For satellite TV subscribers, the choices are cut and dried: You must use a DVR that's specifically designed for your service, either Dish Network or DirecTV.
For Dish Network subscribers, the ViP922 SlingLoaded HD DVR (*Est. $200 to lease, plus $10 per month DVR service) is the company's most advanced digital video recorder. Its big feature is Slingbox functionality, which means that you can connect the ViP922 to the Internet and watch live TV or programs recorded on the 1 TB hard drive anywhere in the world via a web browser or supported mobile device (Apple iPhone/iPad/iPod touch; Android phones and tablets; and Blackberry phones).
The ViP922 is DLNA-compliant, which means you can stream content from another Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) device (such as a personal computer) to the DVR. You also will be able to stream content from the web to the ViP922 from Dish Network's own DishOnline.com or by using media server software such as PlayOn. PCMag.com, which gives the ViP922 its Editors' Choice award, says that while video quality isn't the best, streaming via PlayOn is easy to set up, "works flawlessly" and gives you access to content from Netflix, Hulu.com and more.
All this connectivity aside, reports say that the ViP922 is a pretty good DVR. The user interface, which displays in 720p HD, is significantly upgraded from previous Dish Network DVRs and, according to BigPictureBigSound.com, is a vast improvement. PCMag.com's PJ Jacobowitz says the interface is "much easier on the eyes," and that navigation is "simple and fast." The HD DVR's search function has also been upgraded, with Clint DeBoer at Audioholics.com saying it and Google TV are similar in how they work to find the exact show you are seeking. However, as DeBoer notes, the ViP922 is the only DVR in the Dish Network lineup that does not integrate with the Google TV platform -- and there's no word on when, or if, that will change.
While initial reviews reported some instability at launch, in subsequent updates, that seems to have smoothed out. The 1 TB disc drive was once one of the largest available in any DVR (since matched and eclipsed by the huge hard drives in TiVo DVRs) and can hold up to 1,000 hours of SD programming or up to 140 hours of HD. If that's not enough, you can attach a 50 GB to 1 TB external hard drive via the USB connection for more storage.
Like most DVRs, the two tuners let you watch one program while you record another, or record two different programs while you watch a third that was previously recorded. A nice wrinkle is that the HD DVR can send signals from each of its tuners to separate TVs, allowing different live programs to be viewed on different sets at the same time. This can eliminate the need for a satellite receiver on a second TV (in satellite TV systems, a satellite receiver is usually needed for each set). However, the second TV will receive programming only in standard definition (any HD channels you subscribe to will be viewable, but will be downconverted). While there's no tuner for over-the-air reception built in, the ViP922 can accept Dish Network's MT2 over-the-air module (*Est. $50), which includes two tuners. If the module is installed, you can record up to four channels (two satellite, two over-the-air) in HD at the same time.
Reports say that Dish Network's remote is functional, if not glitzy. It uses radio frequency (RF), which can work through walls, to accommodate multiroom operation. In addition, there's an app (of course) that can turn your Apple device (iPhone, iPad or iPod touch) into a tablet-style remote that will let you search the programming guide, select channels and set up and manage DVR recordings.
The older Dish Network DuoDVR ViP722K (free for new subscribers to lease, plus $6 per month DVR service) remains available. It provides 55 hours of HD and 350 hours of SD programming, which can be expanded by adding an external hard drive. The ViP722K includes two high-definition satellite tuners, so you can record up to two channels and watch a previously recorded program at the same time. Like the ViP922, the ViP722K lacks its own over-the-air tuner, but it can accept Dish Network's over-the-air module. It can also send the output of one of its tuners (in SD only) independently to a second TV.
The ViP722K lacks the Slingbox features and the upgraded user interface of the ViP922, but is still a competent performer, and Dish Network offers an adapter (*Est. $100) that adds Sling functionality to the DVR. The electronic programming guide gives you programming information for nine days (TiVo gives you two weeks). The Dish Network DVR has a Season Pass feature, which lets you record an entire season of a show or sporting event. You can also search by keyword, actor or director. However, unlike TiVo, the Dish Network DVR can't search by user preferences, and it won't suggest shows based on your viewing habits. You can also program your DVR remotely through a web browser or mobile phone. Though no experts have reviewed the ViP722K, editors at CNET, PCMag.com and elsewhere give the nearly identical (save for the built-in over-the-air tuner, which was removed in the "K" update) Dish Network ViP722 high grades.
