This article is a collective effort of Doug Brott and Stuart Sweet.
After a jam packed year, the DIRECTV Plus High Definition DVR has become the flagship receiver for a company that can now be described as the leader in high-definition television. The enthusiast community is stronger than ever, fusing innovation and collaboration in ways that have never been done before. Sit back while we reflect on the things that have made this trip something to remember.
Joining the HR20-700 and the HR20-100 this year are the HR21-100, HR21-200, and HR21-700 The new HR21 models sport a sleek black exterior and function in much the same way as the HR20 models. While the HR21 series lacks the HR20's built-in ATSC tuner, DIRECTV moved aggressively to cover the nation with local HD channels, and provided the AM21 antenna module for those still awaiting satellite coverage. Professional users also welcomed the HR21-Pro.
The DIRECTV Plus HD DVR also added another member of the family in its second year: the R22 Standard Defintion DVR, designed for markets where standard-definition local channels were encoded in the superior MPEG-4 format. The R22 DVR has all the features of its HD brethren, except of course true HD. However, it can output EDTV (480p) through component or HDMI, and can use all the other advanced functions of the Plus HD DVR, including media sharing and On Demand. By using the more mature software and hardware of the HR21 series, the R22 was able to hit the streets quickly in response to DIRECTV's expansion into new markets.
Consumer Electronics Show
The 2008 Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas brought more news of the DIRECTV Plus HD DVR product line. DIRECTV hosted its own enclosed "experience" room, along with silver-coated satellite dishes, nearly 100 large flat screen TVs, and a simulated "install experience" covered through a window crafted to look like a TV screen. Of course, this was all icing on the cake for the news of DIRECTV's changes to the Plus HD DVR series.
The AM21 off-air tuner was revealed, and with the AM21 there was truly no difference in capabilities between any member of the Plus HD DVR line. A short few months later, the AM21 became available to the public.
DIRECTV also showed the Samsung-built HR21Pro. Designed for rack mounting with a larger hard drive and more ventilation, the HR21Pro was designed with installers in mind and allowed for Optical HDMI (OWLink was on site with a solution) and serial IR control. The HR21Pro became available to the public shortly after the close of the Consumer Electronics Show.
Also, DIRECTV showed a beta of software to playback DIRECTV Plus HD DVR content on your PC, which is in limited testing at DBStalk.com.
The Beat Goes On
There were 10 national software releases for the DIRECTV Plus HD DVR in its second year, all delivered via satellite, and included everything from new features to bug fixes. This number was fewer than half of the 23 updates required in the HR20's first year.
DIRECTV also began utilizing the enthusiast community at a much more frequent rate - the Cutting Edge (CE) program (at DBSTalk.com
) became the go-to place each week for enthusiasts to contribute to DIRECTV's success. Never before had real DIRECTV customers become so visible. The collaboration between DIRECTV and its customers enabled average people to download pre-release firmware and kick the tires before the firmware reaches the general public. In this way, new features or changes can be eased into the software rather than making one big monster change that would otherwise be pushed to all DIRECTV Plus HD DVR customers at the same time. Cutting Edgers, or "CE'ers" as we call ourselves, test new features and check national release candidates helping DIRECTV to bring the best product to its millions of subscribers..
The CE program has grown up over that past year as well. The process has become a nearly weekly event involving the distribution of information, the collection of data and a visit to the Chat Room each time new software is available for the DIRECTV Plus HD DVR. Each week, there are Chat Room regulars that help point new folks in the right direction. While this process has more or less grown as a grass roots effort, it has proven to be an effective means of getting to the goal of a perfect receiver.
The CE collaboration made a quantum leap when DIRECTV gave testers the ability to send detailed logs and information over their network line. This gave DIRECTV engineers information to more quickly identify problems and, as a result, more quickly provide a solution. The network issue reporting system is completely "opt-in" and does not interfere with the regular user's experience. No other system like this has ever been implemented on a set-top box, and is clear evidence of DIRECTV's commitment to the Cutting Edge.
