Hughes DirecTV TiVo PVR 
Home Theater Media Servers Satellite & Cable Receivers/PVRs/DVRs/TiVo
Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Thursday, 01 January 2004

TiVo for DirecTV on the Cheap
As one of the millions of subscribers of DirecTV’s satellite service, I was compelled by an ongoing campaign to promote their own Hughes PVR (personal video recorder) for a seemingly unbelievable price of $199 per unit – installed. The unit completes the same tasks as the famous Sony SAT T-60 (about $500 retail – now discontinued), being both a satellite receiver and a TiVo recording device with a 35-hour recording capability, all in the same chassis. The value of the DirecTV offer was too compelling for me to resist, especially considering that to get another used Sony SAT T-60 from eBay was going to cost me close to the same $500 it costs to get a new one. I had a new bedroom system going in with a kickass new Sony 34XBR910 34-inch CRT HDTV set along with all of the other goodies. Why shouldn’t I have all of my favorite shows recorded and waiting for me to watch in bed?

Ordering additional hardware for DirecTV is not too difficult, unless you value your own time because DirecTV, unlike most cable providers, continues to have obscenely long wait times to get a human being on the phone. Once I got a person on the phone, I found out the DirecTV offered a payment plan for the unit where they would amortize the cost of the unit over two monthly bills. I took that option and forgave them for making me wait so long on the phone. I ordered the unit to be shipped to the AudioRevolution.com offices so that I could install it myself on my own time. My DirecTV authorized satellite installer neatly left me multiple feeds from my dish in my bedroom system. Installation for me was as easy as twisting a few satellite connections and running audio and video outs to my TV and new Denon receiver. That is about as basic as it gets, but the process of obtaining the unit was far more complex.

Two weeks had passed with no Hughes TiVo showing up at the office. I later found voicemail on my home number (I told them specifically not to call there when I ordered the system) saying that a firm I had never heard of was ready to send a crew out to install the unit for me and that they would be there next Friday between 9 AM and noon. Getting increasingly miffed, I called the installation company and told them that I couldn’t wait for them for three hours at home and urged them to simply ship the unit to me. It became increasingly clear that they weren’t going to ship me the unit, but they agreed to make me the first call of the day that next Friday. This was another compromise I could live with.

The following week, I had a chance to think about DirecTV insisting on having a team of people come out and install a $199 component. Even if the unit was 100 percent profit, which it certainly isn’t, there is no money in the deal for this kind of service. Hell, in Los Angeles, plumbers charge $135 for a one-hour service call – why was DirecTV making such an investment? Then it dawned on me. DirecTV wants to look around your house with people who can rat you out for having cheater cards or DirecTV emulators. Just as DirecTV forces you to change access cards periodically to dissuade you from stealing their service, they now want to inspect your house to make sure you aren’t doing anything you shouldn’t be with your DirecTV service. If you are a privacy-minded person or someone with something to hide, you can stop considering this unit right now. Since I do not use a cheater card or a PC-based emulator, I had nothing to hide. The guys came up and were done in 10 minutes and the unit was ready to be programmed.

How Do People Watch TV Without TiVo?
I really don’t know how people watch television without TiVo at this point. It is the most amazing service, capable of changing an often mindless media into a useful, entertaining and educational tool. Moreover, TiVo allows you to watch TV on your schedule without the commercials you don’t want to watch. I don’t mean to make myself out to be some ultra-busy CEO type, but I do have a lot to do in any given day and TiVo helps me watch more TV the way I want to and on my schedule. For example, if I record a USC or Philadelphia Eagles football game, sometimes I don’t want to watch my team play all of their defense downs. I can just click fast-forward three times and wait until my team gets the ball back. It depends on my mood, but I now have the option to watch the game the way I want to.

As I am a very loyal Philadelphia Flyers fan, TiVo adds tremendous value, considering most East Coast games come on at 4:00 PM Pacific time. I don’t leave the office until 7:00 PM, so I can record the games and have them waiting for me when I get home after I’ve had some dinner and am ready to watch. Even better is the fact I can fast-forward through the intermissions, since it is rare to get the hometown Comcast feed on the NHL Center Ice Package. Without missing any of the action, I can cut down the time it takes me to watch a Flyers game from over two hours to about 45 minutes. Before TiVo, I couldn’t make my VCR record the games from my DirecTV system.

TiVo’s powers extend beyond sports. You can set up a “season pass” that records your favorite shows with an impressive list of options designed to give you what you want when you want it. If you like “The Sopranos,” you can choose to record a show and from that record screen and set a Season Pass. If you have seen all of the past episodes, you can set a preference to record only first-run showings. If you are recording a show like “The Simpsons,” you might define your preferences to record only five total episodes because, thanks to syndication, you can fill your TiVo up very quickly with nothing but Bart, Lisa, Maggie, Marge and Homer. If you have special interests, such as following the glorious fall of the right-winger Rush Limbaugh, you can use the keywords “Rush Limbaugh,” as well as others like “Hillbilly Heroin,” “OxyContin” or “ruined career,” to create custom record lists that will pull shows that you might not otherwise know to record. Using keywords is a more advanced way to record but once you spend 10 minutes with the TiVo menu, you’ll be confident that you can pull it off. The interface is spectacularly good for everyone from the hardcore home theater enthusiast to the most average American who loves his or her 4.3 hours per day of TV.

