While it's not known exactly when DirecTV's new DVRs will become available or what capabilities they'll have, DirecTV offers an excellent alternative in the meantime: the DirecTV R10 DVR with TiVo. A $99 upgrade for existing customers and cheaper still for new DirecTV clients, the R10 lets you pause live TV, watch or record one live show while recording another, and easily choose and record your favorite shows via a dead-simple onscreen programming guide. Best of all, it uses the TiVo interface, easily the champ among DVRs on the market today, and will likely be the last TiVo/DirecTV DVR ever. The so-called DirecTiVo has two main shortfalls: it's not capable of receiving HDTV broadcasts, and it can't use any of the cool TiVo Home Media features. But for new and prospective DirecTV customers who don't need or want HD compatibility or home-networking support, upgrading to an R10 over a non-DVR box is a no-brainer. The DirecTV R10 is about as nondescript as a piece of A/V gear can get. The silver-colored box (3.25 inches high by 15 wide by 14.83 deep) is roughly the same size as most other satellite or cable set-tops. Its sparse front face lacks any time or channel display and brandishes just a handful of buttons. You'll want to use the included remote, which is nearly identical to the one that ships with standard TiVos. It's one of our favorites and is equally adept at controlling DVR functions and navigating the hundreds of channels in the electronic program guide (EPG) menus. It can also be programmed to control the basic functions of nearly any brand of television, not to mention volume functions on a receiver, thus eliminating one more remote from the coffee table.
The TiVo service is completely and seamlessly integrated into the satellite tuner. Rather than the functional menus and EPG grids of a standard DirecTV box, you get an attractive, streamlined TiVo look and feel. It remains the best graphical user interface we've seen to date. The DirecTV R10 includes all the great features that made TiVo a household name. You can pause and rewind live TV; store 70 hours of programming; search program listings and create wish lists by actor, director, genre, and other keywords; and use the Season Pass option to automatically record your favorite shows whenever they air. That final TiVo-only feature is a great convenience and something that, to date, no other DVR provider has implemented as cleanly and accurately.
Connectivity is ample. In addition to the two RF satellite inputs, there's an additional RF pass-through (nonrecordable) input for an off-air antenna or a cable connection. Twin A/V outputs are provided, including a single S-Video connection for optimal video quality, plus an optical digital-audio output. An RF output ensures compatibility with older televisions. And the R10 automatically downloads its software updates and 14-day EPG from the satellite, so the phone-line connection is relegated to pay-per-view events and the like. Satellite receivers don't always work well with voice over IP (VoIP) service such as Vonage; VoIP users should check with DirecTV or their satellite installer regarding possible compatibility issues.
Sadly, DirecTV refuses to activate the cool TiVo Home Media features that let owners of standalone TiVo DVRs listen to music and view photos from their PCs, share video with other TiVos in their home, program recordings remotely via the Web, and even watch recorded shows on their PCs and burn them to DVD. The R10 has the USB ports--and, presumably, the internal hardware and software--to handle the necessary networking features, but thanks to corporate politics (DirecTV will soon be offering its own, non-TiVo DVRs), the feature is likely to remain dormant.
The R10 is not capable of receiving HD broadcasts; you'll need to upgrade to the HR10-250 (HD TiVo), which currently lists for $700, despite the fact that it's not compatible with DirecTV's forthcoming slate of expanded HD programming. For those who will be upgrading to HDTVs in the near future, though, the R10's cheap $99 price tag makes it a viable purchase, even if it will be put out to pasture, a.k.a. the upstairs bedroom, in a year or two. Standalone TiVos require users to pay a monthly $13 charge or a one-time $300 fee for service. By contrast, adding a TiVo-powered DirecTV DVR such as the R10 costs just an additional $5 per month, charged straight to your satellite bill. The DirecTV R10 has a couple of advantages over adding a standalone TiVo to your satellite TV setup. Because the hard drive stores the raw MPEG signal in its original digital form, there are no video-quality settings. Recordings look just as good as DirecTV's live transmission, unlike standard TiVo, which reduces video quality even in Best mode by reencoding the signal.
The same story applies to digital audio. Dolby Digital soundtracks are recorded in their original form, so you can enjoy live and recorded programs in full 5.1-channel surround sound when a compatible home-theater system is connected to the R10's optical digital output.
Another advantage of the R10's integrated, all-in-one design: channel changing is faster since it's not passing the commands to an outboard tuner. That answers the prayers of many a TiVo surfer frustrated by the comparatively slow channel changes on standalone DVRs.
As if this DVR weren't already enticing enough, if you run a second line from your satellite dish, the R10's dedicated dual tuner will allow you to watch one live show while recording another or even record two shows while watching a previously recorded third.