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. (Published 9/18/04)
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.
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.
And its controls allow you to quickly and easily compensate for the varying resolutions and aspect ratios on different channels, so the picture always properly fits your TV.
Its one downside -- besides that $1,000 price -- is its sluggish operation, with a noticeable pause as it fills out the onscreen programming grid.
Dish Network's Dish Player-DVR 921 isn't quite as smooth as DirecTV's TiVo, but it adds a picture-in-picture display of the current program to its programming guide; you don't have to stop watching to check out what's playing on other channels. It can search for programs by title or by category, with options to record shows daily, weekly or Monday through Friday, but you can't exclude reruns.
Dish's standout feature, however, is its forward-skip button for precision evasion of commercial breaks. This model's fast-forward mode can run as fast as 300 times playback speed -- useful for quickly pinpointing a scene late in a lengthy movie. Sadly, this recorder, like DirecTV's, is sometimes in short supply.
For all their finer points, these three recorders leave out one must-have capability: a way to take recordings elsewhere or archive them for permanent storage at their original quality. Even newer DVD recorders will still have to convert an HD signal to a lower resolution.
Only one type of HD recorder does offer that option, the D-VHS VCRs developed by JVC. Its $800 HM-DH5U can make both standard and high-definition recordings; it also plays conventional VHS and new "D-Theatre" high-definition D-VHS tapes, which look spectacular.
Blank D-VHS tapes can store 21/2 hours of high-def video and 15 at a lowest-quality mode that still looks better than VHS; they cost about $15 each. Tapes that store 31/2 hours in HD and 21 hours in lowest-quality mode cost $25.
Unfortunately, it is still VHS at heart, which means that finding an old recording is a matter of fast-forwarding until you see its start whiz past, then rewinding briefly. And its tapes take up much more room on a shelf than DVDs.
The D-VHS's biggest failing, though, was that it couldn't record in HD from most digital video recorders, thanks to JVC's spectacularly stupid decision to leave out the three most common high-def video inputs in favor of a digital FireWire connector with built-in copy-control circuitry; only a handful of other devices support this. (Comcast's recorder is one; see Jim Hawk's article on Page F1 for details.)
The electronics industry is busy developing high-definition recordable DVDs that should solve this recording conundrum once and for all -- except that the industry, ignoring every lesson from the past 30 years, has developed two incompatible standards.
If this feud isn't settled before these "HD-DVD" and "Blu-Ray" formats arrive in stores, consumers who remember the days of VHS vs. Beta can't be blamed for thinking that this business still hasn't advanced too many years past 1980.