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Dish's DTVPal DVR Puts Digital TV On The Record

One of the missing pieces in the we-swear-it's-almost-finished digital-TV transition has been recordability. While you've got plenty of options for viewing DTV broadcasts off the air, your options for recording those shows fall short.

Yes, your cable, satellite or fiber-optic TV provider would be glad to rent you a DVR, designed to its specifications. But the rental and service fees on them can add up quickly, and if you don't like the design of its box that's too bad.

You can build your own DVR by adding a digital-TV tuner to a computer (watch this space for an assessment of two such options), but if you don't have a spare computer to devote to the task and plug into your TV, that's not going to be cheap either.

Or you can buy a DVD recorder -- notwithstanding their puzzling scarcity in stores lately -- if you don't mind losing the ability to record in high definition or pick the program you like from an onscreen program guide.


Today's column looks at another option: a high-def digital video recorder that offers the same simple program-grid interface as a cable or satellite DVR but doesn't demand any monthly fees after purchase.

As you can read, I found Dish Network's $249.99 DTVPal DVR fascinating but not in any danger of shutting down TiVo. Set aside its inability to record cable or satellite broadcasts (which many folks would consider a deal-breaker by itself, though others would be happy with something that works with free broadcast TV); this device has plenty of other issues.

Some, such as Dish's self-destructive marketing of it, could be fixed relatively easily. Others would require Dish's engineers to get back to work -- but this device's short history already shows that it can improve over time. The company pushed out a major software update earlier this month that fixed numerous glitches and added a few features requested by users. Some of the DTVPal DVR's features -- for instance, the USB and Ethernet ports on the back and the smart-card slot on the front -- have yet to be put to any meaningful use but could allow for interesting upgrades down the road.

For other perspectives on this device, have a look at these other sources:

* The AVS Forum has an astoundingly comprehensive discussion of the DTVPal DVR, starting with a lengthy frequently-asked-questions file that covers everything from the finer points of its onscreen interface to its electrical consumption (about 21 watts when off and 23 watts when on, the same figures I observed on the review unit).

* C|Net reviewed this model in March and gave it a three-of-five-stars rating, citing the same advantages and disadvantages I noted.

* Tech blogger (and regular commenter here) Dave Zatz posted his own first-look evaluation of the DTVPal DVR back in January and revisited the topic after C|Net's review ran.

Now it's your turn to chime in: Is a device like this -- limited to free over-the-air DTV, but without monthly fees of any sort -- something that would interest you? What features would you want to see on it that this particular model doesn't offer?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 24, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  TV  
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No cable/satellite recording, no interest. Nice try, Dish, but try again.

Posted by: SSMD1 | April 24, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Note to companies: many of us want a VCR without need for tape. How hard is that? No analog cable recording = fail.

Posted by: koalatek | April 24, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Wait, "21 watts when off and 23 watts when on". Seriously? It only pulls 2 more watts when "on"? What the heck is it doing when "off" that needs that much power?

According to the Apple website ( Mac Mini only pulls 13 watts at idle, and 2 watts in sleep mode.

And I can hook up an external hard drive to a Mac.

The only issue with the Mac is that the ElGato EyeTV Hybrid won't pull in all the OTA stations (using rabbit ears) that my Sharp Aquos will. I suspect it's lacking a sufficient amp. If an ampolified antenna will fix that problem then it's a good choice for a tuner for a Mac.

Posted by: wiredog | April 24, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

The most appealing element, of course, is being fee-free. But the EPG is limited, as our the methods the DVR records. There seems to be a decent contingent of folks looking to dump cable or who have already done so that would appreciate this. It's definitely a huge step up from a VCR, but that $13/mo for TiVo gets you Netflix streaming, Amazon VOD, and addresses my other issues. I wish we had a 'freeview' movement here in the US, removing the cableco as a middle mad. More interesting (and more economical) options would appear.

Posted by: davezatz | April 24, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

No cable recording capability? I pass. For those who are FIOS customers and have one of their DVRs: new feature allows you to program it online. You request the feature online, they enable it and confirm by email. You can use a TV listing tab, select and set the recording. Beats holding down the guide button to scroll through all the days to the program you want. You can delete recordings from the box too. First day I used it was great, next time a little tech problem. I imagine there is some tweak and tune going on. There are a buch of other things you can do in there too if you look around.

Posted by: tbva | April 24, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

You guys complaining about no cable or satellite are missing the point. This is only intended for over-the-air.

With cable and satellite, if you want a DVR, you call your service provider. There is no provider to call for OTA, and this unit fills that need.

I have one of these and agree with much of what's said, but Rob, attach a better antenna, or even build a Gray-Hoverman!