The Picture
Video enthusiasts love the content of TiVo like the rest of us, but hate the compression that you get from a PVR. Right now, it is the cost of doing business but is worth the slight degradation of the picture in return for quality content. If you are an HDTV enthusiast with a modern HDTV receiver like the latest Samsung or the Sony HD300, you can use that receiver for your DirecTV NTSC viewing instead of your TiVo. It will look better with less compression. If you are watching a basketball game in real time, you will want to choose this option if you have it.

I recently wrote about the compression game that cable and satellite providers are now playing with their vast lineup of channels. From time to time, channels get increasing amount of compression from your provider. DirecTV is no different and the PVR can, at best, record what it sees from the bird. In fact the compression needed to make so much programming fit on a PVR only adds to the signal loss. With audio technologies like MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing) for DVD-Audio, I am hoping to see a better way of encrypting the video data on your PVR’s hard drive for future recorders. Another factor that is curious is the fact that this DirecTV Hughes unit has a mere 35 hours of recording capability. I don’t think you could buy a new hard drive that small, even if you made a pilgrimage to the Pomona Computer Fair on a Sunday afternoon. 200 GB hard drives are really more common and the prices in volume are way below $100, according to AudioRevolution.com writers who work in the computer hardware business. A larger drive would increase the cost of the unit incrementally, but it would also allow consumers to record more content that looks better. It would likewise permit them to keep their DirecTV longer – something the service doesn’t really want.

The Downside
The TiVo service is stunning, but this Hughes unit has some physical limitations as a component. The most dramatic is a horrible remote, which is hourglass-shaped but not intuitive about which side is the top and which is the bottom. This means that you can grab the remote to hit fast-forward and, because it is upside-down, you actually instead go into reverse. The TiVo button is too small and is located in an odd place, towards the top right of the remote. On the Sony SAT T-60, the TiVo button is located on the middle of the remote with a big button that is unmistakable. On the Hughes DirecTV unit, the TiVo button is also right next to the “thumbs down” button, which allows you to give a bad rating to programs you are watching by accident. Since the remote is not backlit, it is even harder to tell what you are doing. The number buttons are located at the bottom of the remote and force you to shift your hands down to program a channel as you surf the DirecTV dial. The number buttons are also far too small for older users.

I could keep going about the remote, but that wouldn’t get me to the fan noise. I thought my first-generation Sony HD100 HDTV receiver was noisy until I had the Hughes unit installed. It seems twice as loud and, unfortunately for me, I have both units in my bedroom installed no more than 10 feet from where I sleep. There is no question that, if you are up at night counting sheep, you could instead focus on the whirr of the fan noise from this PVR.

At $199, you might not be able to expect an HDTV receiver. However, for the money DirecTV spends to send a crew of installers to your home to snoop on your system, they could have contracted to make this component HDTV-capable. Their reward would be the ability to sell their $11 per month HDTV package to a rapidly growing number of DVT owners. According to the Consumer Electronic Association, over 550,000 DTVs were sold in September 2003 – up 99 percent from September 2002’s sales. DirecTV wants to you to keep changing their hardware out to avoid piracy. Somehow making this unit an HDTV receiver – maybe not an HD TiVo – would have been a big move forward, but I might be wishing for too much from a $199 component.

Conclusion
About six months ago, AudioRevolution.com ran a sweepstakes where one of the questions was whether readers owned TiVo or any other PVR. We found that only about three percent of the respondents said “yes,” although over 50 percent said they planned to make an upgrade in the next 12 months. This Hughes DirecTV recorder is an easy way to get TiVo into your life at a cost that is very fair, with payment terms that make it even easier to say “yes.” The component is far from perfect and is not for someone looking for the ultimate solution in a very resolute video system. The latest TiVo 2 system, which costs far more and has no satellite receiver built in, is likely a better choice for the more voracious TV viewer or the videophile. But for someone who wants to get started with TiVo on the cheap, this $199 recorder-receiver for DirecTV is something to consider. While I have built my bedroom system to accommodate TiVo 2 with an Ethernet connection to my high-speed Internet system, I plan to ultimately upgrade my hardware there. My Hughes unit will still have value as a satellite receiver for my workout room. For now, it is loaded with all kinds of programs to record and watch each night. As my girlfriend and I get into bed, we have dozens of hours of shows to watch. Now, if I could just find a way to subtly cancel my girlfriend’s “Sex and the City” season pass, I could save some money on Jimmy Choo and Prada.
Manufacturer Hughes
Model DirecTV TiVo PVR
Reviewer





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