Product Review (January 2009)
Dish Network - DTVPal DVR (TR-50)
High Definition Converter Box

By Kevin Nakano


As we approach the cutoff date (February 17, 2009) for our dated analog broadcast standard called NTSC, several new digital set-top boxes have become available for consumers to watch the new digital broadcasts on their older TVs. Dish Network already offers the DTVPal which we reviewed several months ago. Since then, Dish Network has released their much anticipated DTVPal DVR capable of receiving and recording both high definition (HD) as well as standard definition (SD) digital content using the built-in 250GB hard drive. The DTVPal DVR can record up to 30 hours of high-definition (HD) programming, 150 hours of standard-definition (SD) content, or a combination of the two. The best part about this DVR is the ability to time shift HD and SD programs with ease with no subscription fees. The user interface is built largely around Dish Network's already popular line of DVRs (Vip622 and Vip722). Dish Network has become a favorite among consumers with features such as controls for pausing a live or recorded program for up to 60 minutes, 30-second skip forward, 10-second skip back, four speeds of fast forward and fast reverse, slow motion and frame-by-frame forward and reverse.

The DTVPal DVR displays up to seven days of TV Guide (depending on your area) and broadcaster-provided PSIP (Program and System Information Protocol) program listings and information for free. This allows the user to see what’s showing on every channel. Selecting the program to be recorded at a future time is as simple as clicking the DVR button on the remote. The user can then choose to make a one-time recording or record every time the show appears on the selected channel. Users can also search by title, keyword or theme to find programs to watch. It is a wonderful and friendly user interface.

The DTVPal DVR measures 14.6" wide, 8.8" deep, and 3.1" high and weighes a modest 5 pounds. There is currently no support for attaching an external hard drive for additional storage, but it may be possible in future firmware upgrades similar to what Dish has done in the satellite-based DVRs. However, no announcements have been made by Dish regarding this. A smart-card comes installed in the front of the unit for future VOD (Video On Demand) through the ethernet connection. Obviously, the company is thinking ahead of how to futher improve the capabilities of this set-top box and generate additional revenue.

The DTVPal DVR package includes the DVR box, a full featured IR remote with batteries, an RF patch cable, an set of A/V cables, a Quick Start Guide, and the User Manual. The 52-page manual covers all the operating aspects of the DVR along with special TV Guide zip codes and a table for remote control device codes. There is no HDMI cable included with the package, yet one will be needed for those looking to take full advantage of the high definition content. The documentation is thorough and should be sufficient for the do-it-yourselfer to get up and running in little time. There is nothing special about connecting this unit to an existing home theater system. The connectivity is similar to any higher-end DVR currently on the market.

Interfaces
The DTVPal DVR box is designed to accept an RF antenna signal for decoding ATSC compliant digital signals. We used the HDMI output to connect to our Denon AVR-5308CI receiver, which eventually sends digital video to our Mitsubishi HC-5500 1080p projector. The video output was set to 1080i (selectable from 480p, 720p and 1080i) and the picture was excellent with HD content. Standard definition material was significantly softer as one might expect. The DTVPal DVR is designed to please a wide spectrum of users ranging from the high-end home theater enthusiast down to the average user with a very limited television. Users are always advised to use the best form of video interfaces starting with HDMI and working down to the RF output. There is no s-video output on this box, so there is a considerably big jump in picture quality going from the composite to the component outputs.

The modulated RF output can be set for channel 3 or 4 for sets lacking non-modulated input connectors (component or composite video). The unit also has an analog pass-through mode when using the RF connection that allows the user to switch between digital and analog channels with the push of a button. This allows the TV to decode the analog broadcasts (soon to be discontinued) while the DVR decodes the digital channels. Composite video and a pair of analog audio outputs are provided. There is also a set of component video outputs for older televisions lacking an HDMI interface. Whenever possible the HDMI interface should be used to obtain the best picture quality. There is an optical (toslink) output jack for streaming digital audio (PCM or Dolby Digital) to a receiver or processor. Dish also included a USB 2.0 and ethernet interface on the back of this unit. Both interfaces offer future capabilities to the box and currently allow for software updates directly to the DVR.

Remote
The remote included with the DTVPal DVR is a full size design that looks virtually identical to the ones that come with the satellite-based DVRs (Vip722, Vip622, and Vip222). Four "AAA" batteries (included) are needed to power the remote. For those who have used the Dish Network remotes in the past know that this is a great design. Dish did their homework on this and made the remote simple and easy to use. Large navigation buttons occupy the upper center of the unit with surrounding buttons for MUTE, GUIDE, RECALL, INFO, VIEW TV and CANCEL. The remote can control the audio output level from the converter box using the Volume + and - buttons. The SYS INFO button displays channel information on the DTVPal unit. The ANALOG PASS-THROUGH button bypasses the DVR which toggles between digital and analog channels.

