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

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.

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.

The Downside
A quirk worth mentioning is how the programming guide handles over-the-air HD channels. For each channel, there can be several different subsets of channels. For example, Channel 7 actually has 7.1, 7.2, 7.3 and 7.4 on my system, because my antenna is able to pick up a wide range of channels. Unfortunately, what the guide shows for these channels is not always accurate. For example, “Wheel of Fortune” may be listed on all four of the Channel 7s, but the news could be actually showing in 7.2 and a nature documentary is showing on 7.3. What the 921 seems to do is pick whatever program is on 7.1 and then assumes that 7.2 and above all have the same show. This can make finding certain over-the-air HD broadcasts difficult when you are blessed with the ability to pull HD signals from multiple markets (Los Angeles, Orange Country and even San Diego) like I can.

The 921 has a picture-in-picture feature. However, I learned that this only works for two standard definition broadcasts. PIP is a feature that I don’t find myself using very often anyway but because there are going to be more and more channels that don’t work with this feature, it seems almost like a waste to have it if you are limited to SD programming.

My biggest gripe ultimately with the difference between the Dish Network interface and the TiVo interface is small but big at the same time. With the 921 and all of the Dish Network PVRs, I can blaze through a show at speeds of 4x, 15x, 60x and 300x faster than real time. However, when you push play, it starts playing from right where you push the button. This usually ends up being a few seconds or minutes ahead of where you want to be if you are skipping a commercial. A skip back button can be pushed that will back the show up a little; the way TiVo worked was by automatically backing up a certain amount when fast-forwarding at 2x or 3x real speeds. This was very convenient for coming out of commercial breaks and getting right to the beginning of a show segment. I really miss that feature. Sob sob.

At $1,000, I would have been satisfied with the 921 but would be feeling the price tag sting a little just for the ability to record and store up to 25 hours of HD programming. (Note: Dish Network now prices the 921 at $549.) At just a shade under $500, the value is much stronger and I can now enjoy HD on my schedule rather than some network executive’s. Aside from a few quirks and differences than TiVo, the Dish Network is an absolutely necessary piece of gear for HD enthusiasts who are Dish Network subscribers. A model 922 that controls more than one HDTV is rumored to be hitting stores soon, but for a consumer like me, who wants something right here, right now, that could record HD, I wasn’t going to wait for something that may be coming and will probably be more expensive than I’d want to pay for. With million of newbies to the world of HD-making, the investment every month, there is no need to end up spending countless hours wading through bad movies, cheesy sporting events and documentaries on awful punk bands, waiting for golden HD gems to come along. With a Dish 921 in the loop, that waiting game is over, the content is strong and only getting stronger.
Manufacturer Dish Network
Model 921 HD Satellite Receiver/DVR
Reviewer Bryan Dailey

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