|Dish Network Dish Player 942 HD Satellite Receiver/PVR|
|Home Theater Media Servers Satellite & Cable Receivers/PVRs/DVRs/TiVo|
|Written by Bryan Dailey|
|Thursday, 01 December 2005|
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I have yet to meet anyone who got a big screen HDTV and then just raved about the SD performance on it. Sure, the gleaming chrome on big street hogs looks mind-blowing on “American Choppers” on Discovery, but until there is more quality HD content available, you will be watching a fair amount of your programming in the SD format. I have had several tuners in my system and thankfully I have seen the SD performance increase steadily as I have worked through the progression of Dish Network receivers. Live sporting events in standard definition on a big screen like my JVC 61-inch HD-ILA have always been a little tough to watch, as the 480p to 720p or 1080i up-scaling has just not looked quite right, but it is the best I have seen yet with the Dish Player 942.
One channel that has always struggled is the horseracing network TVG Ch. 405. They show live races from around the world and often the in-studio graphics look fairly clean and watchable. However, the actual live feed from the different tracks that plays in the center window is already a little choppy to begin with, and it becomes more so if you have a sketchy receiver that is not doing a good job of up-sampling the SD picture. When I put the 942 into my system, my immediate reaction was that the high-def picture looked good already and still looked good, but what improved the most was all of the standard-definition programming. Watching quarter horse racing from Los Alamitos, California had previously been almost an exercise in futility. You could see the starting gate fairly well before, but when these fast horses started tearing down the track, there was always some pretty bad pixilation around the moving objects on the screen and when the horses were around the far corner, you could not read the numbers on the horses and had to listen carefully to track announcer Ed Burgart to be able to tell what specifically was happening. With the 942, the picture is still not three-dimensional or ultra-refined, but the odds of being able to see the horse’s numbers on the sashes have gone up quite substantially. There are still some undefined edges on the horses and slightly blurry “halos” around the moving objects on screen some of the time, but the improvement was enough to make me really stand up and take notice.
I have found that I try to lean towards watching HD content as much as I can, but there are times when you just want to plop down on the TV and watch some music videos or a brainless game show on a standard-definition channel. Again, as with the horseracing channel, there is almost nothing on a standard-def channel that is of noteworthy picture quality, so the goal I have for SD is to have it not be so bad that it’s annoying to watch. I have been following the trials and tribulations of Adam Carolla as he rebuilds his childhood home on the TLC show “The Adam Carolla Project.” Adam will be quick to tell you that showbiz has made him “literally a millionaire, literally” and from the collection of cars and homes that he has amassed that is quite evident that he is telling the truth. One of the first things I ever saw in standard-def on the 942 that made me stop and take notice was the overhead helicopter shot of one of Adam’s Hollywood Hills mansions. The scenic images of the Hollywood hills and blue sky actually had some depth and color saturation that was better than I had come to expect from standard-definition programming.
The SD picture on my smaller Dell LCD monitor, which received input from the second half of the 942, is very smooth and looks as good as any digital cable or satellite picture that is not connected via a DVI or HDMI cable. This is mostly due to the fact that it is a smaller picture to begin with and the signal does not have to stretch to fill such a large area as with the 61-inch HDTV set. I also have a redundant feed going to the DVI input of the Dell set that is powered by a PureLink DVI distribution box. However, for this review, I used the RCA composite video inputs of the TV, fed by the TV 2 output of the Dish Player 942.
Besides watching separate live shows on two different sets, the Dish 942 allows the users to pull content from a shared list of prerecorded events. If one family member recorded “Saturday Night Live” using the high-def half of the 942, the viewer in the other room could watch that same show, albeit it in scaled-down 480p, on their TV. In dual mode, the TVs in the main room and the secondary room can operate independently. In single mode, the primary HDTV can do picture-in-picture mode and the same show can be output to both TVs at the same time. I use this mode if I am cooking and want to watch the a prerecorded or live show in my kitchen, but want to use the speakers in my home theater for sound instead of the much smaller speakers on the Dell flat screen TV.