The Picture Format control selects between Normal, Full, and Zoom picture modes. The Normal mode essentially displays 16:9 content in the letterbox format to fit the 4:3 display by adding black bars on the top and bottom of the display. The Full mode fills the entire screen which makes people look thin and tall on 4:3 displays, but correct on 16:9 displays. The Zoom mode maintains the correct aspect ratio on 4:3 displays when viewing widescreen content. However, the sides of the original picture are cropped off to fit the display. Pressing the Info button displays channel information. The MENU button is used to configure the converter box. Several layers of controls are available for the user to set up the box.

Main Menu
Pressing the Menu button on the remote displays the Main Menu screen. The user can select Program Guide, Event Search, Setup, DVR, Preferences, Timers, or Cancel. The EPG (Electronic Programming Guide) is one of the best we have seen and greatly resembles the interface on the Dish Network satellite receivers. Those who have used the Dish Network DVRs will immediately recognize the interface. Selecting the Event Search menu allows the user to search for programs in the EPG. There are so many options in this one little box that it seems more like a full blown DVR. The flexibility is great for such an inexpensive unit.

Setup
The DTVPal DVR looks much the same as the earlier DTVPal we reviewed a while back. The Setup menu configures several functions of the converter box including Locks, System Setup, Audio Setup, Dolby Digital, DVR Default Options, Broadband, Updates, and Cancel. The Locks settings allows the user to block certain channels or programs by requiring a password for access. The locks can be based on the ratings preventing children from viewing inappropriate content. The Dolby Digital menu sets the bitstream output for Dolby Digital or PCM depending on the associated hardware connected to the DVR. The Standard/Night setting is used to control the dynamic range of the audio. The Night setting compresses the audio to reduce overall volume levels when others are sleeping. The Broadband menu is used to set up broadband access. The Updates screen uses the broadband connection to check for firmware updates.

System Setup
The System Setup menu is activated when the Menu button is pressed on the remote. The Installation menu is used to configure the DVR right out of the box. Channel Setup scans for active channels. Scanning for channels is a simple process and only takes a few minutes to run. The progress bar on the screen gives the user realtime status. Our scan yielded 66 digital channels here in the Los Angeles area. This is significantly more channels than we have had in the past and is a clear indication that more channels are going digital in this area. The System Information screen displays information about the unit. Users can restore the factory defaults by selecting the Factory Defaults menu. The TV Guide & Guide+ is designed to work with components that include TV Guide On Screen or Guide Plus. We didn't have any on hand to test this feature. The Diagnostics screen is used to run tests on Video Memory, HDMI, HDD, USB Test, Ethernet, and display the Counters. This can be helpful should a problem be encountered with the unit.

Installation
The Installation menu is used to configure the DVR right out of the box. The Setup Wizard is designed to walk the user through the basic setup features that includes scanning for available channels, setting the zip code, time zone, modulated channel 3 or 4, HDTV setup, SDTV setup, and setting the time. The Point Antenna option shows the user the signal level and frequency for a given channel. This can come in handy when pointing the terrestrial antenna. Once a good signal is verified, it is time to find all the local channels.

My Recordings
Programs that are recorded on the DVR will be shown on the My Recordings screen. Users can select any one of the recordings for instant playback and even edit the name if desired. Programs can also be protected from being accidentally erased. Programs can be sorted by Date, Duration, Protected, Title, or Title Group. The total remaining time for HD (High Definition) or SD (Standard Definition) video is displayed on the top of the banner. The current channel is displayed in the upper corner of the screen while searching through the content stored on the DVR.

Performance
We connected a new Winegard HD7694P HDTV terrestrial antenna that pulled in a great signal. The DTVPal DVR was able to provide a good signal from Mt. Wilson where the local transmitters are located. During the setup of the converter box we were able to pull in a total of 66 digital channels. Picture quality was excellent and as good as the best ATSC tuners we have seen.

While the DTVPal DVR can be used for standard definition displays, the design unleashes an amazing picture when used with a high definition panel. The good news is consumers can benefit from the DVR functions while they upgrade their display in time. Other benefits of this DVR is the ability to pause on live TV as the hard drive queues the content. This allows viewers to take a quick break without missing anything. The viewer can then skip over commercials and eventually catch up to the live broadcast again. This is nothing new to experienced DVR users, but is one of the amazing features of this technology. The full-size IR remote is just as much responsible for the great performance of the DTVPal DVR with the ergonomically placed buttons.

Conclusion
The DTVPal DVR is the answer many have been looking for in an over-the-air DVR with a great user interface and lots of storage space. We think this unit will make a lot of people happy allowing them to finally get HDTV on a DVR without paying monthly fees. Clearly this is what many consumers have been waiting for and Dish Network has answered the mail with this design. For those consumers already familiar with the Dish's DVR interface, this new product will be basically seamless in functionality to their existing DVR satellite box. Newcomers will find the GUI intuitive and easy to use.

Digital broadcasts have already taken much of the UHF spectrum with the major networks carrying both analog and digital versions of the same content. In just a few weeks of this writing the FCC will terminate analog broadcast in all the major areas and unless you have a digital ATSC tuner you will miss out on the new technology. Compared to their analog sister channels, digital broadcasts look clearer and have lower noise levels.

