Dish Network PVR
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Feature Article
Dish Network PVR

April 1, 2003
By Scott Lewis

I have been playing around with a Dish Network PVR. It is pretty good, however there are some things I find lacking before I make a permanent change.

The Setup

For the moment I am using the Dish PVR in the master bedroom. I generally leave the TV on its own with a standard analog cable connection. (I use cable because I have TVs all over, and don't want them all on boxes just to get local programming. I find it far too convenient to have analog cable that I can split and send to any room in a moments notice.) I am using the Dish PVR for "upper" channels. I have my cable TV signal go through the Dish PVR, through the VCR, and finally to the TV. This is all with basic RG-6 cable. My DVD uses the red/white/yellow audio/video connectors to connect to the TV.

I use the TV's TV/Video button to make a quick switch for watching DVDs. I use the Dish Network PVR's TV/Video button to watch the Dish Channels with the TV set to channel 3. The beauty of this is that I can leave the Dish PVR on with its TV/Video set to TV. This way it does not interfere with the analog cable, even when the PVR is recording programs. Which is basically how I use it.

The Good

The best part about the PVR is the ease in which you can record a show. When you are looking through the guide you just highlight a show and hit record. Then just press the select button and the show will be recorded. No VCR to set to a special channel. No codes to enter. No "IR Blaster" to hook up. Just two "clicks" to recording nirvana.

Probably the best feature about the Dish PVR is that you can watch a show you recorded earlier while recording another show... at the same time. This is outstanding for NOT watching commercials. Theoretically you could just watch TV a day off the TV's schedule by watching yesterday's shows skipping though the commercials while recording today's shows.

The Dish PVR has a 30 second skip button for skipping commercial. It is very addictive, and a huge plus. I haven't decided how I feel about this morally. Right now I love it. In the long run if everything goes this way advertisers will NOT like it and that may have a deeper impact to the shows available on TV. But that is a moral dilemma that can be dealt with later. For now the 30 second skip button is a Godsend.

The remote for the PVR uses RF rather than IR. There is a small antenna on the back of the unit. This comes in very handy for me as I have put the PVR on the bottom shelf of my TV stand (just a couple of inches above the floor itself). The bed blocks any chance of an IR signal getting to the PVR without holding the remote far above my head.

Finally, the typical PVR features prevail. Pause live TV, resume, replays, etc. It is great. It is far smoother and better looking than any VCR I have owned. This is the good side of digital. I love that all the shows I have recorded are on a simple list. I just select the show I want to watch and start playing it. 

The Bad

Of course, life is not all roses. There are some pitfalls in the Dish Network PVR. The biggest problem with Dish's PVR is that it will not let you watch one "live" show while recording another. As stated above, you could watch a "previously recorded" show while recording a show, but not "live" TV. 

The fact that you can record one show while watching a previously recorded show means there is not a problem with "double" access to the hard drive inside the PVR. Actually, the way I understand it you are doing double access when watching live TV since you are watching it after it has been recorded to the hard drive. 

Regardless, I have to assume that this is a feature they have decided not to put into the unit. I know Microsoft's Ultimate TV offers this option, and I believe that TiVo was going to start it (maybe they already have).

The biggest problem I have with the Dish PVR is its lack of searching capabilities. Oh, it has a search function. But it doesn't work very well. Let me start by telling you the kind of shows I like, and want a PVR for. I love car shows. Horsepower TV, Car and Driver Television, Hot Rod TV, My Classic Car, Motor Week, Trucks!, Motor Trend TV, Autoweek, etc. I also am a huge fan of Superman, and like watching super hero cartoons and shows. 

The search feature of the Dish PVR will search the titles and/or description of the shows in the guide. You choose to search title, descriptions or both. Well, from the list of "car" shows above, only 2 of them have "car" in the title. When I did a search on the term "car" I received a list of shows so long I might as well do a Google search for "cars on TV." And the results of this search were very far from useful. I saw Seinfeld on the list. Changing the term to "auto" didn't help any. Searching for "automobile" returned a shorter list, but still not a practical list.

Another problem with the search is that you cannot restrict the search to channels in your favorites. In fact, I can't find a way to restrict the search to just the channels I get. I get a lot of results with channels in red... channels I am not paying for. I understand why they want to show me these. They hope I will see shows on channels I don't get and I will rush to the phone to order those channels. Not likely. I should be able to restrict searches to the channels I get, and even channels in my favorites. I really don't need to see Emeril Live! listed on a search for "auto," or any other Food Network show listed on a search for automotive content.

