Compared to last year's DVR 921, the Dish Player-DVR 942 represents a marked improvement in size and overall look and feel. At 3.5 by 16 by 13 inches (HWD), it is 1.8 inches shorter and about an inch less deep, so it'll slide into a standard component-size slot on your shelf--as opposed to taking up a space intended for A/V receivers. The front-panel styling has been gussied up, and the box now hides all of the controls behind a flip-down door on the right side of its silver face. In case you don't want to look at the box at all, Dish has included RF capability on one of the two included remotes, enabling control beyond the line of sight (see Features for more on the dual clickers).
The remotes are among the best nonuniversal models we've used, with the many features of EPG navigation (page up/down, info, menu) and video transport (play, pause, rewind, fast-forward) easily accessible and understandable to nontechies. We especially liked the 30-second skip for blasting through commercials. The remote can control up to three additional components in your home-theater system: for example, a TV, a VCR, and a DVD player.
A user interface is what makes or breaks a DVR, and in general, the DVR 942 succeeds. The transparent onscreen overlays present a great deal of information yet don't obscure the show. We loved the ability to scan at speeds up to 300X--a great way to tear through a commercial-infested halftime break. We would have preferred the scans to have had a little bit of jumpback, a friendly feature found on most other DVRs, which compensates for human reaction time by resuming play a few seconds before the point at which you press the play button. Fortunately, Dish includes a manual jumpback button, so if you overshoot while fast-forwarding, you can return to an earlier point with a single keystroke.
The EPG itself is straightforward and easy to read, with options to view five or seven channels at once with a preview window and more without a window. We also liked the custom favorite channels lists. The chronological list of recordings is a bit too cut-and-dried, with no option to group episodes of the same show together, for example. We liked the ability to batch-delete recordings, however.
We also had a few peeves with the DVR 942's recording interface. Setting up a recording via the guide causes it to default to All Episodes mode, which records all episodes of a show on a particular channel (it should default to Once). When you start recording midshow, it begins the recording at the point where you press the red button, not at the point where you changed the channel, as most DVRs do. Once you've set up a recording, there's no easy way to extend the time; to pad the recording, you must dig through a series of menus, although you can prepad during scheduling. To delete a show from the list, you must actually stop playback. Most DVRs allow deletion without the extra step.
The DVR 942 has several ways to resolve conflicts that arise when you try to record programs while the tuners are already occupied. However, this aspect of the interface still needs tweaking. The method for assigning priority isn't very intuitive, and there's no notification of conflicts when you schedule recordings from the genre-browse screen. As a result, you may inadvertently cancel a recording. The list of future recordings, on the other hand, notes when shows conflict with higher-priority programs, allowing you to easily reschedule if you want.
The Dish Player-DVR 942 is the most full-featured satellite receiver on the market. Its capabilities start with a 250GB hard drive, which can hold up to 25 hours of high-def or 180 hours of standard-def programming. Its three built-in tuners--two for satellite and one for over-the-air (OTA) antenna--allow it to record up to three different programs at once. That outdoes the HD TiVo from DirecTV, which can record only two programs at once, although both can be OTA. Of course, the DVR 942 offers the full gamut of DVR features, including the ability to pause and rewind live TV; to schedule recordings using the EPG; to search for shows by keyword, genre, or time; and to set up Dish Passes that record shows based on keywords found in titles or show information, which is provided by TV Guide. As a two-tuner model, the 942 can also call up a smaller picture-in-picture window that lets you view two channels at once.
Like the HD TiVo, the DVR 942 requires an antenna to receive local high-definition programming such as ABC and Fox, although Dish carries one nationwide CBS feed. As we mentioned at the outset, the DVR 942 will not be able to handle upcoming MPEG-4 satellite broadcasts, which will include local HD stations and more high-def channels. Aside from that substantial Achilles' heel, the unit offers access to all of Dish's HD programming, which now includes 10 high-def channels that were originally available on defunct satellite service Voom (for an extra monthly charge).
As with its non-HD step-down cousin, the Dish Player-DVR 625, the DVR 942 features the ability to divide its live and recorded programming between a main TV (TV #1) and a secondary TV in another room (TV #2). Viewers in the second room can use the included second remote, which operates via RF at a range of as much as 200 feet from the DVR 942, to enjoy just about every function found on the main TV. TVs #1 and #2 can even display and control (pause or fast-forward, for example) the same recorded program simultaneously and independently. TV #2, however, displays only standard-definition programming, downconverting high-def shows to standard 480i resolution. It also can't set up over-the-air recordings or view live OTA programs, although it can access recorded OTA content. And naturally, the functionality available to both televisions is limited by the total number of tuners; you can't, for example, record or watch more than two live satellite feeds on the two TVs at the same time. That said, you can record three shows and simultaneously play back two previously recorded programs--one on each TV.