The DTVPal DVR can be ordered directly from the Dish Network DTVPal website where the government coupon code can be entered and credited towards the purchase. In addition, Dish is offering a special on the DTVPal DVR with an instant rebate of $50, bringing the price of the unit to $249.99. Unfortunately, the government coupon cannot be applied to the DTVPal DVR. For just over $250 you can have a killer DVR with free over-the-air content for your viewing pleasure with a picture that will blow you away.

- Kevin Nakano






OPPO BDP-103 Blu-ray Player




Review System

Projector: Mitsubishi HC5500 1080p LCD Projector
Screen: Stewart Filmscreen 100" FireHawk Screen on a Luxus Deluxe ScreenWall
A/V Receiver: Denon AVR-5308CI THX-Ultra 7.1 Channel Receiver
Amplification: Parasound HCA-2205AT THX-Ultra Five Channel Amplifier

Video Processor/Scaler: Anchor Bay Technologies DVDO iScan HD+ A/V Processor
Bass Management: Miller & Kreisel BMC Mini 5.1 Bass Management Controller
Front Speakers: Miller & Kreisel S-150THX (L+R) and S-150AC (Center) Speakers
Rear Speakers: Miller & Kreisel SS-250 Tripole® Surround Speakers
Subwoofer: Two Miller & Kreisel MX-350THX MkII THX-Ultra Push-pull Subwoofers
Room Treatments: Echo Buster panels and Bass Buster towers
Set-top Box: Dish Network ViP622 HDTV Satellite and Terrestrial Receiver with HDMI
Blu-ray DVD Player: Sony PlayStation3 with HDMI 1.3
HD-DVD Player: Toshiba HD-A1 HD-DVD Player with HDMI
DVD/CD/SACD Player: Sony DVP-NS900V DVD/CD/SACD Player
DVD Audio/Video Player: Kenwood Sovereign DV-5900M 400-Disc DVD Changer
DVD Player: OPPO Digital OPDV971H DVD Player with DVI Output
D-VHS VCR: JVC HM-DH30000U D-VHS High-Definition D-Theater VCR
Media Server: Kenwood Sovereign MRH1 Entre
Remote Control: Remote Technologies Inc. T4 Controller
HDMI Video Switcher: Octava 4 Port HDMI/Toslink Audio Switcher
DVI Cable: AudioQuest DV-1 20m DVI-D Cable
HDMI Cables: Accell 45-meter UltraRun HDMI Cable
A/V Cables: Ultralink Platinum and Advanced Performance Series Cables


Review - At a Glance


Dish Network - DTVPal DVR Digital Converter Box

Features

DVR Capabilities
View and record your favorite programs so you can watch them on your own time. Record up to 150 hours of standard definition (SD) programs, up to 30 hours of high definition (HD) programs, or a combination of the two.

Record, Pause, Skip and Replay
DVR “trick modes” include pausing a live or recorded program for up to 60 minutes, 30-second skip forward, 10-second skip back, four speeds of fast forward and fast reverse, slow motion and frame-by-frame forward and reverse.

HD display
View over-the-air high-definition programming on your HDTV or HD-ready TV. HD display resolutions: 480p, 720p and 1080i (Standard display resolution: 480i)

On-screen program guide
See what’s showing on every channel with the FREE on-screen program guide. Displays up to seven days of TV Guide and PSIP (broadcaster-provided) program listings and information.

Software downloads
Keep your software up-to-date with available downloads

Programming search
Search by title, keyword or theme to find programs to watch

Event timer
Set a timer to turn your DTVPal DVR on and tuned to the desired channel before your favorite show starts playing

Parental controls
Block programs you deem inappropriate based on rating or channel

Analog pass-through
Switch between digital and analog channels with the push of a button

Alternative audio
Receive second audio feed in alternate language (broadcaster dependent)

Closed-captioning
Easily turn on closed captions using your DTVPal DVR remote control

Stereo audio output
Enjoy enhanced sound when connected to your stereo TV

Setup Wizard
Automatic channel selection and easy setup

 

Specifications

  • One ATSC antenna input for two over-the-air digital broadcasts
  • A/V connections:
    • 1 HDMI output
    • 1 set of Component (YPbPr)HD analog video outputs
    • 1 optical digital output for Dolby Digital and
      PCM Digital audio
    • 1 set RCA-type audio/video outputs
    • 1 Channel 3-4 modulated output
  • 1 Ethernet port (for future use)
  • 3-prong power cord
  • Dimensions (approx.): H: 3.1" x W: 14.6" x D: 8.8"
  • Weight (approx.): 5.0 lbs.
  • Color: black
DTVPal DVR User Guide and Manual
DTVPal DVR Software Update Instructions


Company Information
Echostar Satellite L.L.C.
DISH Network
9601 S. Meridian Blvd.
Englewood, CO 80112

URL: DTVPal DVR Website

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