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Are All HD DVRs Fatally Flawed? Print E-mail
Thursday, 09 November 2006
In the history of home theater, there is a case to be made that the advent of satellite television is one of the most significant developments to ever make it into the racks of our best home theaters. With a tiny dish installed on the roof and a price sometimes lower than cable, you could get out-of-market sports games, tons of movies and more channels than ever before. Add in TiVo technology and the proliferation of other digital video recording technologies (DVRs) and HDTV content, and watching television will never be the same. Yet all is not well in the world of HDTV. While digital cable bounced back with competitive services and products, including high-speed Internet bundled in with HD receivers, it has been suggested that each and every one of the mass market HD receivers on the market are truly flawed components that are missing the reliability, features and technology to deliver good service to satellite and digital cable customers alike.

DirecTV’s HR 10-250 (HD TiVo)
By Jerry Del Colliano
I remember when this product was first announced. People with Sony TiVos that recorded DirecTV were ecstatic to get the same Apple Macintosh-like graphical user interface on an HD receiver. The fact that DirecTV was going to be selling the receiver directly and ultimately cutting players like Sony out of the market was no deterrent to super-heavy users like myself, who got on lists for over one year and paid $1,000 retail to buy into the DirecTV HR 10-250 TiVo.

On first look, the component was pretty cool. It had a slightly larger hard drive than the standard-definition TiVos and could actually record and access HD content, despite the fact there weren’t nearly as many HD programs on the dish at that time. We all set Bikini Destinations on HD Net in our Season Pass list as soon as we got our units installed.

But problems plagued the unit. They failed at an alarming rate for everyone I know. DirecTV is good about sending out replacements, but how many replacements do you want to fish in and out of your rack? How many times are you willing to lose months’ worth of your favorite programs and dozens of Season Passes on your TiVo because your HR 10-250 has frozen up and needs to be replaced? I have personally replaced no fewer than six units. Recently, the brand-new unit I bought for $399 (note the price drop, yet no change in the product) for my new master bedroom failed mere weeks into my ownership. After a few hours of tech support calls (I was going to take a hostage if they suggested that I try unplugging the unit and restarting it one more time), they sent another unit. That unit was dead, thus wasting over another hour of my time. So was the next one. Luckily, the fourth unit worked and continues to work, but I hold my breath until such time as it fails also. Amazingly, my father has had similar experiences with his HR 10-250s at his homes in Scottsdale and Marina Del Rey.

Like Marcellus Wallace and his concerns in the basement of Zed’s pawn shop, I am not done with the DirecTV HR 10-250. One can forgive the company for developing a product with some flaws, but to not repair them in a new unit over many years is inexcusable. While DirecTV readies itself for MP4 video, nobody could tell me at the DirecTV booth at the recent CEDIA show whether there was an upgrade path for those of us who have a handful of units already in our systems. Next, the HR 10-250 has no RS 232 connection. Why go to CEDIA if you have no ability to control your top of the line HD TiVo any way other than by gluing an IR emitter to the front of the unit? But wait – there is more. The plastic piece that covers the IR eye of the component is needlessly curved, so that the sticky part of your IR simply wont stay adhered to the front of the unit without some super-glue or ugly tape (or both). I simply cannot believe that a unit that once cost $1,000 at retail and has sold very well has never added RS 232 functionality. The new DirecTV DVR is priced at the same level and also lacks RS 232, but does have LAN connectivity, which might work better with a Crestron or AMX system, yet it still flies in the face of the standard used by CEDIA dealers. And did I mention this $399 DVR doesn’t have TiVo?

I could make an argument considering the long run of the DirecTV HR 10-250 that it is one of the worst yet most significant components in the history of home theater. How else are you going to record NFL games in HD when you are out? Not only do they stick you with the cost of the NFL package, they also get you with the NFL Super Fan for the HD games, yet the high-end recorder drops the ball like Terrell Owens receiving a pass from Drew Bled-so-much-he-needed-a-transfusion. It’s time for DirecTV to up its game with the hardware. $600 for the every channel package is interesting, but $600 a month is significantly more than my fiancée pays for her leased Mercedes E320 sedan. $600 a month is a lot for your TV bill.