What about Superman? That is a name that should be easy to find. And it is. But a search for "Superman" does not return Justice League or Superfriends, unless Superman is specifically mentioned in the individual episode description. There seems to be no intelligence in the searches. Strict search for the characters you enter with the on-screen keyboard. I even have to search for "Batman" as a separate search. The system can't just look for super heroes and find Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, etc. These were all shows I manually had to type their titles in to get search results on. And I only knew to type them in when I accidentally came across them.

I have relegated Dish Network's Search feature to looking for the times when specific shows are available. I can search for "Horsepower TV" and get a list of when it is on. I must still figure out the names of the shows I want to watch.

The difficulty with the limited search feature leads to another problem. I can't reliably tell the PVR to record shows in the future when I do actually find them. Hear me out. If you see a show you can record it, and even select to record that show weekly, daily, etc. This is fine if the show is always on at the same time. However, all of my car shows (those listed above, and more) are rarely on at the same time every week. TNN and Speedvision re-arrange their schedules so much, especially on the weekends, that it is a nightmare trying to keep up with it. And the Dish PVR is no help. Its guide only holds programming for 7-9 days, making it problematic to even try to find a show on two weeks in a row at the same time.

I understand that TiVo has the ability to record every instance of a show, and it searches its guide to find the show. I believe this means it does not matter what time a show is on. If it's listed in the guide somewhere TiVo will record it, even if the show makes a temporary or permanent time change. That's what I need.

Next is another TiVo feature I have heard about. Recording shows I MIGHT like. I know this opens a huge debate on whether you want your PVR to "monitor" your viewing habits and find things "it" thinks you want to watch. I am on the side of this debate that you should be able to "ask" the PVR to look for shows for you. Maybe this can be on a case by case basis. My Dish Network PVR is not attached to the phone, so I don't mind if the PVR has the intelligence to look for shows that are similar to the shows I already watch. For example, I should be able to tell the PVR that I want it to go out and find every car show it can and record it (assuming it could really tell a car show from an episode of Seinfeld that has George driving a car). It should then be able to learn my habits by tracking the shows I delete without watching, and it should get smarter picking shows.

My car shows are a good example. I love the shows mentioned above, and some others. But there are probably more shows in the genre I would watch if I knew about them. I would also prefer to test new shows at a latter time, which is the best thing about a PVR and storing many, many hours of programming. BTW, my PVR holds 60 hours of programming. Having these "might like" shows pre-recorded for me would be a huge time saver. Next, I actually like very little racing. I love street cars, so I would rather watch Horsepower TV than NHRA Drag Racing. It would be great if I could teach a PVR to record car shows, but not car racing shows. That's a big difference for me, but maybe not for some automated machine.

My final grip about the PVR is how it lists shows. It lists all the shows you have records in a list that has the most recent show at the top. That's fine by itself. The problem comes when "catching up" on old shows. Let's say I want to watch all the car shows I recorded two weekends ago. I scroll to the bottom of the list and watch a show. After watching the show I delete it. At this point I am sent back to the PVR list at the top of the list. I have to scroll back down to the bottom again, and again, and again to clear out the old shows. I would prefer it remembered where I was in the list and put me on the show before or after the one I just deleted. Also, it would be nice if I could sort the list by title so I could get all my cars shows listed together.

Undecided

The Dish PVR has a couple of features that are neat, and some that take some getting used to. I haven't decided yet if they should count for or against it, but here they are.

The fast forward button goes to 4X on the first push then 15X, 60X and finally 300X. It does not "wrap around" back to 4X if you hit it a 5th time. At 15X it is pretty fast, and is hard not to over shoot when using it to fast forward through commercials. So it's a good thing they have the commercial skip button. I still find these speeds take a lot of getting used to. I find the 4X too slow for anything but rewinding to catch something I missed. At 300X you will blast through a program so fast it throws you into the menu screen to ask if you want to delete the program. I guess it is nice to have, but I haven't had the need to go 300X speed for any practical purpose.

Conclusion

Overall I am getting addicted to the Dish PVR. I now record so many more car shows than I ever did before, because it is very easy and convenient to do so. Having a search feature with some king of intelligence would make it much better in my opinion.

When HD content is more prevalent I will be making a more determined decision. Right now the Dish PVR is more than good enough in my bedroom, while leaving the analog to the rest of the TVs in the house.
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