Standard DVR disclaimerAny time we write a DVR review we have to remind ourselves that the world we live in doesn't provide most of us the luxury of choosing our own DVR. What we mean is that most DVRs, and their software, are tied to specific providers and thus not available to everyone. So our questions in this 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 latest 1.9 FiOS DVR firmware update will run on a number of Motorola models Verizon distributes, but the one to try and get your hands on is the QIP7232 2 -- we say try because apparently Verizon is already back-ordered on filling upgrade requests. The 7232 looks much better than the older 7216, but more important than it's glossy black finish is the 500GB hard drive that lives within. Sure, this is still smaller than most hard drives on the shelf of a big box store, but it's far larger than the typical 160GB HDD found in most provider DVRs.
The 1.9 update does more than just revamp the user interface -- it actually makes the eSATA port work. Until now, FiOS customers could only stare at this unused port when they ran out of disk space. Now they can grab virtually any external hard drive they want and add some extra recording space. Verizon will only officially support the Western DVR Expander line, but admits that just about any drive will work. But if it doesn't, there's no way to determine why, as there are no logging or troubleshooting tools available to help you find your way. When it does work it's pretty simple: enable the feature, wait for the DVR to restart, then plug in your drive and follow the prompts. At this point your recording gauge will show more free space and new recordings will be on made on your external drive. If, for whatever reason, your DVR dies, your recordings on your external drive die with it, and obviously toting your drive to a friends house will only lead to an opportunity to erase your recordings upon connecting it to their FiOS DVR. And yes, we connected it to our PC only to discover our computer didn't even recognize the partition table.
Our only complaint with the new set-top box is the LED display, but even this is more of a gripe than a real complaint. While we love to have another clock in the house or the ability to check the channel at a glance, the display is very bright and there's no way to tone it down.
There is a recording indicator, though, which although very small is still appreciated. Control freaks will be disappointed that there isn't a two-way RS-232 socket or IP control, but there is at least an IR port to save you from trying to get an IR blaster to stick to the front.
This is our least favorite part of the Verizon FiOS offering, but that shouldn't be a surprise because we don't believe anyone makes a good remote. Of them, TV providers' are some of the worst, and the FiOS DVR's is no better. It is barely programmable, has few backlit keys and is home to way too many buttons. The biggest offenses are the keys that don't serve any function at all, but next on our hate list are the buttons that we could live without -- do we really need keys for FiOS TV, On-Demand and Options? We're all for quick and easy ways to navigate a menu, but keeping it simple wins in our book -- especially when you do what TiVo does and provide documented shortcuts instead of extra buttons. In fact, we'll go so far as to say the remote is one thing TiVo and Microsoft both do better than any cable provider.
We admit that we don't really hold the remote against Verizon, as we're likely to just use a third-party programmable, but there's still a catch. Have you ever seen an "options" button on a programmable remote (without soft-buttons)? Well, the FiOS user interface is built for the remote, so just replacing the remote isn't the answer here as you'll still have to live with the way the box works. Ultimately, we wish there were fewer buttons on the remote and better ways to perform the same functions via the onscreen display, but there are worse things in life.
The 16x9 HD interface on Verizon's Interactive Media Guide looks really good and is head and shoulders above the previous versions of the IMG -- and Verizon has shown that good-looking doesn't have to mean slow, as it's generally very speedy. Most of the menus are an Xbox blade like interface that really doesn't take advantage of the full screen, but instead dedicates a good portion of the screen to a video window -- video that can't be paused while you are in a menu. This is another pet peeve of most provider's DVRs, that persistent video window. It isn't that we never want to be able to attempt to multitask by watching TV and navigating a menu at the same time, it is that we don't always want to. We call it the spoiler window, because while your favorite show is recording and the other show your watching ends, you get to discover the big twist thanks to the video window popping up. There are of course workarounds for the diligent, you just have to be mindful, and quick, to hit exit and then pause.
Aside from the spoiler window and the inefficient use of space in the menus, we really like the overall look of the UI, the colors are look good together and the text is easy to read. The channels logos help spice up the info screens, but the lack of thumbnails for anything except premium on-demand options is disappointing. The general lack of advertising throughout the UI is greatly appreciated, though. Ultimately, the menus don't get in the way and while they could still be better, we like them.