The DVR 942's back panel mysteriously omits a couple of connections. It provides a set of component-video outputs with stereo audio as well as an HDMI jack, but there's neither an S-Video output nor a standard composite-video output associated with TV #1. Sure, you'll use the high-def connections to watch TV #1, but S-Video is great for archiving standard TV and downconverted HDTV to a DVD recorder or a VCR. For the archive path, you could use the connections for TV #2, which include an RF output and a composite A/V output, but that would monopolize control of the second TV, which would be stuck watching whatever you're archiving. Other jacks include the requisite satellite-RF inputs, an input for your over-the-air antenna, and a termination for the antenna associated with the remote for TV #2. An optical digital output and a phone jack for ordering pay-per-view are also available. Note that connecting the HDMI cable renders the component-video outputs inoperable (standard procedure for HDMI) but doesn't affect the optical digital output, which can still pass full Dolby Digital 5.1 audio.
A pair of USB 2.0 ports--one on the front and one in back--will allow the DVR 942 to transfer programs to Dish Network's forthcoming PocketDish portable media players (PMPs), first announced at CES and expected to ship in July or August 2005. These players will be manufactured by Archos, although next-generation Archos PMPs, such as the AV700, will not, as initially indicated, be able to use the DVR 942's USB connections. Most details on the PocketDish units, including pricing, are still under wraps, but Dish indicates that three models will be available with 2-, 4-, and 7-inch screens. In addition to playing TV programs downloaded from the 942, they'll be able to handle music, photos, and other video, including real-time recording from other video sources via analog inputs. PocketDish units will also interface with future USB-equipped Dish Network receivers, and Dish is developing compatibility with current Dish 522 and 625 receivers' slower USB 1.1 ports and investigating the possibility of making the current DVR 921 compatible as well. These satellite receivers' ability to interface out of the box with PMPs is unique among non-computer-based DVRs and is a compelling selling point for shoppers who want to enjoy TV on the go. We'll update this review when we have more information.
We have no complaints with the Dish Player-DVR 942's HD image quality. High-def programs via either component or HDMI looked crisp and lifelike. We experienced a slightly sharper image via HDMI with one LCD monitor, but that's more a function of the display than the receiver. We compared the component-video output of our Scientific Atlanta 8000HD box passing Time Warner's NYC digital-cable feed with that of the DVR 942 on national channels (Discovery and TNT). Dish's appeared somewhat sharper, with a bit better detail in all areas and less noise in backgrounds. A similar comparison between the 8000HD's reception of local HD stations (CBS and Fox) and the DVR 942's of OTA high-def was even more conclusive: the Dish's picture was clearly better than the cable device's. Note that image quality varies between digital cable systems and boxes--the 8000HD is a notorious underperformer--so the difference might not be as noticeable in your area.
We were less satisfied by the image quality of downconverted HDTV shows displayed on TV #2. While we don't expect great pictures over composite video, the box did a worse-than-average job of displaying HD shows in SD, introducing annoying cross-color artifacts and lots of jagged edges. An S-Video output for TV #2 would probably clean up much of the cross-color problem. Some attentive users may also notice a soft clicking sound from the hard drive. It's noticeable during any quiet passage and is louder than on any other DVR we've used.
While the DVR 942 was generally stable during our monthlong testing period, we experienced some inexplicable anomalies. At one point, while playing back a recorded show, we hit Recall to return to the last live program, then returned to the recording, only to see the message, "DVR event has experienced file corruption. It is no longer usable and cannot be played back. Please note the error code and delete the event." Strangely, the program played back a couple of times but finally didn't work at all.
The unit completely crashed once, but after we shut it down (unplugging was the only solution) and powered it back up, we found all of our recordings intact. Twice we recorded NBA basketball games on TNT-HD only to come back the next day and discover that the recording didn't stop for 22 hours! This snafu erased all of the nonprotected events on our list. One of our scheduled events (a mistakenly programmed all-episodes recording of MTV2's Hip Hop Show) persisted in recording even after we instructed the DVR 942 to remove it and never record another episode. It became annoying to have to go in and remove Hip Hop Show episodes from the list, and many times these phantom recordings interfered with shows we intended to record. Also, we once saw a floating blue rectangle, obviously a stray element from the onscreen display, which disappeared during fast-forward but reappeared during normal playback. The only way to get rid of it was to hit Cancel. While this may seem like a litany of problems, the DVR 942 performed better than our Scientific Atlanta cable box and much better than the DVR 921 over the long term, although it wasn't quite as stable as our DirecTV HD TiVo system.