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Dish Network DTVPal review: Dish Network DTVPal

Fast-forwarding brings up a status bar so you know where you are in a program.

As with any DVR, in addition to recording programs, you can also pause and rewind live TV. The DTVPal DVR has a 60-minute live buffer; you can rewind up to 60 minutes of live TV, although if you opt to record the program you're watching in progress, it won't include that buffer in the recording. 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. (TiVo doesn't technically have this feature, but it can be enabled with a simple remote hack.) Standard rewind and fast-forward isn't not 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.

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 record two programs and watch one off the hard drive at the same time.

While the two-tuner functionality is great, the DTVPal DVR doesn't do a good job of handling recording conflicts. For example, if you go to make a recording and there are both tuners already scheduled to be in use, the DTVPal will just tell you the new recording conflicts with an existing event. It doesn't tell you which events it conflicts with or offer you options about which program you'd actually like to record--most DVRs, including TiVo and Dish's own ViP series of HD satellite DVRs, do.

Even worse, sometimes the scheduling conflict logic is askew (as discovered by AVS Forum members), so if you record two back-to-back shows on different networks, along with an hour-long show over that same time period, occasionally it will report a conflict error even though only two tuners are being used at any one time. A minor issue, but still a frustration.

The timer event list makes it clear that the DTVPal DVR really acts more like a VCR than a DVR. You can't set up recurring recordings by program name or automatically eliminate repeats.

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. If you're accustomed to the "pick your programs and forget about them" mentality of a TiVo or standard Dish DVR, don't expect that with the DTVPal DVR--you'll probably still want to scan the TV Guide once a week to see what's worth recording.

Connectivity is mostly comprehensive, but note that there are no inputs. Recording is strictly limited to over-the-air content.

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. There's also a component video output, which is also capable of 1080i output. Standard definition output is limited to a composite video output and an RF output; there's no S-Video. 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.

Despite the Ethernet port on the back, there are currently no Web services enabled on the DTVPal DVR. While there's a plethora of additional services on the TiVo HD (Netflix Instant Streaming, Rhapsody, YouTube, Amazon On Demand, to name a few), the DTVPal DVR is limited to what you can record over-the-air. That's unfortunate because one of the major downsides to the DTVPal DVR is being limited to over-the-air programming; online video would be a great way to supplement the over-the-air content. Dish's own DVRs allow access to pay-per-view movies and other content online via Ethernet; you'd think the company would at least want to enable such functionality on the DTVPal DVR.

If you're not used to watching over-the-air HDTV, you may be surprised by how good the image quality is. Over-the-air digital TV signals can broadcast in standard-definition or HD, and most of the major networks broadcast prime-time content in HD (either 1080i or 720p.) In our testing, the HD video quality is at least as good as the signals provided by pay services such as DirecTV, Dish Network, or a cable company, and occasionally we felt it even looked better, with fewer compression artifacts. Other than Blu-ray, over-the-air HDTV is one of the best HD video sources currently available.

A DVR is typically one of the most-used devices in a home theater, so stability and ease of use are magnified; the last thing you want when you sit down on the couch are crashes or a confusing interface. During our test period, encompassing about two weeks of constant use, the DTVPal DVR was remarkably stable, and we experienced only a few instances where it slowed down--but nothing requiring a reset. (For what it's worth, we were using the most recent F202TAKD-N firmware.)

While our experience was glitch-free, reports of freezing DTVPal DVRs are all over the Internet. At the time of this review, the majority of user opinions on CNET mention crashing units, and a (clearly unscientific) poll on AVS Forum estimates that 60 percent of the units crash or freeze. We'd guess that the actual percentage of problem units is lower (those with bad experiences are more likely to participate online), but there's no doubt that a significant portion of DTVPal DVR users are having major problems.

The online reports are troubling, but the problem is amplified by Dish Network's lousy return policy. The DTVPal DVR comes with a 90-day warranty, and all sales are final from Dish Network. That means you can't return the DTVPal DVR if you don't like it or it doesn't work well in your area. The 90-day warranty is also very short; the TiVo HD comes with a full year, and the Dish Network's ViP722 also covers a full year. With so many issues reported online, the lack of a return policy, and the short warranty, we can't help but feel like buying the DTVPal DVR is a gamble. (It's also currently impossible--the DTVPal DVR is currently sold out on the company's Web site.)

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