To us, though, the main point of a DVR is to watch what we want, on our schedule. So that starts with discovering content and while we'll hold off on talking about the guide, discovering through search works well, as the B button hot key lets you search from just about any menu. There's also two kinds of text input to make this a smooth ordeal, including a keyboard and number pad. Search is accelerated thanks to filters and the ability to go back to recent searches, and even save searches for later. However, we are greatly saddened by the fact that our custom channel favorites are not among the 16 different search filters such as HD, Flex View, Sports, Now, DVR or even Games. This of course makes as much sense as a marketing email without an unsubscribe link, as it helps Verizon ensure that shows on channels we don't subscribe to will be returned in the results. But don't worry, the DVR will let you schedule recordings on channels you don't subscribe to. They won't actually record, of course, but perhaps the rage from this experience will encourage you to subscribe to all the channels -- you know, as a workaround to this minor problem.
After we found something we wanted to record, we were happy to be to do so with a single press of a button, or press it twice to record the entire series. At this point we can also choose to record the series with options, but thanks to the ability to set our preferred default series recording options, this isn't always necessary -- a smart feature every DVR should have. Among the options are HD, SD and even 3D, or if you aren't particular, you can leave it set to all. Overall the FiOS box excels as a DVR with almost no check boxes unmarked, and comprehensive management abilities like Recorded Status to see how much space you have left, history to see what you might've missed and why, scheduled to ensure your favorite shows on are deck, and a series manager to make sure your DVR's priority matches your's. There's even a recently deleted list which sadly lacks the required retina sensor to tell who deleted your favorite show -- in lieu of that, the time it was deleted would've been nice.
Playback works as expected, as you select your show from a drab list of your recordings that are always in folders and are only sorted by recorded date. The list does change the text from white to yellow to indicate that you've have watched a portion of and it displays the original air date as well as the date recorded, which are both key in ensuring you watch your shows in the proper order. You can even search your recordings and play them back directly from the results. After making your selection, you're met with the usual transport controls, and the scrub bar is integrated in with the info screen. We appreciate the easy access to the current time, show info, and both the current time and the exact time remaining. What we really missed, though, was having the scrub bar show up every time we hit a transport button. It shows up when you hit play, pause, fast forward or rewind, but not when you skip forward and back. Not sure why Verizon would do this, but hopefully they'll address it in a future update.
While the developers are making changes, we'd also like to suggest that they make the default replay 10 seconds instead of 30. To be fair, this really isn't a complaint since it can easily changed be in settings, which also gives you the option of stretching the replay time to one minute or even five. If you need to skip large portions of the show, we find the chaptering feature more useful than changing the skip settings. Basically, the chapter feature breaks your show up into three- or 10-minute chapters and usually adds thumbnails to make them more easily recognizable. It's an odd name for the feature considering it doesn't actually break up your shows in a way makes sense -- you know, like plot lines -- but it is an easy way to quickly jump around your recordings. TiVo skips to tick and Media Center's direct access work better, but then again, we can't think of another provider DVR that has anything like this.
If you're a check-the-guide-first-and-everything-else-second type, then you're going to love the Verizon FiOS IMG 1.9. This is because it actually has four different ones and we have to say that they are all fabulous in their own right. First off, they all make great use of the HD display. It's easy to select your two favorites and set one to your primary and another to your secondary guide. A single press of the guide button will take you to your primary guide, a second press, to your secondary guide and a third back to where you were. You can also easily access the half-screen and mini-guide by hitting up or down, respectively, while watching live TV. All four share the same filters that thankfully includes two customizable favorites as well as an HD filter and subscribed -- the one we really wish we could apply everywhere.
Each guide is so good, we're going to go through them one by one. First up is the classic grid, which Verizon calls the full guide. The video preview window is pitifully small, but we don't care because it shows seven channels of data and two and a half hours, which means it stretches from edge to edge. It even has a scrub bar across the top to easily see how far along a show is. The skip buttons easily jump two hours, the channel buttons page up and down and the fast forward and rewind buttons skip a full 24 hours. The channel logos on the left are nice, as is the way the current channel automatically expands out to see the details of the selected show.
The channel guide is next and it's our favorite. It reminds us of everything we love about TiVo's list guide -- it's easy to see what's on for hours and easy to discover content. But it's T menus are a much better idea than TiVo's, and we love how we can quickly see the next six shows on on each channel. The space on the bottom left of the T is a nicely sized video window with the opposite side showing the details of the selected program. The buttons are a bit different but you can still easily skip days or channels to see what's on.
The half-screen guide is like nothing we've ever seen and is perfect for a 16x9 display with its large video preview window. It doesn't display as much information as the previous two, but it does indicate what's on six different channels and still manages to fit in the info and channel logos, but only shows what's on right now.
