|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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After owning my new 61-inch rear-projection HDTV for about 30 minutes, I started jonesing hard for a High Definition PVR. When I finally made the move to HD, tacking on a few thousand dollars for the set and a extra few bucks to my monthly satellite bill, I somehow had justified in my mind that I could just live with my standard definition TiVo running into my TV and that someday later, I would own an HD PVR. That “someday” came about a week later for me. I called up Dish Network to inquire about the cost of their 921 receiver and, much to my chagrin, it was in the $1,000 range, priced comparably with their HD TiVo competition from DirecTV. (Note: The 921 is currently priced at $549 according to Dish Network.) This price point is a barrier to entry for most home theater enthusiasts, but it just so happens that with a little research, I was amazingly able to pick up the Dish Network 921 PVR at a local mass retailer for just a shade under $500. At that price, I could easily justify adding this piece to my theater, so I took my Dish Network 811 HD receiver out of my system and was now ready for some HD action.
Set-up and Configuration
Just like any satellite receiver, the installation of the Dish 921 is fairly straightforward. There are a few little items to take note of when installing this piece, or any PVR, for that matter. It may look like a standard AV component to the untrained eye, but we are essentially dealing with a computer in an HD PVR. Most importantly, that means there is a hard drive inside. If the big warning labels on the box don’t catch your attention, let me warn you as well that you should in absolutely no circumstances aggressively handle or shake the Dish Network 921 while it is on; in fact, you should actually go so far as to unplug it and let it sit for at least 30 seconds to a minute before doing anything that involves moving your AV rack. The reason for this strong warning is that since there is a hard drive inside the unit that spins when accessing information or recording information, and often even just while idle, any movement to the unit can cause the needle to dig into the surface of the hard drive and scratch it, rendering the PVR useless. This can make troubleshooting quite inconvenient, unplugging and plugging and waiting each time. However, you must exercise a little patience and be sure you stick to this rule.
The 921 is a rather large box coming in at five-and-a-quarter inches tall, 16 inches wide and 14.25 inches deep. It is not particularly heavy at 17.6 pounds, so any average adult can easily move it into position in a shelf or rack. It is only available in a fairly muted grey color that Dish Network has somehow has dubbed “Platinum.” On the back of the unit, a bevy of connectors are available, including two component HD outputs, as well as a DVI output for HD signal. Dual satellite inputs are available for recording multiple programs and an antenna input allows for picking up terrestrial HD via a standard antenna. Running two satellite inputs is something that seems potentially excessive before you get your system. However, it is something that you will learn to absolutely love when your system is up and running. Coaxial outs are available on the Dish 921 and a screw-on antenna on the back helps make the remote work very reliably with it.
Dual composite outputs are available as is S-Video, as well as a digital tos-link out for digital audio into a receiver or AV preamp that has surround sound decoding. For my set-up, I ran the DVI straight into the digital HDMI input of my TV via a DVI to HDMI adapter cable made by Monster Cable. I then ran the sound from one of the composite audio outputs into the HDMI input on the TV, so I can have stereo sound on the TV during those times when I don’t feel like using my surround system and I just want to grab the remote and watch TV.
To be able to use the video switching on my bitchin’ new Anthem AVM 30, I ran one of the component outputs from the Dish 921 to the Anthem, as well as the digital tos-link connection. Since I have a 17-inch LCD TV installed in my kitchen right around the corner, I ran the second component video output to this TV and used a splitter to get the audio signal out to this TV from the same set of audio jacks I ran to my digital input on my TV. To be able to record standard def shows easily to a VCR, I ran standard composite audio and video cables (yellow, red and white) to my VCR and then finally ran the S-video output and another stereo composite audio into one of the spare inputs on my TV. I’ll explain why I used added this extra step later in the review.
Performance as a Satellite Receiver
After getting my HD signal from the antennae and the receiver functioning properly, it was time to cue up the machine and see how the picture looked. I had had some problems with the Dish Network 811 receiver I originally had in my theater before, and it seemed as if the picture was being compressed and the colors and detail were a little lacking on the standard definition picture. I feared that watching the same programming on a PVR, where the image is essentially being fed to the TV out of some kind of buffer would make for an even worse picture, but I found this to not be the case. It may be the old 811 to blame, but I could see an immediate improvement in the picture quality of the 921 vs. the 811 when watching shows live and noticed no difference when watching them even slightly delayed after pausing the live action.
I had overcome some of my disappointment in the SD picture quality in my 811 by doing a convoluted process of watching all SD programming on 480p output on the receiver via S-Video. Then, when going to HD channels, I’d program the box to output 1080i and put the TV back on the HDMI digital input. This is why I took the extra step to make sure one of the outputs from the receiver was S-Video into my TV. In the end, this was not necessary, thanks to the SD/HD button on the remote control of the 921. For some reason, my TV likes the SD input to be its native rate of 480p and likes the HD to come in at 1080i. Then the TV scales it down to 720p. Unlike the 811, where I had to manually go into three levels of menus to switch this and then change the input of the TV, the SD output of the TV going through the HDMI input ended up being more than acceptable.