Standard DVR disclaimer
Any time we write a DVR review we have to remind ourselves that the world we live in doesn't afford most people the luxury of choosing a DVR. What we mean is that usually DVRs and their software are tied to specific providers, and thus aren't available to everyone. So our questions in a DVR review are two-fold: would we switch to a provider who offered this DVR? And how does it compare to third-party options like Windows Media Center or TiVo?
The center of the whole-home Genie DVR is the HR34, a box that has already been available for a year. Capable of recording five shows at once to its 1TB hard drive, the HR34 will typically connect to the main TV in your house. If you want to connect other sets, you'll either need an RVU-capable Samsung HDTV or have a C31 Genie Mini Client attached. At 3.25 x 15.75 x 11.85 inches, the HR34 isn't small, but it does fit right in with other home theater gear. The design is mostly plastic, with a glossy front panel sporting the essential controls and blue LED lights. The lights are pretty bright out of the box, but all -- except for the record indicator LED -- can be dimmed or disabled by pressing both the right and left direction buttons on the box. Between the lights and the glossy black face, the HR34 is a looker.
The lights are pretty bright out of the box, but can be dimmed or disabled
On either side of the front main panel is a door, with the right side revealing the conditional access card, and the left hiding a USB port. While most users will only attach a standard two-prong power connector, HDMI and a coax running to the satellite, there are a number of other connectors out back. In addition to the component, composite, S-Video and coaxial digital found on most set-top boxes, there is also an eSATA port for external storage, USB for accessories, IR input and a phone jack. You might miss the lack of a Toslink option for optical digital audio -- and there's also no ATSC tuner, which can come in handy if DirecTV doesn't offer every local channel in your market via satellite. Still, there's an optional AM21n that can be had for $50 to fill that void.
A whole-home DVR is not an island unto itself; it leverages the RVU protocol to extend its service into the other rooms of your house. While RVU is now part of DLNA, there isn't much compatible hardware on the market. DirecTV included a few Genie Mini Clients (C31) for us to review, but as mentioned earlier, there are also a few compatible Samsung TVs (2011's D6000 and most 2012 models).
Although it would be ideal to have no box at all on your wall-mounted TVs, the Mini Client is a pretty decent compromise, at less than a hundred dollars. While not as tiny as some modern media extenders, the C31 is still pretty small. We wish a mount was included to make it easier to hide, especially since there seem to be holes on the bottom to facilitate one. Up front is a single power button, a blue network status LED and a hidden IR sensor. On the back you'll find a coax input, HDMI, USB, coaxial digital output, power connector and a multi-AV output that can be used with the optional component and composite dongle -- there's no network interface as it uses DECA to connect to the HR34 via coax. Speaking of power, it is of the in-line brick (as opposed to the wall-wart) variety, and interestingly, has holes to make it easily wall-mountable.
Like the HR34, the Mini is sometimes offered for free to new customers who are willing to sign term agreements and subscribe to the right package, but existing customers who want to expand the system they already have can acquire it for $99. (DirecTV doesn't actually sell its hardware, so we say acquire because it's technically a lease.)
The remote is a sticking point in nearly all of our home theater reviews, and while the DirecTV controller won't win any innovation awards, it's familiar in all the right ways. The directional pads and navigation shortcuts are conveniently located in the center of the remote, with the transport controls at the top and the number keys at the bottom. Just about every button is exactly where you'd expect, with the exception of the discrete on and off commands at the top. Typically, separate buttons for on and off rub us the wrong way, but in this case they are useful. When you press on, for example, it turns both your TV and the DirecTV set-top box on -- this would be difficult to do with a power toggle button, as the two devices might find themselves in opposite states, which would be very frustrating. Up top is a format button for easily controlling how the box outputs standard-definition video on an HDTV, as well as a TV input button that lets you tune the TV to the correct input for DirecTV without searching for another remote.
DirecTV remotes are available with RF for an extra $20, which, in addition to making it easier to program via on-screen menus, also ensure the remote can control without having a line of sight to the box. Our DirecTV installer provided one RF remote for the main room and IR-only remotes for the two Genie Minis.
The included remote isn't the only method for controlling the DirecTV experience. In addition to the mobile apps (more on those later), the main HR34 features more than one way to interact with other systems, including Home Automation. The most useful is the IP interface that can provide two-way control with feedback and will be essential if you have high-end Home Automation. There are other apps that can take advantage of this or you can type in carefully crafty URLs into your favorite browser to interact with the HR34. If your control system can't leverage IP control, you also have the option to use a USB to RS-232 adapter. The bad news is that neither RS-232 nor IP control are options on the Genie Mini, but we certainly hope they are coming.
