By Mike Langberg
Knight Ridder Newspapers
I'm no longer willing to watch television programs according to some arbitrary schedule set by broadcasters - even new-fangled high-definition (HD) shows.
And I'm no longer interested in messing with videotapes while struggling to program a VCR to record a show I want to catch later.
For the past four years, I've been happily collecting hours and hours of shows on the hard drive of my digital video recorder (DVR) and watching them at my convenience.
I haven't considered moving up to HD because - until now - there was no worthwhile HD DVR.
That's changed in a big way with the very appealing DishPlayer DVR 921 from satellite-TV service Dish Network (www.dishnetwork.com).
This 18-pound silver box, introduced in late December, is a satellite receiver for both HD and standard channels from Dish Network; a tuner for receiving and recording local over-the-air HD broadcasts received through a roof antenna; and a DVR with a gigantic 250-gigabyte hard drive.
That hard drive holds 25 hours of HD programming, or a staggering 180 hours of regular TV.
There's just one big obstacle between me and digital nirvana: The 921 costs an eye-popping $999. While that would stretch my budget, it's a drop in the bucket for home theater enthusiasts who've spent perhaps $6,000 for a big plasma TV and $3,000 for a neighborhood-shaking surround-sound system. Indeed, Dish Network says demand is so high that customers might have to wait several weeks to get a 921 delivered.
I've just spent 10 days picking among Dish Network's eight HD channels with a 921 the company loaned me, recording shows and movies for later viewing in all their wide-screen, Dolby-Digital glory. It's going to be hard to pick up the phone later this month to summon the installer to collect the 921.
I'll console myself by thinking how fast prices go down for all digital gadgets; maybe I'll only have to wait a year or two for HD DVRs to reach $500 - the point at which I'd open my wallet.
Certainly, there'll be lots of competitive pressure. DirecTV(www.directv.com), Dish Network's arch-rival, is promising to ship the HD-DVR250 by March. The specs are almost identical to the 921; both have 250-gigabyte hard drives and two tuners, as well as recording over-the-air HD. DirecTV hasn't yet announced a price, but it's likely to be around $1,000.
Motorola and Scientific Atlanta, the two main providers of set-top boxes to cable companies, are also developing HD cable boxes with built-in DVRs. Some cable operators could start offering them later this year, although they're unlikely to be widely available until 2005 or beyond.
I'll restrain myself from foaming at the mouth in extolling DVRs. I'll just say that once you own one, you'll never happily go back to a pre-DVR existence. To grab every weekly episode of a show, you need only click "record" one time at the beginning of the season. If the phone rings during the middle of a live show, you can hit "pause" and resume watching right where you left off. Or you can start watching a recorded program at 9:20 p.m. that began broadcasting at 9 p.m., catching up to real time just as the program ends at 10 p.m. by fast-forwarding through commercials. None of these tricks can be matched by a videocassette recorder.
I've also been lukewarm in the past about the value of HD. But I'm slowly becoming a convert. Movies and television shows shot on film look as good or better than the sharpest DVDs when viewed in HD, and are accompanied by full surround-sound. Programs shot with HD cameras - mostly nature shows and sporting events, for now - are breath-taking in their sharpness and rich colors.
Of course, all this extra detail requires far more storage space on a hard disk than needed for what's now called standard-definition TV. The 40-gigabyte drives common in many standard-definition DVRs would hold an insufficient four hours of HD.
So I can't blame Dish Network for selling the 921 at $999; big hard drives cost money, as do the electronics for decoding HD broadcasts.
And, in this case, big bucks buy big performance. The 921 did an outstanding job in delivering the oomph of HD at my house, viewed through my Dell 2100MP front projector.
I have only a few minor quibbles. The instruction manual doesn't clearly explain the rather complicated process of setting the correct output mode, which can vary from 480i to 480p to 720p to 1080i; or aspect ratio, which can be 16x9 or 4x3. I had to figure it out myself by trial and error. If you have no clue what I'm talking about and don't want to know, you might want to wait another year or two as HD DVR providers work on ways to make configuration automatic.
More jargon overkill: the 921 has both component and DVI outputs for HD, as well as composite and S-Video outputs for standard-definition. You can hook up both an HD and a regular TV to the 921, but you can't run both at the same time.
Another small issue is over-the-air reception. You can only connect a roof antenna by coaxial cable to the 921; there's no component video input for connecting a cable box. If you can't get local HD reception through an antenna, a big problem in the hilly Bay Area, this would keep you from using an HD cable box instead.
On the plus side, Dish Network doesn't charge a monthly fee for DVR service. You do pay $9.99 a month for a package of four HD channels: Discovery, ESPN, HD Net and HD Net Movies. In many parts of the country, the package includes HD programs from CBS. If you subscribe to HBO or Showtime, you also get an HD version at no extra charge. And there's a pay-per-view HD movie channel, with most titles costing $5.99.
I should note that Dish Network didn't ship the first HD DVR. The honors go to Zenith, which introduced the HDR230 (www.zenith.com) in June 2003. But it's no bargain, selling for $999 with a modest 80-gigabyte hard drive and only recording from a roof antenna. LG, Zenith's parent company, is bringing out a somewhat upgraded model in February, the LST-3410A (www.lgusa.com) at $999, with a 120-gigabyte drive and component video inputs.
JVC (www.jvc.com) launched a line of HD VCRs in 2002 using a format it developed called D-VHS. But prices are high, with the least expensive D-VHS VCR now selling for about $799, and the convenience is low in comparison to a DVR. It seems unlikely the format will catch on.
I am bullish, however, on HD DVRs, especially when they're built into satellite or cable receivers. The Dish Network DVR 921 isn't perfect, but it's a great starting point for a technology that will make HD much more popular.
© 2004, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.