Comcast/Time Warner Cable Motorola 6412 HD DVR
By Scott Selter
The Motorola 6412 DVR Cable Box is about as stable as a tripod with two legs. Since upgrading to the HD DVR version of the Motorola box, I have been through three different sets. Upon entering my local Comcast service center (which thankfully, as you read on, is just one block down the street from my condo), I was flat-out told a lie: that I could not exchange my normal Motorola box for a box that supports high-definition signals AND DVR. Oh, no, you first had to go through a waiting list of about two weeks. What? After arguing with me for nearly 10 minutes, the lady at the front desk finally gave in and pulled out a high-definition box from the cabinet. However, I would have to wait weeks to get my DVR-capable receiver.

When I returned to my place, I plugged in the receiver and waited patiently for my channel listings to load. The lady at the front desk of the Comcast center was kind enough to add the high-definition service to my cable account. After waiting a full hour, I was unable to receive most of the standard cable stations or any of my four movie packages. And finally it happened, the cable box froze. No remote control response, not even manual control. Naturally, I pulled the plug on the machine and waited about five minutes just to be safe and then plugged it back in. The waiting began again. After another hour, still nothing. So I picked up the phone and called the customer service line, already knowing full well that the problem lay in whatever was changed in my account by the lady at the front desk. But do the service representatives want to listen to your story? No, of course not. They just seem to want to go through the bulleted list of questions and “solutions” that lay in front of them. What “solution” did I get from them? “Please power off the unit and unplug it from the wall … okay, now plug it back in.” Never mind that I had already tried that. What, is the problem going to magically fix itself because I’m holding the phone to my ear? Maybe I could hold the phone to the cable box and you could talk to it. But I’m not bitter.

The customer representative refused to look into my account status, instead telling me that the box was broken and I needed to have it replaced. So if it is broken, then why do I receive random cable stations perfectly, just not everything I am supposed to receive? The representative could not answer that. He wanted to schedule a visit by a repair technician, who would come out and check my service. Excuse me, but my cable was functioning fully normally about two hours ago with the analog cable box. So I hung up and took another trip down the street to the service center, with the cable box. After explaining at great length what had transpired over the past two hours, the lady at the front desk exchanged the cable box with another box, but not without irritated huffing and puffing. On top of the great customer service, the box I was receiving physically looked even more beat up than the one I just gave back to them. So I signed another pamphlet and took the yellow slip and cable box back home. (By the end of all this, I was left with quite a lovely stack of yellow carbon copies to wipe my derriere with.)

So what do you know, I took the box home and plugged it in and the cable channels still only came in at random. Call customer service again? You bet. After another long discussion (and yes, the power off/power on trick again – you know Jerry really has an interesting point about taking a hostage the next time the suggestion is made), I was able to convince the representative to look at my account status. “Oh would you looky there, it seems your digital tier has been changed.” Incredible. A three-hour process that should have taken about 30 seconds.

Oh, but wait, it doesn’t end there. It turns out that the “new” box I received this go-around liked to reboot itself totally at random. Every time it did this, it would blank out all the listings on the Guide screen and reset the clock to 12:00 (and stay there). I couldn’t deal with any more that weekend so I let it go. Turned out that my DVR cable box would be ready in just over one week, so I decided to live with the reboot issue for that long.

Ah, home again now with a beat-up-looking Motorola 6412 HD DVR receiver with 120GB hard drive. I will spare you all the elongated story of woe of trying to get the customer service representative to once again properly activate my account for high-definition and DVR services. But I will tell you that it took less than six hours for the Motorola hard drive to die in my “new” box. Once again, I took the box into the service center and demanded a NEW box that I knew they had in the cabinet. Got it, finally. It seems a lot of this aggravation on my end, as well as that which I caused for the customer service and customer counter representatives, could have been avoided if new equipment was used to begin with.

So here I am, with a box they claim is new. I still have my reservations about that claim, but I’ll go with it. So, after about four months, the hard drive is about ready to crash. From day one, the hard drive was constantly cranking out grumbling noises, but it has become increasingly more audible as the weeks go on. So loud, in fact, that it over takes quiet movie scenes, day or night, whether the cable box is on or off. And why is it that the hard drive must constantly be spinning? If the cable box is powered off, then it seems logical that the hard drive would at least go into sleep mode. But I suppose asking for the DVR timer to also be able to wake up the hard drive when a recording is about to begin would be asking a bit too much. At least I haven’t had the common problem of DVR recordings missing or recording something completely different than scheduled, which I have heard others have with this model of HD DVR … knock on wood.

Dish Network Dish Player 921, 942 and ViP622
By Bryan Dailey
The Dish Network HD DVRs have been a work in progress. They seemingly have a pattern of working quite well when you first plug them in, but typically, problems arise a few months later.