Although many of us have been enjoying high-definition television for more than 10 years, a good deal of set-top boxes still don't feature HD user interfaces. DirecTV started upgrading its UI to HD about a year ago and brought it to the HR34 (and its clients) more recently. The interface is predominately blue and black, and is heavy on cover art. The main menu is broken up into five main sections: My DirecTV, Search & Browse, Recordings, Extras and Settings & Help. My DirecTV provides a quick glance of what is on tonight as well as the latest recommendations from Genie via eight box art icons. Search & Browse provides a single search interface that can return results from future programs, on-demand and even YouTube.
Not sure what to search for? Just use the browse feature to easily find movies, on-demand content and TV shows. The Recordings section provides exactly what you'd expect -- the ability to watch recorded programming -- but this is also where you can manage recordings by checking your To Do List, Series Manager and History. It's also where you can check on the Queue (for downloads) and Purchases, plus your recording defaults (more on that later). The Extras section is full of, well, extras. There are messages from DirecTV (all we saw were ads), a shortcut to the Active Channel, games, TV apps (Facebook, Flicker, Twitter, etc.), YouTube, Pandora, Music & Photos (DLNA client to easily listen to music and view photos on your computer or DLNA server), Caller ID (the reason for that phone port out back) and finally Showroom.
The last section accessible via the main menu is Settings & Help, which is broken down into four main areas: Settings, Parental Controls, Favorite Channels and Help. The settings are vast, so we'll just focus on a few here. It's easy to select the resolutions that your TV supports and either set the DVR to convert all the content to your preferred format, or natively pass through the source content, unaltered. Standard-def 4:3 content can be displayed in its original aspect ratio with black or gray bars or stretched or cropped -- you can use the format button on the remote to quickly choose an option without digging through the setting.
We found it odd that Dolby Digital output was disabled by default, but we suspect that is because the box isn't capable of inserting user interface sound effects when Dolby Digital is enabled. The other notable setting in today's day and age is power save mode, which turns the HR34 off after four hours of inactivity. There are also extensive parental controls, and besides giving you the obvious ability to block content over a certain rating, it allows you to block all the adult channels, block any channel, web videos, set spending limits and even set viewing hours. Finally, you can set custom favorite channel lists -- we'll discuss this in more detail in the guide section -- or see a list of channels you subscribe to.
Overall, navigating the interface feels snappy, but we did notice lag from time to time, such as when the system was downloading content and made us wait. The general navigation uses the left button to go back (as opposed to a dedicated back button) and the channel up and down buttons double as page up and down. At the top-left corner of almost every screen is a video preview window that we unaffectionately refer to as the Spoiler Window, as it can't be stopped with the stop or pause button on the remote while in the menu. In fact, to avoid a spoiler that might be shown in the video preview, you have to exit the menu, press pause or change the channel, then go back to where you were in the menus.
The classic grid guide has been a staple for TV viewers since before the remote control, and the DirecTV Genie guide should feel pretty familiar to most users. The grid displays what's on six channels for the next hour and a half. The date and time are displayed at the top right, and the top left is home to the video preview window. Up top and in the middle you'll find information about the currently selected show. In addition to the full-screen guide, there is a mini-guide that can be summoned by pressing the blue button while watching TV. It also only shows what's on for the next hour and half, and only on a single channel.
The directional pad buttons are key to navigating around, with the channel up and down buttons acting as page up and down. You can use the fast-forward or rewind buttons to skip 12 hours at a time and, oddly, the red and green buttons do the same thing, while there is no apparent way to easily skip three hours. It's not a huge deal, though, as the "Jump to a date and time" option can get you exactly where you want, very quickly. Speaking of efficiency, we found the guide pretty quick, overall, but it did lag from time to time, and it cannot keep up if you attempt to rapidly page up and down.
Our favorite thing about the guide is the way DirecTV handles channel numbers, specifically HD channels. While most providers put the HD channels in a separate section, reserving the familiar numbers for the SD channels, DirecTV puts them right where they belong. So ESPN SD and ESPN HD are both channel 206, with the duplicate SD simulcast hidden by default. Even better, the networks that are also broadcast over-the-air are in their correct channel assignment -- NewsChannel 8 is just 8, and not 508. Add to this the ability to easily filter out all but your favorite shows, and you have a combination that every single DVR should offer, but doesn't. Our only minor complaint is that it should be easier to quickly see the next eight shows that will be airing next on a certain channel. Selecting the channel in the guide and hitting info isn't very intuitive.
Scheduling and managing recordings
First thing's first: you have to actually schedule something to record, as we suspect you won't want to rely solely on the Genie recommendations. If you find something in the guide you'd like to record, simply hitting the record button once is enough to make it happen. Double-pressing it will automatically configure a series recording using the configurable series setting defaults -- the default of every setting is configurable. If you want to schedule a series recording with a non-default setting, you can hit info and then choose series instead. We suspect you won't have many recording conflicts thanks to the HR34's five tuners, but if you do, you'll be presented with a list of recordings so that you can choose which won't be recorded.