We've always been big fans of mini guides and this one might be the best ever. It of course shows you the show info of what you're watching as well as how much time is left, but it also gives super easy access to the next three shows on the current channel. The three channels listed on the left make it intuitive to know that you can navigate up or down to explore other channels.
Overall, all four guides are quick and responsive and well suited for traditional TV viewing and some old-fashioned discovery, but Verizon doesn't appear to be spending much time trying to redefine how people discover shows. There are social widgets, but no social integration to see what your friends are watching. There isn't a way to rate shows and thus it doesn't make suggestions. There isn't an easy way to jump from one show to another based on actor or director, and the only "More like this" button in the info screen takes you to video on-demand options. There is a way to bookmark video on-demand offerings, but this feature is mostly a workaround for the web and mobile apps, which offer limited control over the DVR. In other words, it's not exactly a neat queue of shows to watch.
The great American pastime -- watching TV, obviously -- has a lot of modernizing to do and the DVR is the stepping stone to that end. There are little rocks in between those stones and the latest from Verizon is just that. What we mean is that the multi-room DVR is a solid step toward changing the way people watch TV, but we're sad to say that the IMG 1.9 doesn't realize our multi-room dreams. That dream is a DVR that provides the exact same experience no matter what room we're in. The same recordings, the same ability to record, the same everything. Why should it matter where we're sitting? We just want to spend a few minutes to take in our favorite show.
Instead, like its competitors, each Verizon FiOS DVR has its own list of shows, depending on where they were recorded, and some features like chapters don't work when watching content from other rooms. Worse, if the tuners in the room are booked up, you have to walk to another room to resolve the conflict. That's not to say we don't appreciate the improvements this update brings, since previous FiOS DVRs couldn't stream to another DVR at all, but it isn't quite where it needs to be. The good news is that you can stream one HD show from any DVR on any TV in the house at a time, and that experience is very snappy and responsive. You can have up to seven boxes working together so if they were all DVRs that would give you 14 tuners and 3.5 terabytes of storage! The resume does work between DVRs and setup is easy, but the lack of conflict resolution or even a single list of recordings leaves us wanting more. Not even our custom channel favorites sync between DVRs -- but hey, at least the parental control pin can.
Android and iOS apps
Tablets and smartphones have a real place in the living room so any modern DVR can't be complete without a few points of integration. We found the Verizon FiOS Mobile app very useful for things like scheduling recordings or checking to see what's on without letting video take over the big screen, but it leaves a lot to be desired after you've tried something like TiVo Premiere for iPad. The main missing piece here is the ability to control the DVR with a tablet, instead of the regular remote. Sure, you can always bring up an image of the old school remote on the screen, but that isn't exactly what we had in mind. What we actually wanted was to do things like play a recording from a list on the tablet screen, or to select and start a video on-demand offering without navigating any on-screen menus. The bottom line is we found ourselves switching back and forth between the tablet and the trusty remote, which isn't ideal. Our favorite part was scheduling recordings from the tablet's guide, which worked great whether we were searching or browsing and, at least on the iPad, we could quickly switch between other apps.
One of the most compelling reasons to use a provider's DVR is the free and premium video on-demand options, since they simply aren't available if you bring your own DVR. But while free is always good and the quality here was at least acceptable (don't expect Blu-ray), finding content was anything but easy. Verizon actually does a pretty good job getting the premium content in front of you, but if you want the HD freebies, you're going to have to dig a little. The layout of the free content is arranged in long lists that can be searched but not filtered. The only thing we do like about the presentation is the ability to bookmark things to make them easy to find later. And, you can bookmark from Verizon's website, a tablet, a smartphone or another set-top. So while we appreciate the free options, we wish as much effort was put into helping us to discover content as was put into selling premium on-demand programming. After making a selection, the experience is consistent with watching recorded content, but with only the ability to pause and fast forward or rewind at 2x, it can be hard to jump to a specific spot.
If you're a current FiOS DVR user, the 1.9 update is well worth the wait and probably the most significant update from Verizon since launching its FiOS TV service. If you're thinking of switching to Verizon and are worried that the DVR isn't as good as the one you got from your current provider, don't, because it is much better. In fact we'd say the Verizon FiOS DVR is the best provider DVR we've ever tried -- except maybe DirecTV, which is one of the few DVR's we've never reviewed. Of course, another great thing about Verizon FiOS if you have another choice; bring your own DVR. So at $19.99 a month for the first multi-room DVR and $15.99 each additional, TiVo and Windows Media Center make compelling cases at a competitive price. So while we really like the work Verizon has done here, we're not ready to crown it the best DVR out there, even if you are lucky enough to live somewhere Verizon FiOS TV is available.