Some of the notable features added to the DIRECTV Plus HD DVR this year are (with the software version in which they appeared):
Simply the Best
- Added Resume/Start Over options for playback of recordings
- Added Delete button to My Playlist and To Do List
- DIRECTV on Demand
- Hide SD channels if duplicate HD channel exists
- Triple Tap Lookup for DIRECTV on Demand
- 30 Second Skip
- Boolean Search
- Shortcut for Closed Caption On/Off
- Pass-through (Original Format) Option
- Triple Tap for Search
- Network Issue Reporting
One of the most exciting features to come to the DIRECTV Plus HD DVR in the second year isn't even built into the box. The addition of new high-definition channels has brought a new meaning to having high-definition television. In September, 2007, DIRECTV moved its new satellite (DIRECTV10) into position and lit up 30 new HD channels overnight including SciFi, CNN, and The History Channel. With that one change, the DIRECTV Plus HD DVR all of a sudden became the receiver of choice. In addition, DIRECTV now has HD local channels in over 77 different market areas. This encompasses nearly 80% of all US households. With another satellite (DIRECTV11) coming online and yet another satellite (DIRECTV12) going up next year, DIRECTV is positioned to provide 200 national HD channels when it's all said and done. The DIRECTV Plus HD DVR will provide access to the current and future high-definition content.
Another highly anticipated feature added in the past year is DIRECTV on Demand
. By simply connecting the DIRECTV Plus HD DVR to a high-speed home network connection, users can download movies from DIRECTV with the push of a button. The programs available include television shows, documentaries, music videos among others. Recently, DIRECTV began charging for some of the content, but much of it is free and all of it is available to 24 hours a day.
Catering to the Enthusiast
In a nod to power users, DIRECTV implemented three incredibly powerful search improvments in its second year.
- For sports fans, GameSearch will automatically seek out rebroadcasts of games that are blacked out on a particular channel. This feature is automatic and is proving to be a real crowd pleaser.
- Triple Tap, a suggestion from the HR20/HR21 Wish List, allows users to bypass the "grid" system for choosing letters and numbers, and lets them instead use their remote controls as they would use cell phone keypads. Pushing "2" once for "A" and twice for "B" has been a major improvement to the search experience for advanced users.
- The most powerful search option available, Boolean Search, lets users create complex search using Boolean operators (AALL, NNOT, AANY) and limitations on content (TTITLE, NNAME, CCHAN) for the ultimate in flexibility. For example, it's now possible to pick only "Law and Order" episodes on USA that feature Chris Noth with a single query.
The original format
option was added, allowing the purest possible viewing experience for the user by sending picture and sound directly to the television and AV receiver with no postprocessing. DIRECTV's HD DVR is unique in the Satellite industry as the only receiver to offer this option.
User Experience Improvements: DIRECTV reaches out
This past year also saw sweeping improvements to the DIRECTV user interface. DBSTalk users had debated since the introduction of the first non-TiVo DVR as to which user interface was better. Through a series of guided discussions, DIRECTV engineers embarked on a complete revamp of the user interface. The Menu button now brought up the same options regardless of where it was used, and the Yellow button, formerly used in an inconsistent way, now brought up context-sensitive options for every screen. Among these was a welcome improvement: a way to turn closed captioning on or off in three pushes instead of nineteen. While access to the to do list now took 5 pushes instead of two, the improvements to other options eclipsed this for many users.
Updated splash screens gave users a better experience during reboots with fully-rendered logos. This minor change, aimed at pleasing CE'ers, sometimes preceded messages telling regular users what had changed.
Throughout the second year of the DIRECTV Plus HD DVR, DBSTalk members tested new technologies and new software. One of the most interesting was the Media Share PC software which allowed PCs to stream programs from HD DVRs, with all the same controls as the user would have at the television. Unlike other products that simply capture the output from the TV and re-encode it, Media Share PC is DIRECTV's first step toward true multi-room viewing. The programming on the PC can be completely different from what the user on the TV sees, and is transferred to the PC at full resolution, making this the first HD multi-room viewing solution from a major provider.
While the requirements for the client PC are steep by 2008 standards, advances in technology will bring this solution closer to mass availability quickly. For now, most PCs capable of playing Blu-Ray discs should be able to share media. Using industry-standard security measures, users cannot save streamed content or move it out of the local network, ensuring that DIRECTV can honor its agreements with content providers.
Until Next Time
The enthusiast community at DBSTalk.com has become an everyday part of the improvents to the DIRECTV Plus HD DVR. The CE program, started by Earl Bonovich, has proven that customers and corporations can work together to make a product even better. A number of exciting features have been added in the past year and DIRECTV has even more exciting features in the works for the next year. The addition of significant HD content in the past year will be followed by the addition of even more HD content in the coming year, and the DIRECTV Plus HD DVR series will be the receiver that will make it all available.
It has been our pleasure to be part of the enthusiast community and part of the improvement process. Year three promises to be the best yet!
Doug Brott, Super Moderator, DBSTalk.com
Stuart Sweet, Super Moderator, DBSTalk.com