Now that the recent firmware release has stabilized it, my biggest complaint is the TVGOS interface is poor, and when trying to sort this out, Macrovision blames Dish, and Dish blames Macrovision, and I, the poor consumer is left with "No Data Available" in the guide data for about half the channels I receive.

Posted by: miketo | April 24, 2009 9:32 PM | Report abuse

Pass. I don't need program guides. I usually know when and where to find a program I want. I am not usually in the mode of layig on the couch needing to surf a program guide to find another half hour of stimulation and some meaning to my life.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | April 25, 2009 5:35 AM | Report abuse

I could see this device working with Dish satellite service and over the air TV. I'm puzzled how a SATELLITE COMPANY can make a significant investment in a product like this without it being able to work with their service. Makes no sense to me.

Posted by: jmrzx | April 25, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Why can't this device work with cable or satelliter signals? Why would it make a difference to the receiver whether the signal was coming from an antenna or a cable? The reason why cable viewers desire such as device is because they don't want to pay an additional $13 a month to Comcast. I guess we will never see a fee-less DVR unless it comes from an independent company since the cable and satellite companies make too much money off the monthly fees. This device will flop because people who are content with rabbit ears are also probably content with their 15 year old VCR and won't purchase this device.

Posted by: buffysummers | April 25, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

I would really (really, really) like to see a 5 minute recording capability on their basic converter, and for that matter, *all* streaming devices, like TV or Radio.

The chips for the memory are so dirt cheap, the technology so simple, and the need/usefulness so great I am not sure why this hasn't become a standard feature. I am sure they can add it for pennies.

As far as the user interface, all you need is two buttons, go back 30 sec. and catch-up, or something similar. That would allow the users to listen/view something they missed, or review for clarity, or missed due to bathroom break or beer break.

This is not really a comment about the model that was reviewed here -- but about the basic model which is sold as just as converter box for around $50.


Posted by: kblgca | April 25, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Bitter bill needs to stop being a snob and get a life. I get several hundred channels thanks to Directv and sure, most of them are rubbish but thanks to that variety I can and do find enough programs of interest to record and watch. Pray tell, how does Bill find programs to watch without a program guide? By osmosis? If you limit yourself to OTA you will never find much worth watching, particularly in HD.

Posted by: iansmccarthy | April 25, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse

I get my TV exclusively over-the-air. This puts me in a 13% minority nationally, and surely a much smaller minority in my rural town. However, thanks to that location and a good rooftop antenna, I can receive stations from three different cities, which is nice for a local-news junkie like me.

I'm glad Dish thinks there is enough of a market to support an OTA-only recorder, and I hope it turns out to be successful for them. The main reason why I haven't bought one is that I already have two HD DVRs that Sony sold briefly and then discontinued in 2005(!). These also use the TVGOS EPG, and can be used both OTA and with cable via a CableCard. Apparently back then, there wasn't enough of a market to support a $600 HD DVR. (I got one of mine much cheaper in a clearance sale.)

I suspect the DTVPal DVR doesn't include cable or satellite capability mainly to keep costs low. In order to be really useful with cable, it would have to include a CableCard interface, and even then it wouldn't be able to receive some services.

And Dish already has DVRs for its satellite services.

Posted by: jtbell1 | April 25, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

@wiredog: DVRs basically never power off, they just turn off the video output. The CPU needs to stay on all the time to be able to know when to record and update the guide, etc, once a day or so. There should be a better way, though, I agree.

I paid for lifetime activation on my ReplayTV DVRs from 2003-2008, and spent less than I would have on monthly service. Now I've done the same with my TiVo HDs, and as I don't see anything on the horizon that would replace them, I expect that to average out to a very few dollars per month of use. That's not even counting the savings of swapping converter boxes for CableCards. Plus, as Dave said, you get a lot of extras (repeat recognition, advanced conflict resolution) for the money with TiVo service.

Posted by: MaxH | April 27, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if the paucity of these types of devices, even when many people are being forced into digital TV and may even purchase a new TV, is an indicator of the future of "free TV". Do "they" know something that we don't? Maybe that OTA "free" TV has a lifetime shorter than we might think?

Posted by: dleithaus | April 29, 2009 7:32 AM | Report abuse

This is just what I need. Switched to ota last year and need a way to record like a vcr but in hd with no tapes. Redskin games and prime time shows on network. Now I can watch my cheap Redbox movies on any night. saving $90.00 a month for over a year now has been good.

Posted by: flecks22 | April 29, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

just what I need. free ota HD recording. Redskins and prime time while I watch my cheap Redbox movies.At $250.00 it is a good deal, paid over $700.00 for sony vhf 4head in the 90's

Posted by: flecks22 | April 29, 2009 7:06 PM | Report abuse

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