DirecTV's answer to the HD TiVo, the Plus DVR HR20-700 , may be buggy, frustrating, and sometimes just plain unresponsive — but the company's customers seem to love it anyway.
Ever since the cable giant launched the HD DVR last August, the company's support forums, as well as dedicated threads at a DVR enthusiast site, DBStalk.com, have swamped with a dedicated userbase reporting bugs and workarounds.
Users even developed their own trouble-shooting survey, with 777 current responses, to determine the source of the problems.
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DirecTV, meanwhile, has allowed certain customers to beta-test new software releases, pushing experimental fixes to the customers for testing before rolling them out on a national scale.
The DBSTalk forums, rather than the company's own site, have been used as a dedicated support forum.
DirecTV declined to answer questions submitted to the company by PC Magazine. Instead, the company said the issues were being experienced by a "vocal minority."
"To answer your questions about the HR20, there have been some issues but they have indeed come from a vocal minority," said Jade Ekstedt, a DirecTV spokeswoman, via an email.
"As with the launch of any new, sophisticated consumer electronics product (particularly software-related products like the HR20) there have been some software issues to deal with," Ekstedt added. "It is not unusual to make software adjustments and updates once a complex technical product like this is in the field. But, we believe the issues have been largely addressed at this point and as people become more familiar with the user interface of the HR20, their satisfaction with the box increases."
The HR20 contains a 300-gigabyte Seagate hard drive, enough for up to 30 hours of storage for high-definition recordings and around 200 hours of standard-definition recordings.
Although cables — including HDMI, which can cost up to $100 from manufacturers such as Monster Cable — are not included, the box includes a USB connection and a flash card reader.
The box also includes a single set of component-video ports, an S-Video jack, two separate composite-video ports, and the HDMI connection. Audio connections include left and right stereo jacks and an optical digital audio-out port.
The unit is Viiv-compatible, the name that Intel has given to its consumer-electronics initiative.
Although the HR20's model name is of the same family as previous H-class boxes manufactured by Hughes, that portion of the company now works for a Philips subsidiary, a Hughes Network Systems spokeswoman said.
The issues experienced by the HR20 customers also speak to a larger issue: should consumer electronics — including such disparate products as the Apple iPod, Sony PlayStation, Alpine car radios, and Toshiba DVD players — simply work?
To some DirecTV users, the HR20 is a pale shadow of the "DirecTiVo" the company replaced.
In April 2006, however, both DirecTV and TiVo agreed to support existing TiVo-branded DirecTV DVRs until 2009.
In December, Liberty Media agreed to swap an $11 billion stake in News Corp. for control of satellite TV provider DirecTV and other assets.
Bugs, bugs, bugs
"I'll give you my impressions — the thing absolutely blows chunks," said Nick Kalister, an HR20 owner. "I came to it after a long, long time using a DirecTiVo. Never once had a single missed recording or corrupted recording on the TiVo. I can't even tell you how many times the HR20 has either simply failed to record a scheduled show, with no explanation as to why in the history, or recorded a show corrupted."
Other issues include the so-called "Black Screen of Death," where the unit simply locks up; delays in recording; issues with HDMI cables; or other audio and video artifacts.
To solve the problem, many users have simply gotten to the point where one acronym is used to solve many problems: "RBR," or "Red Button Reboot."
Kalister said that one bug he experienced, now fixed, caused the unit to shut off access to his Sunday Night Ticket NFL channel after the games were completed, convincing the HR20 that he didn't have legitimate access to the content and deleting the recordings.
According to an unofficial survey conducted by a DBStalk member, of the 777 responses, 18.7 percent of respondents asked for and received a new HR20 box because of problems, while just under 40 percent reformatted the HR20's hard drive.
The problem, owners say, is that the vast variety of bugs mean certain ones are experienced by users, and others aren't — leading to angst and accusations that some users might be blaming the HR20 for other,user-generated errors.
"Problem-free people tend to blame the users who are having problems, and the flamewars erupt," Kalister said. "So, just be aware that even though the problems are extremely widespread, they are not affecting every single HR20 in the wild."
About September 2006, DirecTV began issuing software updates to fix various problems and turn on features, including enabling the over-the-air tuner.
While it's unclear how many users were affected by deficient HR20s, several users contacted by PC Magazine reported that the updates solved many issues.
In addition, updates have turned on other features, such as eSATA, that were either not featured or not present in the original release.
"I should say up front that I've had only a few problems with my HR20," said Rich Beauhaven, retired telecommunications software development professional. "My own number-one issue is the BSB (Black Screen Bug) which I've gotten about once a week for the past couple months — partly because I constantly test the key situation known to cause this problem. The BSB has a simple fix by resetting the machine, but unfortunately that has a major associated annoyance because the two weeks of guide data is lost requiring 1-2 days to restore. I've provided a lot of feedback through the DBSTalk forums on this problem."
Are customers being asked to beta test?
The company also began offering a select group of users access to software updates, which have been rolled out every two weeks or so.
Users who key in a special key code on their HR20 remote during a certain time window force the HR20 into a reboot-and-update mode, where updates to fix certain issues are then downloaded.
Users then can discuss the changes on the DBStalk forums, which are supposedly monitored by DirecTV employees.
"Based on what I've observed and described above, I don't subscribe to the notion that DirecTV released the HR20 for consumer beta testing," Beauhaven added. "I don't see big issues; many people don't see big issues. Some people really like to complain. And there do seem to be some real problems as might be expected in any high tech equipment."
"The second beta testing item comes from the absolute fact that DirecTV has responded to a DBSTalk moderator to provide early release testing to those on DBSTalk who agree to abide by the conditions," Beauhaven added. "Unfortunately, many of those who 'agree' then turn around and complain because they do find problems or don't find fixes to their favorite problems and, in general, treat the program as if DirecTV was dumping releases on an unsuspecting public."
"The last update, 0x120 had solved most of the serious problems with my HR20," said Richard Shores, an HR20 user and DBStalk member since November. "The firmware updates have been beneficial to getting the kinks out of the HR20 and I am glad they are working with us geeks on DBSTalk to get the HR20 issues resolved."
Users say that the clear presence of DirecTV engineers, and the frequency of the updates, has convinced them that the company has their interests in mind.
"I became aware that our concerns were being listened to when the previously slow 30-second slip function became something usable. Unlike Tivo's 30-second skip, the slip shows you what is on screen, merely at a faster rate, instead of jumping instantly ahead 30 seconds," said Dave Galanter, an HR 20 customer.
"It seemed to take up to 10 or 15 seconds to move the 30 seconds at first. It was useless. Many of us complained in October and within a week or two the 30 second slip was then taking 2 seconds — fantastic speed that still allowed you to see what you were sliding over. That's when I got the notion that 'Okay, DirecTV is reading these forums and listening to us.'"
And that means that many of those customers are willing to stick by the company.
When asked whether he would recommend the HR20 to a novice user, such as a family member, Galanter said he wouldn't have been, but DirecTV's support had changed his mind.
"I'd feel comfortable enough with the HR20 to recommend it to an average user, at this point. I'm not sure I would have a month or two ago — especially for anyone who needed closed captioning," Galanter said. "Of course, my personal experience has been one of relatively minor glitches that could be solved with a reboot. My TiVo has needed the occasional reboot too — as does my PC, so I don't see those as major issues.
"The HR20 has turned into a smart buy for me, if only because I've gotten the chance to participate in making a good DVR better," Galanter added.
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