Of course there are other ways to find shows to record besides browsing the guide; another favorite is search. We covered searching more extensively in the user interface section, but essentially you access search via the main menu and once you find something to record, you can schedule a recording or create a series recording -- this typically worked as expected, but in one case a show we later found in the guide didn't turn up in a search. If you search for a keyword that either doesn't return any results, or returns more than one show, you have the option to create a keyword series recording to automatically record any future show with that keyword -- there is the option to filter those results by category, so just movies with the word "Eastwood," for example.
After you've scheduled a few recordings, you might opt to enable Genie recommends, which will in turn automatically record other shows you might like. The recommendations are displayed in both the recorded TV list and in My DirecTV, accessible via the main menu. We didn't give the Genie much time to figure out what we like, but we did schedule 22 series recordings and check back a week later to find 12 recommendations, two of which we opted to watch.
The primary user interface elements displayed over the video are the info banner and the scrub bar. The information banner takes up almost the entire top half of the screen and provides quick access to the current program's description and other details. The Info button on the remote brings it forward whenever you want, and an abridged version of it is displayed every time you change the channel. Current channel information plus date and time are also shown in the banner, along with quick access to the last four channels you've watched, your favorites channel lists, closed caption settings, audio and video details, parental controls and the ability to enable picture-in-picture.
The scrub bar is automatically shown every time you hit any of the transport control buttons, with the exception of the replay button. This makes perfect sense too, as you typically hit said button when you want to quickly watch the last eight seconds of programming again, and not covering up any part of the action for four seconds is something every DVR should do. We also appreciate that the play button brings up the scrub bar, even if something is already playing. This makes it very easy to reference the current time of the program, the name of the show, how big your buffer is and how much time is left -- perfect for those late nights when you want to check the time and determine if it is too late to finish what you've started.
You can, of course, pause live TV and skip around, but the scrub bar also shows up when you're watching recorded programs. Recordings are most easily accessed by hitting the List button on the remote, but can also be accessed via the Recordings option on the main menu. By default, the list is displayed in alphabetical order -- although shows that start with "The" are incorrectly listed with the Ts -- but you can also reverse that order, or sort by date (newest to oldest, or oldest to newest). Another option is to sort by category, which includes genre. This is especially helpful when you know you are in the mood for a movie -- perhaps a comedy -- and want to start from there.
Beyond the standard scrub bar and info banner, the Genie has a few unique features, the first of which is named DoublePlay and is probably only comparable to TiVo's dual live buffers. To use it, you simply hit the down button on the remote twice while watching live TV, and from that point forward the DVR will buffer live TV on two channels instead of one. (The feature turns itself off after two hours.) We particularly like the ability to pause one channel, switch to the other and find the video automatically resuming from where we left off.
The next feature that enhances our live TV experience is QuickTune. Essentially, it works by selecting your favorite nine channels. Then while watching live TV, you hit the up arrow and can quickly tune to one of those channels by selecting the corresponding logo. The QuickTune list is set per TV, so the main settings don't automatically copy over to each Genie Mini.
DirecTV caters to sports fans more than most providers out there. The DoubleDown feature and the lack of scrub bar during replays are helpful, and there are also sports mix channels that essentially let you watch eight channels at once and select which one to listen to. Another nice feature for sports fans: the ScoreGuide pops up when you press the red button while watching live TV. This is more of a score board than a guide, and it displays scores from all recent American sports events. It also offers a Watch Now option to quickly flip to the games currently in progress.
Until recently, having multiple DVRs in house meant managing duplicate series recording lists and walking into different rooms to resolve conflicts
While the ultimate entertainment dream is to be able to watch whatever we want, wherever we want and on any device we want, for now we'll settle for a great in-home experience. Live TV anywhere in the house has become more attainable, but up until recently, having multiple DVRs in house meant managing duplicate series recording lists and walking into different rooms to resolve conflicts. A whole-home DVR fixes that by centralizing the recording on one box and by using less expensive extenders at each TV. And while this does mean you have a single point of failure, we think that's a small price to pay for a more elegant solution. The beauty of a great whole-home DVR experience is not having to think about which room you're in, because every single TV in the house behaves the same way.
DirecTV nearly beat its biggest competitor to market with a whole-home DVR, but unlike the Hopper and its Joey, the Genie can manage its magic without any set-top box at all -- provided you have a compatible Samsung HDTV, that is -- but with RVU recently added to DLNA, we'd be surprised if the number of sets that include the technology doesn't grow.
