|Dish Network 921 HD Satellite Receiver/DVR|
|Home Theater Media Servers Satellite & Cable Receivers/PVRs/DVRs/TiVo|
|Written by Bryan Dailey|
|Friday, 01 April 2005|
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Performance as an HD Recording Device
The biggest adjustment that I had to make when using the 921 vs. my old trusty TiVo was the fact that the menus and controls are simply not as slick or intuitive as TiVo. Cute names like “season pass” and “wish list” and the familiar TiVo menu sounds are a thing of the past as you get an experience that is much more cold and sterile with the Dish 921. Warm and fuzzy feelings aside, I wanted to know if this sucker was going to do the trick to make sure I have enough exciting NBA basketball games and documentary specials about great white sharks jumping out of the ocean or “ship breaking” in the Indian Ocean every night when I get home from work.
The menu on the 921 harkens back to the early 1990s, with blue square boxes and a faded Dish Network logo that doesn’t exactly impress. Nevertheless, it is functional and straightforward in operation. One nice touch that Dish Network has programmed is when a menu is selected; the current show that is on, either live or pre-recorded, depending on what you are watching at the time, shows up in a little window in the upper right corner. This allows you to browse through your list of recorded shows or look for something while still keeping up with your current show. One glitch that is fairly obvious with this preview window feature is the fact that any HD show that is squeezed into the box gets strange pinkish streaks across it. You won’t be doing any critical viewing in this preview window, and I know it may seem like a small thing to nitpick, but just be aware that your TV or receiver is not broken if you see these streaks on the small picture. (Note: Dish Network just released a software download to correct these streaks.) I asked a technical service person at Dish Network if he knew what causes this and even he doesn’t know, but almost every 921 user has this happen, so I was not overly concerned with it. I was just happy that they even make this preview option available.
Picking a show to record is fairly straightforward and I never had to consult the instruction manual or call support, as everything is spelled out on the screen. Where things get a little goofy is when you are watching a show with the PVR and you want to go to the menu and switch back to live TV. A button on the remote called “Live TV” should take you back every time. However, sometimes a long delay occurs from the time you press the button to when it actually takes you to the event. I think this may be caused by the fact that my receiver is set up in dual tuner mode, so it’s pausing a little to decide which tuner to use. Normally, one tuner will be used to show live TV and the other will be used to record shows. If you are recording two shows simultaneously, you can go into the menu and look at the two red dots next to the shows being recorded and select which one you want.
To really impress my friends and family when they come over, I permanently have “The Matrix” and “Seabiscuit” in HD recorded and protected so they cannot be overwritten. That leaves me about 21 hours of programming space for things like the upcoming Masters golf tournament in HD. Because of the fairly limited amount of HD recording space, you can’t keep a huge archive of HD material, so I decided to just keep a few demos that were spectacular.
On “The Matrix” in HD, I went to the kung fu training seminar scene to evaluate the picture in this fast-moving action sequence. The cloudy background of the faux computer-generated dojo and wooden pillars are difficult for even the best DVD players to reproduce, so I thought I’d give the HD version a try on the 921. Only a hint of compression in the background image could be seen when sitting closer to the 61-inch TV than you normally would for viewing purposes. With the lights dimmed in my room, positioning myself on the sofa about 12 feet away from the screen, this slight amount of grain that otherwise could be a factor of the video processing in the TV predictably vanished. Dark scenes can be tough for HD displays but very light ones, like the sequence with Neo’s white kung fu suit, can be difficult as well. The Dish 921 handled the job like a champ and the distinction between the various light elements on the screen were clear and vivid.
When Trinity and Neo suit up with guns underneath their black trench coats to infiltrate the office building where Morpheus is being held captive, I was able to get an idea of how the 921 would do on a scene with some very dark blacks. As Neo opens his coat to expose a small army’s worth of firepower, I could still see the fine details of the wrinkles in his black clothes, the black gun handles and his black belt. Trinity’s shiny black suit offered a similar visual challenge and the results were just as impressive as her ability to fire two guns at the same time while doing super-slow-mo somersaults and run up the sides of marble walls while dodging a shower of bullets. If the 921 was adding any visual distortion to the picture that wasn’t there in the original broadcast it’s so minimal that I don’t see it. The end result is a picture so much better than the best progressive scan DVD player that I can’t remember seeing “The Matrix” this good since I caught it in the theaters.
On “Seabiscuit,” another favorite HD demo, I paid particular attention to not only the picture, since I used this film to recently review my 61-inch JVC rear-projection TV, but also the sound. The digital output of the 921 worked flawlessly, sending the Dolby Digital 5.1 track to my AV preamp. As George Wolf, played by real professional jockey Gary Stevens, takes on War Admiral in the highly anticipated match race, the thunderous sound of horse hooves surrounds you and makes you feel closer to the action than any real day at the track.
Only in the fastest-moving scenes, where the track is whizzing by at breakneck speeds, did I notice any hint of pixilation or motion artifacts. I happened to catch a live broadcast of “Seabiscuit” recently and made sure to see if I saw the same thing on the live broadcast. I did see it and although I don’t know if when watching something live on the 921, if the player runs the data through the same buffer that it does when playing items off the hard drive, the movie still looks simply spectacular in HD. Again, as with “The Matrix,” the HD version of “Seabiscuit” on my 921 makes my DVD copy of the movie pale in comparison.
Standard definition is a real mixed bag, as is HD when the broadcast quality is less-than-excellent to begin with such as some of the shows on ABC HD and TNT, both of which broadcast their shows in odd aspect ratios. Recording a show like “South Park” or a live sitcom in SD, you will get bright and vivid colors, but with the projection screen/PVR combo that I have, you aren’t going to be wowing anyone with the 921. It does a passable job of archiving shows, obviously much better than a VCR. However, once you go with HD, you never want go back, but you’ll be glad that you have the ability to record anything you want at the press of a button, whether it’s 25 hours of HD or 180 hours of standard definition programming.