Must-Have Toys For HDTV Buffs

Receivers with built-in DVRs make recording programs a cinch

These are toys for rich folk: $1,000 digital video recorders that can handle high-definition TV signals. They work like the DVRs designed for standard television broadcasts made by the likes of TiVo (TIVO ) and ReplayTV, letting you pause live TV programs, get instant replays, or record and store shows so you can watch them later. They're the must-have missing piece of the system for home-theater buffs -- the easy way to record programs broadcast in HD.

For the past couple of months, I've been comparing two high-definition, satellite-TV receivers with built-in DVRs: DirecTV's HR10-250 and DISH NETWORK'S DVR-921. They're the most powerful DVRs on the market, letting you record two different HD programs at the same time you're watching a third, previously recorded one. (Some cable-TV companies are beginning to offer HD DVR set-top boxes, but they can record only one show at a time.)


To use them, you'll need a satellite dish and an HD-capable TV set. Both DISH and DirecTV offer a half-dozen or so HD channels for about $10 a month, plus HD versions of premium channels Showtime and HBO. Both have channels for special events, such as the Olympics, that are broadcast in HD. If you want to get HD signals from your local stations, you'll also need an off-air antenna, the old-fashioned "rabbit ears" or rooftop type. Both boxes will seamlessly integrate the local TV and satellite TV listings into the same on-screen program guide.

The two high-definition DVRs offer the usual "trick play" features, such as skipping back 10 seconds for a second look, pausing a show to answer the phone, or fast-forwarding through commercials. But that's where the similarities end. If you're a channel-surfer who watches TV in real time -- as the shows are aired -- but you want to record an occasional series or movie, the DISH DVR-921 is for you. If most of what you watch are shows and movies you've already recorded, your best bet is the DirecTV DVR, which uses technology licensed from TiVo.

That's because the strengths and weaknesses of each machine skew it toward one type of TV viewer or the other. For example, channel-surfers will find the 921's program-listing grid easier to navigate, with buttons on the remote to skip ahead in 24-hour chunks. The DirecTV program grid moves only in 30-minute increments and, even then, is slow enough to be almost unusable.

On the other hand, if you subscribe to the TiVo paradigm of watching mostly prerecorded TV, you don't really need a grid. Instead, you can rely on the DirecTV DVR's robust search features to seek out and record those programs you're interested in. You specify a title, actor, director, or key word, and the DirecTV box will continuously look for it and record it, even if it's a movie that airs a year from now. For series, it can distinguish between first-run episodes and repeats, and it can spot shows that air at different times on different days, handy for American Idol fans. The DISH 921 can only record the same time slot daily or weekly, like a VCR, and it can search only eight days ahead for shows already listed in its program guide.

There are some other differences. You can pause the DISH 921 for up to two hours and still rewind to the beginning of the show; DirecTV is limited to 30 minutes. DISH's fast-forward and rewind buttons let you race through a recorded program much faster. DISH can hold 25 hours of HD programs on its built-in hard-disk drive while DirecTV can store 30 hours (or 180 and 200 hours, respectively, of standard television).

A word about bugs. DISH was first to market last December but throttled back production because the 921 didn't live up to its promises. I experienced several instances where it forgot to record a program. That was corrected with a software upgrade it automatically installed in August. There's still no program information for local channels, although the channels are listed in the guide. DISH says that problem will be fixed in October.

Still, if you can't bear to miss an episode of your favorite show, both of these DVRs are now up to the job.

By Larry Armstrong

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