DirecTV HR21 HD DVR 
Home Theater Media Servers Satellite & Cable Receivers/PVRs/DVRs/TiVo
Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Tuesday, 01 April 2008

My father is pretty high-tech for a guy in his early sixties. He has an iPhone and can make his Mac laptop jump through hoops, including wirelessly pumping music (and often vintage jingles from his days as a program director at WIBG in Philadelphia in the late 1960s) to his Wilson Audio and Krell-based audiophile system in his living room. His music students at the University of Southern California demand this level of tech savvy, but where he had admittedly fallen behind was with his home theater system. Installed in an odd niche in his house in Scottsdale, Arizona, this system was pretty state of the art in its day, with a big Sony CRT standard-definition television set, a DVD player and a custom installation in a nifty cabinet. However, by 2008 standards, a 40-inch standard-definition tube TV (which is badly gaussed, resulting in a purple picture) isn’t cutting it any more for a dad on the cutting edge. He wants a big Sony 1080p LCD. He definitely wants Blu-ray. And, most of all, he wants a new TiVo. Last night, I had to explain to him that no matter how badly he wants a new TiVo to replace his trusty Sony TiVo for DirecTV, he wasn’t getting one. Instead, he was getting a new DirecTV system, specifically the HR21 – the DVR that replaces four (count ‘em – four) DirecTV HD TiVos in my house. He wasn’t pleased and I don’t blame him.

At one point, I was told DirecTV owned as much as seven percent of TiVo, but today, they have completely abandoned the operating system, as well as all partnerships with electronics companies like Sony to make DirecTV hardware. While DirecTV leads the way with HD content and has one hell of a deal with the NFL, as well as increasing volumes of NHL games in HD (definitely the draw for my dad and me), they have absolutely given the technological advantage to cable providers by bailing on TiVo. Moreover, they are leaving themselves open to an exodus of clients to cable, as millions of people may or may not want to learn a new operating system for their DVR, which isn’t as easy to use as TiVo. Try taking my dad’s Macintosh laptop away from him and you will have the fight of your life. Little does he know his installer will soon be doing something similar with his TiVo, to be replaced by the DirecTV HR21.

The DirecTV HR21 is priced in stores for $299, but is frequently offered as a trade-up for people like me who invested as much as $1,000 per unit to buy an HD TiVo. Clearly DirecTV knows that suckers like me might very well leave their $130 per month service (with all of the sports packages I get) for cable if they hit me up for another $4,000 to upgrade my HD receiver/recorders around the house. My old HD TiVo was an MPEG2 device that worked with a smaller dish with fewer LNBs. The new DirecTV HR21 is an MPEG4 device, meaning I needed to significantly upgrade my dish to a five LNB set-up. The move to MPEG4 allows for the dramatically increased bandwidth that makes possible new HD channels like Food Network, National Geographic, Biography, Cartoon Network and many others that you couldn’t get on the old MPEG2 rig. Without question, this is the reason why one would make the upgrade. If you are starving for more HD content, the HR21 will bring you more than any other system at any price.

Programming the HR21
Man, do I miss my TiVo. The menus and familiar “pops and rings” made it so that anybody could get what they wanted from the DVR in a matter of minutes. The DirecTV HR21 does all of the same tricks, and in some cases a little more, but generally in a different way. It really is a Macintosh vs. a Windows Vista-type debate. You can write your life’s memoirs on either platform, but it’s just so much easier and less in-your-face on the Mac. Getting to the menu to record shows is a little clunkier with the HR21 than with my old TiVo and the overall menu isn’t as easily accessed. When you do get there, you can record shows with all of the same options that allow you to start a program early, record first-run events, record every show, record from keywords (seemingly better than TiVo for sports so far), record past the end of shows (great for sporting events that go into overtime) and far beyond. I would suggest that you give yourself an hour to get comfortable with the settings before you become the master of your HR21.

Installation of the DirecTV HR21
DirecTV will send a subcontracted installer to your house to get you up and rolling with DirecTV. The installer will bring the dish you need, the wiring and any new hardware. In many cases, they will also replace old receivers, as the company wants to see you with the newest and most reliable hardware (the HD TiVo was the single least reliable component I have ever owned in my home theater or audiophile rig) to date. Your custom installer can also buy an HR21 and all of the needed parts to do the installation, if that is the route you are taking. Beware of the subcontractors running wires haplessly on your roof without securing them, matching the color to the color of your roof and beyond. At my house, you can see that my installation crew from Simply Home Entertainment in Beverly Hills did a great job making things look neatly installed. You should expect no less from whoever installs your system.

Without getting into the blow by blow of how to position your dish and how to run wires in your walls, there are two features that you will likely want to take advantage of if you have a more advanced home theater. The first is HDMI. Even if you are scared of HDMI because of the nightmarish HDCP copy protection found on HD DVD and Blu-ray, don’t fret. The DirecTV HR21 doesn’t suffer from that problem. I can think of no one single component that connects better via HDMI and never has the dreaded “handshake” issue, because that issue comes from copy protection that isn’t on this machine. Second, for those using higher-end remotes and automation systems, an RS232 connection is offered (finally), so you can have a much more reliable way to talk to your DVR from your system than just gluing some IR emitter on to the front of your DVR in a $200,000 installation. Someone at DirecTV got a clue here.

Watching the DirecTV HR21
I had to deactivate my HD TiVos to make my HR21 work so the chance to do a side-by-side comparison was gone. I tried to explain to the punishingly stupid person on the 1-800-DIRECTV service line that I was writing a review, but I don’t think “review” is in her vocabulary. In fact, the only words she knew how to say were “restart your machine.” If you call into DirecTV, expect no better from their first-level support. In fact, put aside 30 minutes of time and ask for a higher-level support person if you hope to get any real answers to any questions you may have. If I were to grade their first-level tech support over the years, especially now, I would give them an emphatic F.

