You didn't think leading satellite TV provider DirecTV was going to be left out in the cold in the whole-home DVR business, did you? Competitor Dish Network is jamming the airwaves with terribly clich�d New England accent-laden ads promoting the "Hoppah," which we recently reviewed. Now it's DirecTV's turn with the Genie DVR and Genie Mini client. The concept here is to use one main DVR to record up to five programs at a time onto a one-terabyte internal hard drive. With the advent of the Genie Mini, gone is the need to have DVRs in every room, as I had in my last house. The Mini client is a Roku-sized add-on that attaches easily to the back of your flat HDTV and gives you access to your complete DirecTV lineup, as well as all of the recorded content on the main DVR.
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The cost of the DirecTV Genie system is not exactly clear, in that you don't really own the unit; you lease it. Since I'm a long-term customer, DirecTV was quick to give me a deal to upgrade my hardware, which I had professionally installed by DirecTV in my new but temporary apartment. I paid a one-time fee of about $200, and I now pay a small monthly fee per Mini, which is actually less money than all the DVRs and TiVos at my former home. Much like a cellphone carrier, DirecTV required that I renew my contract for two years to get this deal, which was fine. You could buy the hardware at full retail price ($299 for the Genie, $99 per Mini) if you don't want a longer-term plan.
The Genie unit (HR34) is physically nondescript, but it's an upgrade over past DirecTV DVRs, with its blue lighting and softer touch buttons. There's a coax input from your dish (the Genie requires the newer SWM setup), as well as HDMI, component, S-video, composite, coaxial digital audio, and analog stereo audio outputs. There's also a phone jack, but that's pretty useless too - unless you don't connect the box to the Internet via the Ethernet port, which you should do. There is an eSATA port through which you can add extra hard drives; I've seen units being sold after-market on eBay for over $650 that offer 600-plus hours of recording power. I can't see recording that much TV in any situation; however, I would love to see if you could use the eSATA port to RAID your one-terabyte hard drive so that you wouldn't lose your recordings in the event that you lost the main drive. I can't see DirecTV supporting such a rig for over 30,000,000 users, but it would be pretty cool. The Mini (CR31) has HDMI, coaxial digital audio, and analog A/V outputs, plus a USB port and SWM coaxial input.
Recording a program is super-easy and improved from past units, even the more recent DirecTV TiVo I used. You can search by actor, team name, show name, anchor, etc. For example, I like to record the CNN Sunday morning show Fareed Zakaria GPS; all I had to do was start typing in "Farr ..." and boom - there it was. Recording the series gives some key options like starting early, adding time at the end, and more. Do you want to record only first-run episodes, repeats or both? How many shows would you like to keep? Five, ten, one? You pick. Once you have your settings in, you are golden in every room where you have a Genie or a Mini. It's that easy.
The Genie tries to be Pandora-like in its suggestion of shows and can be set up to automatically record suggestions for you to check out. I am always up for a good suggestion to discover new content, but so far, the recommendations haven't been anything that I've committed any hard drive space to at this point. Perhaps that will change in the future. DirecTV now offers improved access to pay-per-view and on-demand material, including from pay channels like HBO, Cinemax, and Starz. I like the interface for these, but I generally don't look to the VOD services or the DirecTV mobile app to watch TV. There are also apps for Pandora and YouTube, which are becoming pretty ubiquitous on TVs, Blu-ray players and devices like the Roku box. Once again, a nice addition, but I'd look elsewhere for a more robust selection of streaming options like CinemaNow.
Another cool feature is that selected Samsung and Sony Bravia HDTVs actually have RVU technology built into them that allows you to access your DirecTV signal and the Genie's content without any add-on box. That saves space and setup complications. Unfortunately, none of my TVs had built-in RVU, so I went with the Mini client instead. The Genie and Mini use the MoCA standard to communicate over coax cable.
DirecTV hypes how friendly they are to people who are moving. Do not believe the hype, as they made it painfully hard for me to move. Because the DVRs are leased, DirecTV insists that you return them to the company and not leave them for the next renter or owner. This is very foolish, as it opens the door for other media providers - in my area, Verizon (with no FiOS) and Time Warner Cable. I had to literally rip out six DVRs and DirecTV receivers in my house as I moved. I'm still waiting for boxes to be sent to my office for me to return the DVR to DirecTV. If they don't send them, I will have to follow up, as I have learned the very hard (expensive) way that it's your responsibility to get the DVRs back to DirecTV or they will happily charge you for DVRs that are long gone and/or returned. About a year ago, I did an audit on my DirecTV account and found that I have a handful of old (broken) DVRs on my account that cost me over $1,500 in fees over the years. They gave me a modest credit toward my account, but it was a massive waste of money. In other words, if you're upgrading to the Genie system, make sure to get the old units back to DirecTV.
In my temporary apartment, I only needed to install the Genie and one Mini client (the Genie supports up to eight Minis, but only three can be active at one time). The DirecTV installer I got was shamefully bad at his job. He successfully installed the dish on the roof and got the coax cable down to my living room, where my Genie was to be installed; however, he butchered the drywall in the living room to the point where I needed to hire a painter to repair it. In the master bedroom, he refused to run the cable from the coax jack lower on the wall up the wall to where the TV and Mini client were to be hung, thus creating a safety issue for my one-year-old. Thankfully, at my expense, I was able to get my AV installation people to solve this issue and clean up the installation. I know all installers are not created equal, but the guy I got was a moron and really sucked at his job. He cost me money and time, but at least he got the basic service working.
Read about the performance of the DirecTV Genie on Page 2 . . .