The 921 was Dish Network’s first HD DVR and, although tall and boxy, it was cheaper than the HD TiVo units that my buddies who had DirecTV were forced to buy in order to record in HD. I had a double HDTV set-up in my living room and, with my existing non-DVR set-up using the Dish Network 800 series HD receiver, I was able to output DVI HD to one TV and component HD to the other. With the 921, this feature disappeared. I could output standard-def to one TV and HD to another but both outputs would not work at the same time. This required figuring out a way to split and distribute multiple HD signals, which I found I was able to do legally with a nifty little box from Dtrovision.

With my dual HDTV set up, it was time to get the Dish Network 921 set up and rocking. It was a solid performer for several months. However, one of the biggest problems I had with it was the fact that when you decide to record a show, it automatically defaults to “record all episodes,” but does not notify you of this on screen. The result is your precious 25 hours of HD recording time gets obliterated and shows are erased if you decide you want to record an interesting show on Discovery Channel, only to find out a week later that you have seven episodes of that show when you really only wanted one. I searched the menus high and low and even called customer service, only to learn this option could not be changed permanently. So every time I wanted to record only one episode of a show, I had to go in and tell it “this episode only.”

This was a basic annoyance that I learned to live with, but it was several months later that I found the next glitch in this box. The picture and sound would frequently drift out of synch with each other. Turning the box off and back on wouldn’t alleviate the problem, so I quickly learned how to reboot the machine. Holding down the power button for a minimum of seven seconds would restart the internal computer and, after several minutes of rebooting, the grey HDTV logo would come up on the screen. Then the check switch would run again and, after about a total of five minutes, I was back in the game. If this happened once or twice a year, I wouldn’t mind, but over time, it began to be a weekly if not daily occurrence. The last straw was when the names of recorded files began to change from words to numbers and symbols. At that point, I knew it was time to move on to a different box.

The Dish Network dual-output 942 box was a nice step forward but, like the 921, it started out of the gate great only to leave me disappointed. With a thinner, more streamlined profile and the ability to allow two different TVs to share one DVR (unfortunately, only one can be HD), the 942 had cooler-looking menus and the standard-def programming looked better. For several months, it too was a flawless performer, but the little bugs started showing their ugly heads soon thereafter. The picture would drop out occasionally and the audio/video synch problem would sometimes happen as well. The real problem, which couldn’t be remedied by a hard reboot, started when I would get a “no signal” message. Running the ever-famous “check switch” would sometimes result in only one of the two satellites I need for complete coverage showing up on the box. I could watch some channels, but others were not available. There was seemingly no method to the madness, as sometimes channels would show up, and sometimes they would not. Even stranger was the fact that I could pick up all of the satellites in all of the other rooms in my house. Fortunately Dish Network’s hold queue was fairly short, but note that, if you have an HD DVR, you should immediately ask for Level Two support, as the first round of customer service people that you reach do not support the HD DVRs.

After trouble-shooting the switcher, the power inserter and the box with no luck, I finally decided it was time to step up to the latest Dish Network HD DVR, the ViP622.

This box is very similar in look and function to the 942. However, it seems as though Dish Network is finally working out the software glitches that have plagued their previous models because, knock on wood, it has been several months and I have only had to hard reboot my 622 less than five times. This is a great improvement over the other boxes.

Even with the 622, I am still plagued by having to set “one episode only” when I record programs. Like the other Dish Network boxes, this lacks some killer functions like TiVo. If you are watching a show and decide halfway through it you want to record it, pressing record does NOT record what is in the buffer. You literally have to rewind the show back and start recording at the point you want your recording to begin.

I thought I had more problems than anyone with my DVRs, until I read about the other woes that our staff members have faced with theirs. The reality is that all of these units are computers, and as anyone with a PC knows, they are inherently unstable entities with moving parts, such as hard drives and software and firmware that can become corrupted. They will improve with time, but as we consumers, especially early adopters, offer ourselves up as guinea pigs, we find that we have a new relationship with the UPS and FedEx guys in our community. “Another DVR go bad?” is a question that I have heard on too many occasions at our office from the brown or purple-uniformed parcel deliverymen as they pick up a faulty box or bring a replacement into our office. It makes one wonder if the companies that make these units would be better served spending more money on software engineers and beta testers rather than RMA call tags. Just wait and see how busy they will be when there is satellite and cable broadcast in 1080p.

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