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 clichéd 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 . . .
DirecTV is mainly a 1080i/720p source that looks pretty damn good when fed into most modern calibrated TVs. In my main room, the Genie was connected to a 70-inch Sharp TV, which normally receives a Time Warner Cable signal at my office. This gave me a chance to do some pseudo A-B tests between Time Warner and DirecTV. The interface difference between cable and satellite is night and day, which speaks to exactly why I am a long-time DirecTV subscriber. In watching Anthony Bourdain's new Parts Unknown on CNN (which is pretty much the same show that he did on the Travel Channel) on cable and DirecTV.
The DirecTV picture looked less compressed. The colors looked a bit more vibrant, but I can't really say for sure, as the rooms were lit differently. With NHL playoff games, I greatly preferred the DirecTV signal over cable. Once again, the lower compression seems to help motion artifacts be less obvious in the fast-paced action plotted on top of a bright white background.
Even if we agree to call the picture differences subjective, DirecTV has more channels to choose from than pretty much any other source out there. I also like the way that they are organized better than Time Warner. I find myself watching the channels between 265 and 280, which includes A&E, Military Channel, History Channel, Discovery Channel and more. DirecTV has all of the sports channels and packages that you could hope for. In recent years, I have paired down my bloated DirecTV bill by removing the baseball and football package and just keeping the NHL Center Ice Package. DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket plan is still its strongest calling card.
There have been Internet reports of the DirecTV Genie being unstable, but I haven't encountered that issue at all. Unlike other DirecTV DVRs from the past, I have not needed to restart or reboot the unit in well more than a month of heavy use. The Mini also has worked flawlessly for me, providing an exact match in the user experience as the main Genie. I can watch part of one show, pause it, and pick it up in the other room. I know this feature was part of other DirecTV DVR systems, but it's new to the hardware that I am now using and I like it. The "start over" feature is pretty neat in the event the phone rings and you fail to hit pause. I didn't get into the Genie's Double Play or PIP features much, as I just don't find much use for them in my DirecTV user experience. If I want to watch two things at once, I can record them and skip around. I don't need them both on the screen at the same time. If something is THAT urgent, like a sporting event, I can watch it live and keep an eye on other matters with my iPad. That's a pretty rare event, however.
The remote control on the DirecTV is amazingly not backlit. While it can be programmed to control some of your other AV components, I had a hard time getting it to do anything other than on-off and input switching for a brand new Vizio M-Series TV. For many, this plastic remote is the epicenter of your user experience, and it's pretty flimsy. I can't believe the parts cost on this remote could be more than a dollar or so. DirecTV should offer a more substantial option to lease as part of your user experience for those who might want it. I am using a Crestron control system in the living room to flawlessly control the Genie, but I'm going to have to get an RF remote system for the bedroom.
DirecTV's lauded moving program needs to be revamped. It's difficult and quite honestly insulting to longtime subscribers. Their call bank is filled with people reading from scripts who can't do anything to help you. They mindlessly thank you for your business when they are doing quite a bit to actually lose your business. Some of the executives down in El Segundo need to work on this. I am glad that they don't outsource their call center to some Third World nation, but you need to empower your staff to retain your clients. There are other options out there where people can spend their hard-earned money.
In talking about the restaurant business, Anthony Bourdain says that success is not so much about your best night, it's more about being consistently good every night. DirecTV needs to take this outlook regarding installations. My guy was horrible and unwilling to do the work that he was contracted to do. He left a pile of drywall dust on the floor of my professionally-cleaned apartment's hardwood floors. Would he like that type of service in his own home? That's an easy no. I can't imagine how hard a management project it is to keep these subcontracted vendors doing a good job, but it doesn't really matter, because the Time Warner and Verizon guys are respectful and do a clean, professional job. DirecTV, not so much.
The music channels on DirecTV are poor compared with the previous XM offerings. With the high fees that DirecTV charges, I can't see why some of the greatest hits of Sirius-XM couldn't be offered. How about Howard TV for those of us who are super-fans of the King of All Media? If Sirius-XM isn't willing to do business, how about picking some excellent Internet Radio channels and compiling them onto DirecTV? The current Sonic Tap channels are pretty poor in selection and sound quality. They seem very much like an afterthought that could easily be upgraded.
Comparison and Competition
You can talk about Verizon's FiOS, but pretty much nobody can get the service complete with its insanely fast Internet. And the last time I looked, FiOS comes with DirecTV channels on it. Cable isn't a good comparison in that the companies can bundle Internet and phone service for good "deals," but they don't have as good a picture, as many channels or as slick a hardware package.
It's been awhile since we've looked at AT&T's U-verse system, but I hear it's somewhat improved from when we evaluated it in 2010. With the bad experience that I had with AT&T for cellular service and the awful time that our former managing editor had with them, I just couldn't bring myself to put AT&T in the running for my system. Some people who live in areas with big thunderstorms or trees that make satellite TV hard to install have told me that they went AT&T and liked it.
The main competitor for DirecTV's Genie system is Dish Network's Hopper. DirecTV has better channels, which is the main reason why you want to pick one provider over another at the end of the day. The Hopper isn't a hunk of junk by any means. It, too, is a leap forward in the way that mainstream consumers can enjoy television, and Dish should be commended for a technological leap forward.
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DirecTV has come a long way since I first had its installers run coax cables down a drain spout to my college apartment so that I could watch the Philadelphia Flyers hockey games on my 27-inch Sony CRT television. Out-of-market sports was a huge lure back then, but DirecTV has become more than that. With the first really good TiVo, DirecTV captured our hearts in ways no VCR could do. Today, the DirecTV Genie goes a hell of a lot further to make watching television a truly flexible, powerful and enjoyable experience.
Gone are the days of missing a new episode of Inside Amy Schumer (a must-see if you like off-color, Dave Chappelle-like humor on Comedy Central) because your wife has a higher-priority recording of The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Say Yes to the Dress. The DirecTV Genie makes it so that she can also record Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Long Island Medium, and you are still in luck with your shows. If you ever actually ran into this kind of recording conflict, I might suggest that you need a divorce attorney more than a new DVR, but before you split up your community property, I suggest you take a good look at the DirecTV Genie. It's best of its class in the world of DVRs and satellite receivers.