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EchoStar TR-50: HD DVR for the antenna crowd

EchoStar's first non-Dish DVR may be the perfect fit for viewers without satellite or cable.

EchoStar TR-50 HD DVR
EchoStar TR-50: An HD DVR for those without cable or satellite

If you think everybody has cable or satellite, you couldn't be more wrong. In fact, if you live in an area that's well-served by digital broadcasters, now's a better time than ever to get your TV over the air (or "OTA," as the cool kids say): yeah, you get only a handful of channels, but they're in crystal-clear digital quality--DVD quality at "worst," uncompressed high-definition at best. The problem--as we're reminded by many an e-mailer--is that there just isn't a good DVR solution for the rabbit-ears crowd, especially if you prefer high-def. (You can opt for a TiVo HD, but you'd still have to pay a monthly fee for their programming guide.) But that may finally be changing, thanks to the EchoStar TR-50. For all intents and purposes, the TR-50 takes many of the features found on Dish Networks' excellent satellite DVRs (such as the ViP622 and 722) and brings them to antenna-based TV viewers.

The unit offers ATSC and NTSC tuners, so it can view and record over-the-air HD digital, standard digital, and analog channels. Dual tuner action means you can watch (and record) one live channel while simultaneously recording a second--or record two channels while playing back a previously recorded show. There's also full control over live TV, including rewind, pause, slow motion, 10-second "instant replay," and--for recordings--30-second skip. The TR-50 also sports a 7-day electronic program guide (using over-the-air metadata on the digital band), which should eliminate the pesky VCR-style manual "timer recordings" (you remember: "8:00-9:00 p.m. / Thursdays / channel 4"). The box also has a full range of outputs, including component and HDMI (480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i resolutions supported), as well as standard-def composite and RF outputs for older TVs. Dish hasn't yet specified the internal hard drive size, but the USB 2.0 connector will ensure expandable storage. Perhaps most interestingly, the TR-50 includes an Ethernet port and the ability to decode MPEG-4 video, and EchoStar touts its ability to "access premium Internet-based TV programming via broadband Internet," as well as "DVR management and timer creation via Internet"--though the timeframe for such features wasn't disclosed. Likewise, the exact release date and pricing information remain a mystery. But if it's affordable--and lacks TiVo's monthly fee--the TR-50 may be the perfect fit for TV viewers without satellite or cable who still want to enjoy HD programming on their own schedule.

Separately, EchoStar also announced the TR-40. That model is merely a digital set-top box (no DVR). It will let analog TV owners (or those with HD monitors that lack a tuner) receive digital and high-def signals over the air--a necessity after the scheduled February 2009 analog TV shutdown.