has two satellite tuners that necessitate two wires coming down from the rooftop satellite dish--for what it's worth, the Dish ViP622 needs just one--and requires a big 26x30-inch 5-LNB dish (typically included in the installation at no charge) for full functionality.
A recent software upgrade has also enabled the HR20 to tune and record over-the-air ATSC channels when connected to an antenna. We tested this feature against the tuner in a ViP-622, and both grabbed the same channels with roughly the same signal strength. Of course, as with all antenna connections, the channels you're able to receive depends greatly on your location. The option of tuning an ATSC channel allows the HR20 to record high-def shows not available on the company's HD local satellite feed, such as PBS and the CW. We also like that you can record as many as two ATSC shows simultaneously. Unlike the ViP622, however, the HR20 cannot record a third show at the same time; it'll still be limited to only two simultaneous recordings--although you can always play back a third, previously recorded program.
The DirecTV HR20 offers plenty of connections, including one HDMI and one component-video output to handle high-def, along with two composite-video outputs with stereo audio, an S-Video output (owners of Slingboxes, VCRs and DVD recorders will appreciate the extra standard-def outputs), and an optical digital output for Dolby Digital soundtracks. Unlike with the original DirecTV HD TiVo, all outputs are active simultaneously.
HDTV aficionados will love the option to choose an all-native output mode, which delivers high-def channels in their original resolutions (e.g. 720p for ABC, Fox, and ESPN; 1080i for the rest). The Dish ViP622 lacks an all-native option, although the TiVo Series 3 has one.
Like most of its kind, the HR20 has its share of jacks labeled for future use. These include an Ethernet port, a serial ATA port, and a pair of USB ports--one in front and one in back. The Ethernet port can connect with a home network via an Intel Viiv PC to display photos and play music, and the companies are promising the ability to stream video from Viiv PCs later this year (we haven't yet tested Viiv compatibility). We could speculate that the USB ports might connect to portable devices, much like Dish's PocketDish players, or that the serial ATA port will allow hard-drive expansion, but given DirecTV's track record of hobbling networking and TiVo To Go features on its previous TiVo-enabled DVRs, we're not holding our breath.
Aside from the few things we've already mentioned, one of our major complaints is lack of adequate aspect-ratio control for high-def sources. In a perfect world, every show would be wide-screen, but in reality, some HD networks--we're looking at you, TNT--incorrectly "stretch" 4:3 shows to fill the wide-screen, making everyone appear short and fat. Most HD DVRs, such as the Dish, the TiVo Series 3, the old DirecTV HD TiVo, and even many cable company offerings, can resize these images properly, but the HR20 does not allow aspect-ratio control with high-def sources. During an episode of Charmed, for example, Alyssa Milano just didn't look her skinny self via the HR20, and pressing the format button didn't change the image at all. With standard-def sources, the HR20 offers the three most basic options: 4:3 (called pillarbox, and available with either black or gray side bars), wide-screen (stretch), or zoom (crop).
The HR20 also lacks picture-in-picture, a feature offered on the Dish and many other cable DVRs, but not on the Series3 TiVo. And while it does incorporate a screen-saver after a certain period of inactivity, the DirecTV receiver cannot turn itself off to save power, an ability of the Dish's that we really appreciate. The HR20 lacks TiVo's Record to VCR option, but of course, you can do so manually, as with any other DVR. Many posters on Web forums are also complaining that the HR20 lacks "dual live buffers," which allow a user to switch back and forth between the two tuners freely when both are playing back time-delayed, non-live programs, without having one jump to the live show.
Naturally, most of these omissions could conceivably be addressed software and firmware updates. We have no doubt that the HR20 will experience numerous changes and upgrades, but for now, it offers fewer extras than Dish or TiVo Series3.
We had the opportunity to compare the DirecTV HR20 directly to the Dish ViP622 and look at their picture quality on the same monitor. First, we connected both to a Belkin HDMI switch and watched a selection of HDTV material on a Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK plasma TV. In short, we had no complaints about the HD picture quality.
Our first stop was HDNet, which is typically among the best-looking channels on any system. We watched Nothing but Trailers, a collection of high-def movie trailers, and the HR20 did not disappoint, delivering razor-sharp detail in the finest areas such as Will Farrel's curly hair and the textured wall in his apartment in the Stranger then Fiction trailer, and the writing on the boxes during Jennifer Garner's move in the Catch and Release. Flipping back and forth between the HR20 and the Dish, no real difference was apparent; even the brief breakups during fast transitions were identical between the two.
DirecTV has gotten some criticism for its rendition of HBO, so we went there next. Compared to Dish network, the showing of The Associate, a mid-'80s Whoopi Goldberg flick, the HR20 had the same flaws and good points, from the noisy walls and books in the background of Dianne Weist's office to the fine grid on her suit jacket, which seemed to break up in exactly the same way with both boxes. We also watched a few more modern movies, including War of the Worlds and North Country, and found the images similar on both boxes.
The story was the same on all the HD channels we compared, from ESPN to Discovery, to the high-def local channels. The difference between Dish and DirecTV with high-def channels was negligible, and both looked more or less great to our eyes.
We also checked out some standard-def programming, starting with a Mets game on local sports channel SNY. We were able to detect some subtle differences between the two; the score box and other graphics appeared slightly less stable on the Dish at 720p--although at 1080i they were fine--but otherwise, the two looked very nearly indistinguishable. We switched over to recordings of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, and Steven's studio did look a bit better on the Dish; its blacks were definitely darker, for whatever reason, and we detected a bit more MPEG noise in the background with the HR20. There was no black-level difference on CNN, however, although some of the graphics did look very slightly more detailed on the Dish. A black-and-white film on Turner Classic Movies looked basically the same, but there did seem to be a tiny bit more noise on DirecTV's IFC. In other words, the differences between the two boxes' standard-def picture quality was pretty slim, although we'd give the slight nod to Dish.
Other performance notes
As we mentioned at the beginning of this review, we've been living with the HR20 for four months, and it has functioned smoothly most of the time. Recently, however, we've experienced audio dropouts on some recorded programs, from HBO HD, Discovery HD, HD Net, and others, that muted audio every few seconds and made the programs essentially unwatchable. The audio dropouts were accompanied sometimes by scrambled, pixellated video. This issue didn't surface with live programs, just recorded ones, and it has cropped up only in the past couple of weeks of using the unit. It's also sporadic and doesn't occur on all HD recordings--or any SD recordings, so far. As a result of these issues, however, we've lowered the unit's performance score.
Overall operation was very smooth otherwise. The HR20 has crashed a few times; once, when we changed channels, the screen went blank, along with the EPG, the menus, and a list of recorded programs; although happily, normal operation returned after we unplugged and replugged the power cord--simply holding down the power button had no effect. We also experienced a crash when setting up "padding" as decribed above, and during one program search. Our original experience with the Dish was less smooth although, to Dish's credit, our ViP622 hasn't crashed in the months since then.
Other random issues with the HR20 were relatively minor for a DVR this complex and new. The most annoying was that it missed recording a Mets game (luckily they'd already clinched), instead displaying a blank screen and refusing to fast-forward. The picture froze once after changing resolution settings, pausing and staying paused without being able to restart play, but we changed channels, and it reset without a hassle. The remote, whether in IR or RF mode, would sometimes send our command twice, which was a minor hassle when changing channels or inputting information.