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Correction to This Article
A review of high-definition television recording options in the Aug. 29 Business section incorrectly said that Dish Network's Dish Player-DVR 921 digital video recorder is available for rental. It is available for purchase, and the price is $999.

Recordings Match the Show, With a Key Drawback

By Daniel Greenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 29, 2004; Page F07

The early adopters of high-definition TV soon discovered that their year-2000 hardware had a year-1980 shortcoming -- they had no way to record a show for later viewing without resorting to a VCR, losing all the high quality of high definition in the process. That would have been like driving a new Porsche only in first gear.

Otherwise, just as in TV's Paleolithic era, if HDTV viewers weren't in front of their costly screens when the show aired, they missed it.

An LG digital video recorder. The industry's unsolved problem: High-definition recordings aren't portable or storable at original quality. (Courtesy of LG Electronics Inc.)

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Now, though, high-definition recording is here, even if it's still in its infancy. Between the TiVo-like digital video recorders sold by cable- and satellite-television services and D-VHS high-definition VCRs, you can make digital recordings that look and sound as dazzling as their live broadcasts.

The digital video recorders -- we tried models offered by Comcast, DirecTV and Dish Network -- have the advantage of including their own cable or satellite tuners, greatly simplifying setup and operation.

The DirecTV and Dish recorders both retail for $1,000, but Dish's can also be rented free as part of an ongoing promotion (Dish customers pay a $5-a-month service charge either way). Comcast's recorder also carries no extra rental cost but adds its own $10 service charge to the bill.

DirecTV's 250-gigabyte box offers the most storage -- 30 hours of HD or 200 hours of standard-definition analog TV. Dish's has the same size hard drive, but is rated for 25 hours of HD and 180 hours of standard quality. Comcast's 80GB recorder is far back, at just 10 hours of HD and 30 standard (Comcast customers in Virginia get a different model rated for up to 50 hours of analog programming).

All three recorders display upcoming shows on an onscreen grid that makes scheduling a recording or starting one a matter of pressing a few buttons on the remote. They all also allow you to pause, rewind and replay live TV and to fast-forward through commercials on recorded shows.

Comcast's DVR suffers from an excess of ads on its programming grid and a clumsy interface with too many confusing submenus. It wasn't smart enough to avoid recording reruns, and forced us to use an especially tedious text-input system when we searched for shows by title (you have to select each letter you "type" by scrolling down the alphabet with the remote, instead of selecting each letter off a grid).

This system was prone to glitches and sometimes lost track of recorded video before restoring access to it.

DirecTV's HR10-250 costs the most, but is built around TiVo, the most usable model of video recorder. This elegant, glitch-free system offered the best options for sorting through programming and setting recordings. It can record two shows at once, easily switching from one to the other.

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