The only technical downside I noticed with the 942 was the fact that the highest-quality connection available for connection to the standard-definition TV set is composite video via an RCA cable connection. You can also run a coax cable into your TV if you wish. However, I would have liked to see at least an S-Video output as an option. I’m probably splitting hairs, considering that this is the standard-def output and it pales in comparison to the uncompressed HDMI output that is going to my HD set, but I’d like the best picture I can get on both sets.
The user interface, although improved over previous dish network models, does not have quite the user-friendly interface that TiVo has. Until you get the hang of it, setting shows up to record is not as easy as with a TiVo. If you are watching a show and decide you want to record it halfway through, you can do this, however you have to remember to rewind back to where you want to start recording then press the record button. TiVo is smart enough to know that you want the previous content and assuming it has the show stored up in its internal buffer, as long as you have not changed the channel in a while, it will go back and grab the previous part of the show that it has stored in memory and inserts it into the show as it records the rest of it.
The Dish Player 942 takes the 921 to the next level with a whole laundry list of improvements. It is smaller, more versatile, can control two different TVs, pulls more over-the-air HD channels and is the most stable dish network PVR receiver that I have ever used. I have not had to do more than one hard reboot of the 942 in the several months that I have had it in my system.
Standard-def performance is one of the shortcomings of moving to a large screen rear-projection TV set and I had not been thrilled with the SD performance on any receiver that I have had in my system. I can say without reservation that the 942 has improved the standard-definition picture on my HD set.
TiVo is still the gold standard for user interfaces and one of my knocks on other non-TiVo machines is their cold and sterile-looking menus. With the 942, the menus have a softer, more cartoonish look and have brighter colors and more defined borders that make reading them from a long distance much easier on the eyes. The menus are also slightly less translucent than those of the Dish Player 921, making them easier to read as well. The logic for setting up shows to record on a weekly, monthly or daily basis can still be a little tricky and not as smooth as TiVo’s season pass feature, but I have ultimately come to appreciate the Dish Network method because I had previously set season passes on my TiVo only to have my favorite shows stop recording weekly because technically the season ended, but I wanted to catch a few repeats.
A small monthly fee is charged for each PVR receiver that you have in your home system. However, if you have the “America’s Everything” programming package, Dish Network automatically waives this PVR fee. This gives users big incentive to pay a little more for programming since they are saving on their bill from a hardware standpoint. A working phone connection must always be connected to the receiver. Otherwise, a warning will pop up on the screen, letting you know that you will be charged for a second receiver.
In a world where everyone gets nickled and dimed with fees on everything from their cell phone bill to gym memberships, the Dish 942 can actually help you save money. You could buy or lease a Dish Player 921 for your HDTV and then buy or lease a separate 510 SD PVR, but you’d still be left either having to pay two receiver fees if you don’t have the “America’s Everything” package and you still wouldn’t have the flexibility to share recorded shows between the two sets. The 942 really shines from both a technological and financial standpoint, which can mean hundreds of dollars of fees saved and frees up space in your equipment rack. It even comes with an HDMI cable and component video cables, two items that can set you back a surprising amount of money when you realize that you need them, so having them included in the box is another nice touch, courtesy of Dish Network.
The next logical progression in the evolution of this brilliant shared PVR concept will be a unit that has the ability to send two completely discrete HD signals out to two different HD monitors. I have no doubt that the engineers at Dish Network are working on something like this. A lot of buzz has been going around about MPEG 4 satellite receivers and, although the Dish Network 942 is an MPEG 2 box, the fact that Dish Network gives users the less expensive lease option makes users not feel burned by sinking too much money into equipment, only to have to upgrade or change it at some point in the near future. Until MPEG 4 receivers are more than just a fantasy on the horizon, the Dish Network 942 is easily the best option that you can get for your HDTV viewing pleasure.