While not as fully featured as the Dish Network ViP-722, the DirecTV HR21 box is nonetheless sufficiently equipped for an HD DVR if you choose to go the DirecTV route. It sports a 320MB hard drive, which DirecTV says is good for 50 hours of HD, or 200 hours of SD, and it can be had for free if you go whole hog and pick the top HD programming tier along with the NFL Sunday Ticket package (which costs an extra $300 each season), or $199 if you go with one of the lesser HD tier packages. While the DirecTV Web site shows the HR21 in silver, it’s also available in black—something you’ll need to arrange in advance when placing your order for service, as the installer may show up with one or the other color choice.
While DirecTV initially reacted positively to our request for a review system, after a few weeks of back-and-forth, the PR contact called to decline participation, citing budget restrictions (!). Fortunately, my neighbors have been long-time DirecTV customers, and a few months ago took the plunge into the deep end of the HD pool, choosing a 45-inch Sharp Aquos LCD 1080p HDTV, and upgrading their DirecTV system with the HR21 HD DVR (the latest DirecTV all-in-one dish was installed at the same time).
While I’ve had my hands on the HR21 before while doing calibrations for local home theater dealers and clients, I was interested in how my impressions of the box lined up with my neighbors (Bob and Lisa). With reporter’s notebook in hand, I sat with them as they explained their likes and dislikes about the unit.
Bob and Lisa have been with DirecTV for many years now, and since both are New York transplants and both are serious sports fans, the NFL Sunday Ticket package that DirecTV offers as an exclusive was the deciding factor in making their choice, and like other HDTV converts, they’re immensely enjoying their new HD system. Bob and Lisa have differing work schedules, so the HD DVR functionality of their DirecTV system allows them to record many programs that they can watch together in their leisure time. I asked Bob if he’d ever hit the limit of the HR21’s recording capacity, and he said “Sure, many times.” He also quickly pointed out that he’s something of a pack rat when it comes to deleting recorded content.
Like the Dish Network equivalent box, the HR21 is equipped with a rear-panel hard drive port (in this case, a SATA jack) as well as front and rear USB ports, but presently the option of adding an external hard drive (as is possible with the equivalent Dish Network box) has yet to be implemented. The HR21’s owner’s manual simply says that the SATA port and the USB ports are for “future use.” So, no immediate prospects for adding more recording capacity, but that could always change with a future system upgrade. The HR21 does provide both phone and Ethernet connections— both are required to be hooked up to take advantage of “push” programming and phone-home-to-DirecTV for pay-per-view activities, and the HR21 features on-screen caller ID with incoming phone calls.
I next asked Bob and Lisa what they thought about the remote. Being the typical blunt-talking native New Yorker that he is, Bob immediately said “It stinks,” and proceeded to describe his frustration at the length of time it takes for the box to change channels. Of course, it’s not really the remote control that’s at fault, but rather the HR21 itself, and yes, it’s pokey when it comes to channel change times, averaging out at 3–4 seconds per.
While Bob was commandeering the remote, I noted that as he switched between various HD and SD channels, he was also cycling the remote’s “Format” button. This button does two things at once—it adjusts the HR21’s output resolution as well as changing the screen aspect ratio. Bob and Lisa like their 4:3 SD programs stretched to fill the Sharp’s 16:9 screen, but as the Format button cycles through nine different modes, each one causing the Sharp to adjust itself to the different incoming resolutions, getting from one mode to another is another exercise in tedium, and cycling through all nine is downright frustrating.
A quick check of the HR21’s owner’s manual later on revealed that the box has a set-up menu setting for “Resolution”, which in their case should have been set to 1080i-only output, but their installer didn’t bother to set that feature. Had the feature been correctly set to 1080i output, the Format button would then have become a pure aspect ratio control only— something that I was able to fix for them the next day. Often, cable and satellite installers are under severe time pressure to handle multiple scheduled jobs in a day, and once they get picture and sound, they’re outta there.