The picture looks better on the HR21 than the TiVo. Without a side-by-side comparison, it’s hard to get into specifics, but the overall look is less compressed. I can say the compression on satellite is better than most cable systems, but is terrible compared to a video source like Blu-ray. Do not expect the 1080i picture to look anything like the image that comes from a 1080p uncompressed Blu-ray disc, because it is not even close.  If you want to try to make your DirecTV HR21 look more like 1080p video from Blu-ray, look to a DVDO VP50pro ($3,999) for your video processing and HDMI switching in your rig. I use this incredible video processor in my reference system, with great results. The Super Bowl (why couldn’t both teams have lost?) was vivid and dynamic, with lush color saturation and few noticeable motion artifacts despite the nonstop, frenetic action.

As an avid hockey fan and part-time hockey writer, I see less motion artifacts even at the height of action during NHL games through the HR21. The logos on the ads plastered on the boards when the game is in high definition look crisp, sharp and vivid. The blue eyes of Heidi Collins (the morning anchor on CNN in HD) pop with a three-dimensionality that simply isn’t there on standard-definition CNN. And yes, she does wear a little too much mascara, but she is a hell of a lot easier to take than the overly bubbly Robin Meade of Headline News’ “Morning Express.” And no, I didn’t check Fox News for all the right reasons – thank you very much. Ann Coulter’s hateful lies could blow a tweeter on my new Revel Salon2’s and her overcooked, bleach-blonde hair could burn out a pixel or two on my plasma just because my HDTV was upset at me. This was a risk I couldn’t take.

There is a default setting that shows both the new HD channels, as well as the corresponding SD channel on the HR21. While this is a neat feature if you still need to prove to yourself that the high-definition channel looks better, that test is likely to last no more than 30 minutes. The fact that the SD channel is located on the programming dial right next to the HD channel only serves to make the concept of channel surfing just that much more annoying. The flick of a “channel up” command isn’t instant in many of my systems, and I often want to go from HD channel to HD channel, but I end up parked on the SD. At night, I often watch the channels from A&E (265) to the new Discovery Investigation Channel (285). The clunkiness of navigating the SD and HD channels, which in many cases are showing the same content, is nothing short of annoying. I have been told on that there is a fix for this malady. I have yet to make it work, but I have no reason to believe that you can’t get around it with some fancy work on the remote.

I found no change in watching movies or TV shows from the significantly larger hard drive on the HR21. I do like the 30-second skip button, which has to make those Madison Avenue ad execs want to pull their hair out. There are a ton of added value features on the HR21, like parental controls, 14-day listings on the channel guide (with improved navigation over the TiVo), the ability to store music and photos on the DVR and beyond. Those weren’t as important to me as seeing HBO’s In Treatment looking as good as it can look on an ISF-calibrated HDTV. I must admit – begrudgingly, because of the weakness of the operating system – the picture looks better, I can record more and can get most of what I want out of the HR21, specifically HD channels that are better-looking and come in greater volume.

The Downside
The fact the remote control for the DirecTV HR21 isn’t backlit goes to show you that the engineers who made this remote have no clue. Most people watch TV in a darkened or totally blackened room. How can you navigate all of the buttons without being able to at least catch a peek at them? DirecTV either thinks you should turn the lights up every time you want to perform a function, or that every user is some sort of gamer who can remember what every button does. In my case, I couldn’t and ended up having to use two different Crestron remotes to get the functionality I wanted from my DVR in a reasonably dark setting. This is an inexcusable mistake on the part of DirecTV.

When surfing channels and toggling between HD and SD channels, the volume differences are not slight. The standard-definition channels are always louder, so much so that they can wake up someone sleeping next to you if you are catching the end of that last show before bed. An audio compression function option would be a nice addition to help alleviate this issue.

While not a function of the DirecTV HR21 itself as a component, the award-winning customer service at DirecTV is truly poor. I am not saying your cable provider is better, but I am setting your expectations that any so-called tech person will have only one trick up his or her sleeve to help you get a broken or malfunctioning unit back up to speed – that trick is the unit restart. If you are reading, we have to assume that, before you endure the mental punishment of speaking to any such people reading from a script, you have already tried unplugging the unit two or three times before you call for help.

While fixed on the soon-to-be-released HR21 Pro unit, this unit doesn’t have RS232 control other than by way of the USB port. My installer used an adapter from IOGear that takes USB to serial in my main theater and it has been working perfectly in the big room. To ignore a standard like RS232 is a slap in the face of the install community, even if it is better than the IR emitters of the past.

I have more than once had a nightmare in which I worked for a company and they made me use a PC at my desk. The results were nothing short of a mess and I woke up in a cold sweat, went downstairs and gave my Apple G5 a hug, then curled back into bed. Switching away from TiVo to DirecTV HR21 wasn’t that bad, but it had its trials and tribulations that left the transition far from smooth.

In the end, it’s the HD channels I need and the only way to get them at this stage is to run the DirecTV HR21. TiVo is for cable only and I am not willing to switch yet. I have learned most of the functionality of the DVR and can make it do 90-plus percent of what my old HD TiVo could do, as well as a few tricks like the 30-second skip that my TiVo couldn’t. If you want the most HD channels currently on the market with an upgraded image, you have no choice but to get into a DirecTV HR21.
Manufacturer DirecTV
Model HR21 HD DVR

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