For those who don't wish to buy a new TV, there is the Genie Mini Client (C31). Aside from a slight degradation in UI responsiveness, the experience is identical to that of the TV that has the HR34 connected to it. The clients connect to the Genie via a coax cable and can share the same live TV buffer and tuner, so if everyone is watching the same football game, the other tuners are available to record.
Speaking of watching the same thing on different TVs at the same time: unlike separate receivers, the streams will not be in sync. So if you are in one room and can hear the TV tuned to the same channel in another room, you will hear an echo -- not typically a big deal, but if you like to host Super Bowl parties, this might be a dealbreaker. The Genie can support up to eight TVs, but only four can be in use at the same time (the TV the HR34 is connected to plus three clients). If you could take or leave the whole-home experience, the HR34 can also stream to other DirecTV DVRs as well as non-DVR set-top boxes like the H25.
Web, smartphone and tablet apps
If you still have a TV provider without a mobile companion app or a website for streaming and managing your service, then, well, you might be a laggard. DirecTV has provided a site to assist you in making changes to your bill for longer than we can remember, and it can remotely schedule recordings and let you watch live programming anywhere. However, the website doesn't allow you to check your to-do list remotely or resolve any recording conflicts (the smartphone and tablet app also do not do this). You also can't stream recorded TV from your DVR via the website. This doesn't mean there isn't plenty of TV available to watch anywhere, but you don't have the same exact selection that you have at home. DirecTV does offer a device called the Nomad, which allows you to transfer recordings to your smartphone, but it wasn't provided to us to be included in this review.
DirecTV also takes its smartphone app very seriously, and while we only tested the iPhone app, there are versions available for every popular platform. Overall we found the iPhone app very snappy and full of useful options. The user interface looks very polished, and the app makes it easy to schedule recordings and even watch a mix of live and on-demand content on the go. The plethora of filters makes it easy to quickly find something to watch, and there are extensive parental controls for adjusting settings remotely.
The smartphone app also isn't built as a second-screen app, so you can't use it as a remote control or get additional information about the program you are currently watching like you can on the tablet app. However, you do have the ability to authorize pay-per-view content, which is for those who don't have their DirecTV set-top box connected to the mothership via the internet or a phone line.
DVR companion apps for tablets are a dime a dozen these days, but the DirecTV App for iPad stands out as particularly useful. Unlike the phone app, the tablet app is only available for iPad -- we reached out to a DirecTV representative regarding a timeline for release on other platforms, but have yet to hear back. The main section consists of columns, with the leftmost showing information about what you are currently watching. The next module is What's Hot, a list of the top 10 shows on DirecTV. There are a total of 13 modules to choose from, with options like News Channels, QuickTune, Live TV Streaming and Social TV. The Social module ties into all the popular networks including Facebook, Twitter, GetGlue and Miso. The modules are displayed when the main section is chosen at the bottom, but there are also five others, like Playlist, Guide, Movies, Sports and Watch on iPad. The majority of these are self-explanatory with the most unique being sports. This is essentially a guide for sporting events, with optional scores and easy access to watch an event without ever knowing what channel it's on.
The DirecTV App for iPad stands out as particularly useful
The tablet app has a remote that can overlay any of these sections and provide much of the same functionality as the physical controller, minus the ability to control the power and volume on your TV. There are a few extra shortcuts that aren't on the real remote, like skip to start, slow, skip 2.5 minutes and skip to end. As mentioned earlier, we wish that streaming recordings from the DVR was a feature, but we do appreciate that so much live and on-demand content is available.
We suspect many skipping straight to this section want to know how this DVR compares to the one their provider offers, and while it's impossible to spend meaningful time with all the variations offered by cable companies nationwide, the Genie easily distinguishes itself from all the ones we've tried. For starters, a whole-home DVR will always win our hearts over the alternative -- assuming you have more than one TV, of course. Add in unique features like DoublePlay and QuickTune and combine them with one of the best iPad companion apps we've used, and we'd have to say the Genie almost outshines every provider DVR we've ever used. The one exception would be the Hopper, which offers many killer unique features, including PrimeTime Anytime and fully integrated Slingbox capabilities. Deciding between the Genie and the Hopper would not be easy. So with Microsoft all but abandoning Windows Media Center and TiVo not yet releasing its whole-home DVR clients, the best whole-home DVR in the US really does come down to the two satellite providers.
The DirecTV Genie delivers in all the right ways, so much so that it provides a reason to switch providers. Of course, user experience isn't everything and there are many other reasons to choose a provider; price, local availability, service, support and picture quality to name a few. So while all those factors can vary greatly from market to market, the enjoyable user interface in every room of your house, full-featured guide and great companion apps should have you considering a switch. Because after all, life is too short to watch TV with a subpar DVR.