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A DVR Without Subscriptions, Strangely Unique

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, April 26, 2009

The DTVPal DVR shouldn't be an oddity in the electronics industry. This $250 box doesn't do anything that hasn't been possible since at least a decade ago.

And yet it's as close to unique as most mass-market gadgets get: It appears to be the only high-definition digital video recorder that provides the same kind of simple program-guide interface as a cable or satellite DVR and yet does not require a subscription or rental fee.

Dish Network's gadget faces numerous obstacles, however -- many of Dish's own making. But it also fills a serious gap in the market. If nothing else, it deserves the flattery of imitation by competitors.

Like other recorders, the DTVPal combines an interactive program guide -- a table listing what's on and coming up, which you can browse through with the remote control -- and a large hard drive that stores recordings and lets you pause a live broadcast at any time.

But where a cable or satellite DVR can cost $10 or $15 a month in rental fees -- and TiVo users pay service fees of up to $12.95 a month after shelling out $300 or so for the device -- this Dish model has no recurring charges. Its only operating cost is its tiny contribution to your electric bill.

The DTVPal, however, receives only over-the-air digital broadcasts. It can't tune in to cable or satellite (notwithstanding the Dish Network moniker).

Setting it up took about 10 minutes: I plugged a tabletop TV antenna into the back of the DVR, ran a high-definition audio-video cable from it to an HDTV, turned it on and clicked through a few setup screens to scan for local stations. Then I set the TV's screen resolution and filled in its program guide.

That guide comes from two free sources: the data digital stations transmit and a service called TV Guide on Screen available in most U.S. cities.

The guide covers the next week of programming, but some stations may provide less information than others. On Thursday morning, WDCA's listings ran only through 4:30 that afternoon.

The electronics industry should be embarrassed by how little use it makes of these resources. Most digital sets use these data to tell you only what you're watching now, not what's on other stations or what's coming up. DVD recorders that I've tried haven't done any better: I had to schedule recordings by punching in specific times, as if I were still using a top-loading Betamax VCR.

The DTVPal DVR includes two digital TV tuners, so you can watch one program while recording another, and a 250-gigabyte hard drive that Dish says can save "up to 150 hours" of standard-definition recording and "up to 30 hours" of high-def footage.

This model records video without converting it to a compressed format. That should ensure that you don't lose picture quality -- the high-def recordings I made looked indistinguishable from HDTV broadcasts. But it also eats up vast amounts of disk space, especially in HD mode. The only way to get a recording off the DVR is to hook up some other video recorder to its audio and video outputs, then make a real-time copy.

The DTVPal's onscreen interface and remote control, however, won't exactly make TiVo owners regret their purchase. Both bear a striking resemblance to Dish's satellite DVRs, with the drab list of shows that hides some searching and browsing options and the remote's ugly and confusing layout of buttons.

The DTVPal guide also doesn't distinguish between new episodes and repeats.

Over a week of testing, the review unit loaned by Dish Network did worse at pulling in local broadcasts than the Sony TV above it. It couldn't tune in WETA at all and sometimes fumbled the signals of other local stations. A three-hour recording of NBC affiliate WRC's normally strong broadcast was interrupted a dozen times by momentary outbreaks of blurriness or pixelation, although in no instance did the signal drop out entirely.

The worst aspect of the DTVPal DVR, however, has to be Dish's death-wish marketing of it. The Englewood, Colo., company does not sell the device in any stores, leaving customers to buy it online (http://dtvpal.com) or over the phone (888-638-9912). Worse yet, it offers only a 90-day warranty and does not let customers return one if they decide they don't like it.

That's no way to sell customers on a gadget as unusual as this.

Even with the marketing wizardry of an Apple or an Amazon, the DTVPal would probably remain a niche product. Most people get their TV via cable or satellite, not off the air.

But the electronics business happily tolerates many other niche items -- say, 300-CD changers that have been made obsolete by MP3 players, USB-connected turntables built for copying vinyl recordings to a computer and personal photo printers that crank out only glossy 4-by-6 prints. That market should have enough room for more than one device like this.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at robp@washpost.com. Read more at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.

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