By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
DirecTV’s latest whole-home DVR system called the Genie has been available and widely advertised for a few months now, but in light of the extensive publicity that rival Dish Network has received for its controversial ad-skipping Hopper system, it seemed a good time to see exactly how the 800-pound satellite gorilla was handling the hardware challenge.
I can report that after several months of use, the Genie has proven to be a compelling whole-home contender if you don’t mind skipping over commercials the old-fashioned way.
The most immediate difference between the two satellite providers’ approaches is that DirecTV’s Genie device doesn’t automatically skip ads. That’s good news to broadcasters (and DirecTV’s legal department), but not as good news to the advertising and marketing team. Ad skipping has been a long-sought-after capability in DVRs by designers and users alike, but the legalities of that convenience have always been a stumbling block. Dish’s ongoing legal battle over its AutoHop feature will be important to watch.
In the meantime, DirecTV partially addresses the Hopper’s connected PrimeTime AnyTime feature that auto-records Primetime network TV programs from the local affiliate of each major network each night.
DirecTV’s approach instead recommends programs available across both cable and broadcast networks and even auto-records sample episodes of shows it feels the household might enjoy for playback at the subscriber’s convenience.
Viewers can then decide if they would like to have the Genie auto-record the entire series with a prompt that appears at the conclusion of the playback.
Also, from a hardware standpoint, the basic configuration is similar to the Hopper in that both employ a central DVR hub unit tethered to mini thin-client boxes that can be placed in different rooms of the house to share the centrally located tuners and hard drive.
This gets around the more antiquated (and power draining) use of multiple individual integrated receiver descramblers (IRDs) with internal hard disk drives to serve each TV.
The Genie’s central hub unit (called the HR34) houses a 1TB hard disk and tuners (up to five of them), and then feeds content out to up to seven additional rooms through coaxial cable connections to tiny thin-client boxes.
The process saves space, power and money over the previous individual DVR approach while improving the visual appeal of the A/V component stack by reducing the size of the box (at least in remote rooms).
At the same time, the central HR34 DVR now supports tuning for up to five different programs at once, which matches Dish and adds significant convenience on those nights when more than two compelling programs appear in the same time slot.
The user interface remains similar to the one that was previous available on DirecTV’s traditional HD DVR units, but the Genie goes a step further in the recommendations section of the guide, by automatically recording sample episodes and asking the viewer if they would like to schedule the entire series to be recorded at the conclusion of the clip.
Those sample “auto” recordings are partitioned off on a separate part of the hard drive and do not take away from the space available to record programs selected by the viewer.
The Genie system also extends to a variety of setups, including some Samsung TVs that build the thin-client capability right into the set.
New customers can get the Genie system — which includes the Genie (HR34) and three clients — plus installation at no cost, but the customer is charged an Advanced Receiver Fee, which covers HD, whole-home and DVR services, for $20 per month. As for equipment leasing fees, the subscribers are charged for two clients at $7 per client, as there is no charge for the HR34 and first client.
DirecTV will also make addition thin-client boxes available for $99 per client.
For existing DirecTV subscribers looking to upgrade, the full price is $299, but many existing customers may be eligible for discounted or, in some cases, a free, Genie upgrade, DirecTV said.
Each additional client is $99 and the Advanced Receiver Fee, which covers HD, whole-home and DVR, is applied for $20 per month. Equipment lease fees are $7 per client or receiver after the first receiver.
Connecting the HR34 to the TV set is pretty much as before, with HDMI connections providing the easiest path. But for owners of legacy devices, the box does omit the SPDIF digital audio optical output port that was present on earlier DirecTV DVRs, which could be a problem with some legacy A/V receivers.
Alternatively, a coaxial digital audio output is supplied and can be used for such situations.
Other included jacks are component video, composite and S-Video. An eSATA port is also added for additional external storage, as is a USB jack for IR input and a phone jack.
Also omitted is an ATSC over-the-air tuner, although DirecTV does make a $50 add-on tuner option for those who don’t want to pay extra for local channels or don’t have such service in their market.
The HR34 has a plastic cabinet and is lighter than previous metal DVR boxes.
The thin-client boxes for remote rooms include a coax input, HDMI, USB, coaxial digital output, power connector and a multi-A/V output that can be used with the optional component and composite dongle.
The Genie uses the same familiar remote that has been used for years, although it may present a learning period to newcomers. DirecTV makes RF versions available to those who need them for $20.
DirecTV also provides mobile apps that enable users to control the Genie via their smart devices and home-automation systems.
Bottom line, it seems apparent that the Genie will soon be sought after by most existing subscribers for the efficiency, convenience and cost savings it offers. The ability to record five channels at a time and cache them to a 1TB hard drive is a very convenient feature for old and new subscribers trying to decide whether to make the hop to the Hopper, but the bottom line continues to boil down to programming, where DirecTV has long held a decided advantage. With murmurings that the NFL Sunday Ticket exclusive could be dropped at the end of 2014, DirecTV may need some magic from the Genie to maintain its luster. Then again, Dish will need some magic of its own in the courts and in its retransmission agreement negotiations with broadcasters to keep its AutoHop hopping.
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