Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.The first thing you'll notice about the Dish Player-DVR 921 is that it's big. Its sizable dimensions--16 inches wide, 5.25 inches high, and 14.25 inches deep--are much larger than those of other satellite boxes or standalone DVRs; the 921 has the size and heft of an A/V receiver. Except for eight basic control buttons, three message LEDs, and a pair of decorative mounds that bulge out slightly toward each side, the silver front panel is largely bare.
If the Dish Player-DVR 921's uninspired styling gives you pause, you can lock it away in a cabinet. That's because the included remote control can operate via radio frequency (RF), so it works anywhere within 200 feet of the base unit and doesn't need a clear line of sight as infrared (IR) remotes do. The remote is well laid out, and the many features of the electronic program guide navigation (page up/down, info, menu) and video transport (play, pause, rewind, fast-forward) are easily accessible and understandable, even to nontechies. We like the dedicated buttons for toggling between standard and high-definition programming, as well as the all-important 30-second skip for blasting through commercials. The remote can control up to three additional components in your home-theater system (TV, VCR, and DVD player, for example).
The DVR 921's electronic programming guide (EPG) is slightly upgraded from earlier Dish EPG iterations. It offers a clean graphical overview of what's on all available channels, though the transparent menu option, which projects the current channel's video behind the program guide (rather than in an upper corner), is more distracting than convenient. Fortunately, thanks to the 921's extensive settings menus, the menu opacity and assorted other features can be modified. The only thing missing is a screensaver; mistakenly leaving a menu screen up for days could cause burn-in on a plasma or CRT display. Functionally, the Dish Player-DVR 921 offers many of the same features found in Dish's earlier DVR 510 model, but with a significant upgrade: it can record and display HDTV. The 921's massive 250GB hard disk allows it to hold any combination of up to 25 hours of HDTV or a whopping 180 hours of standard TV programming. And unlike the DVRs available from most cable companies, the Dish 921 offers 30-second skip--when watching a recorded show, you'll never have to sit through commercials again.
For existing HDTV viewers used to a host of compromises, the DVR 921's generous capabilities are a breath of fresh air. The Dish Player-DVR 921 can be set to display all video output at a constant resolution: 1080i or 720p HDTV, 480p, or 480i. (Of course, upconverting standard definition channels such as SpikeTV or CNN to a higher resolution doesn't magically transform them to ultrasharp HDTV.) Perhaps the most welcome feature is built-in aspect-ratio control, which allows you to zoom and stretch images to your liking on the DVR 921 itself--no more watching a window-boxed movie on your wide-screen TV. This is particularly important since many HDTVs cannot change aspect ratios with HDTV sources.
In addition to inputs for two satellite lines, the DVR 921 features a third connection for an over-the-air antenna or cable hookup--all of which are HD-enabled. You can record standard or HD programming off any one of the three feeds while watching--and recording--a separate program on another. Alternately, you can record two programs while watching a third previously recorded program from the hard drive.
Thanks to its cornucopia of outputs, the DVR 921 will connect to just about any TV. HD content is available via a component or a DVI connector (but not both simultaneously). The receiver also provides an S-Video connector, two composite-video outputs, and an RF coaxial connection for older sets. On the audio side, two sets of stereo analog outputs are complemented by a single optical digital-audio connection, which allows for surround-sound playback when connected to a compatible A/V receiver or home-theater-in-a-box kit. A standard phone jack provides setup and pay-per-view interaction with Dish's home office, but it's not necessary to connect since program guide info is delivered by the satellite. We also noted a USB port and two FireWire ports, but they're currently disabled, reserved for possible future applications. Because the Dish Player-DVR 921 integrates the satellite receiver and the video recorder into one unit, it offers smoother operation, faster channel navigation, and--thanks to fewer wires and one fewer box cluttering up the equipment rack--better aesthetics than pairing a standalone TiVo or ReplayTV with a separate satellite receiver. In our tests, the 921 handled all of the basic DVR features--such as finding and recording upcoming TV programs and pausing and rewinding live TV--with aplomb.
We tortured the DVR 921 by recording two concurrent high-def programs from HBO-HD and HDNet Movies while playing back a third HD flick we'd recorded a day earlier. Impressively, the hard disk didn't miss a beat: Donnie Brasco played back in high def with nary a stutter, even as the other two high-bandwidth programs were being recorded. The best high-def channels--Discovery HD, HDNet Movies, and HDNet--looked spectacular, while movie channels such as HBO-HD and ShowtimeHD were noticeably softer, albeit still impressive when compared to their standard-definition counterparts. The bottom line is that image quality was directly in line with the quality of the original programming--the recordings looked as good or as bad as they do when watched live.
How does the DVR 921 compare with TiVo, the gold standard of DVRs? Though we weren't able to do a direct comparison (DirecTV's TiVo-powered HD DVR wasn't available at review time), based on our experience with previous DirecTV TiVo receivers such as the Philips DSR708, the Dish DVR 921 is coming on strong. The Dish interface still isn't as elegant as TiVo's, and some convenience features--such as recording every instance of a show that's seen on multiple channels at various times (Law and Order or The Simpsons) and having it listed as a single "channel"--aren't implemented. Nevertheless, the 921's ability to record high-def content more than makes up for such omissions.
So what's not to like? Aside from a lower price, we'd like to see a few things incorporated into the Dish Player-DVR 921's successor. First and foremost, Dish needs to increase the hard drive capacity. Just 10 to 15 movies and sporting events recorded in high-definition can fill up the current 250GB capacity. Another easy improvement would be a smaller, better-looking console. Of course, the one thing for which every HDTV nut is hoping--the ability to archive high-definition content to D-VHS and future digital recording devices--probably won't happen anytime soon, thanks to increasingly militant measures on the part of movie studios and TV networks to protect their intellectual property.