One feature found in the ViP722K but not in the ViP922 is integration with the Google TV platform. That means that owners of Google TV devices such as the Logitech Revue (*Est. $300) can use those to search the Vip722K and include recorded content along with web content in Google TV's search results. However, that functionality requires a DVR integration fee (*Est. $4 per month).
If you aren't interested in recording high-definition shows, the Dish Network DuoDVR 625 (free to lease, plus *Est. $6 per month for DVR service) is a dual tuner SD DVR/receiver. The user interface is similar to the one used in the ViP722K, and it can record up to 100 hours of SD programming. Like the ViP722K, the DuoDVR 625 is capable of providing programming for two separate TVs simultaneously. However, the DuoDVR is not compatible with either Google TV or the Sling Adapter.
If you're a DirecTV subscriber, the HR24 DirecTV Plus HD DVR (*Est. $200) is the company's latest high-definition, multituner DVR -- at least until the DirecTV TiVo DVR becomes available. New subscribers can generally get it for free with a two-year commitment if they deal directly with DirecTV; however, the company also reserves the right to substitute a different model (such as a DVR in the older HR23 series). While the DVR is available at retailers like Amazon.com as well as from DirecTV, regardless of where you get it the DVR is leased, and the upfront cost is a nonrefundable upgrade charge. There's also a DVR service fee (*Est. $7 per month).
By most accounts, the DirecTV Plus HD DVR was a mess when first released, and that's reflected in the majority of professional reviews because most have not been updated. In the interim, DirecTV has pushed a ton of hardware and software upgrades that have greatly improved things. While issues still crop up, many users report that the DirecTV Plus HD is now a very good HD DVR.
The DirecTV Plus HD DVR lacks some features found in the Dish Network ViP922, such as Slingbox capabilities. In addition, while you can add an external hard drive via an eSATA interface, it acts as a replacement for the DVR's internal drive, and you cannot transfer programs from one drive to another.
However, the DirecTV DVR has a few perks of its own. One is that it can act as a whole-house media server called Whole-Home DVR, which lets any networked non-DVR HD receiver record programs to or watch programs from the HD DVR.
The DirecTV Plus HD DVR has a two-week programming guide with the ability to search and create Season Pass recording, and you can create two favorite-channel lists. A similar feature finds programs similar to the one currently being watched. The DVR can record up to 100 hours of high-definition programming or up to 400 hours of standard-definition fare. Recording quality is excellent.
A couple of unusual features include one-button recording, which works as advertised. The included RF remote lets you control the box without being totally in line of sight -- a nice feature if you want to stash the DVR in a cabinet. Reports say the interface is simple and fast. You can also program the DirecTV Plus HD remotely from the Internet or a mobile phone.
The DirecTV Plus HD DVR is DLNA-compliant, which means that it can talk to other DLNA-compliant devices -- such as personal computers -- connected on the same network. That sets up some interesting options. One is DirecTV's DirecTV2PC client software, which when installed on your PC lets you stream content stored on the DVR to that computer in full HD. You can also stream video, music and photos the other way (from your PC to the DirecTV Plus HD DVR) using DirecTV's Media Share software. Finally, though it's not officially supported, you can run MediaMall's PlayOn server software on your PC and stream content from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube and other providers from the Internet to your DirecTV Plus HD DVR.
DirecTV also offers the standard-definition DirecTV Plus DVR (*Est. $100), which is also usually free for new subscribers. Like the DirecTV Plus HD DVR, it can be obtained from retailers as well as DirecTV. In either case, the receiver is a lease, not a purchase, and the upfront cost is not refundable. The same DVR service fees apply. The standard-definition DVR uses the same interface as the HD DVR (that hasn't always been the case), so the same comments apply. One difference is that the standard-definition DVR's hard drive is smaller and holds only 100 hours of SD programming. Another is that it's not compatible with DirecTV's Whole-Home DVR service.