Review: DirecTV Genie whole-home DVR Page 2

Performance

I decided to kick off my test using the Genie DVR in the family room. It was immediately obvious that one advantage of a central DVR is the ability to manage just a single recording list, rather than separate ones for multiple DVRs. Also, since all recordings are centralized, I could access any recording from any room, not just from the one where it was recorded.

It would take an entire article to get into all the ins and outs of the DirecTV service, so I’ll focus on the highlights. The high-def user interface has an attractive grid-style guide; whatever is currently playing appears in a window in the upper left part of the screen. Additional info about a program, plus the time remaining, is visible via a scrub bar whenever you press one of the transport (pause, play, etc.) buttons on the remote. A QuickTune feature stores nine favorite channels that appear when you press the up button.

Two features unique to Genie are a new recommendation engine and picture-in-picture (PIP) capability. The latter, while certainly not new to TVs, is made way more meaningful by the system’s multiple tuners. If you opt in to the recommendation feature, it will start making program suggestions based on the shows you’ve watched and recorded. But it doesn’t just recommend them — it automatically records them so they’re available for viewing. After watching a show you can say whether you liked it or not, and either record or delete the series, or simply do nothing.

Another unique feature, Double Play, acts like DirecTV’s “Previous” button on steroids. Where the Previous button simply toggles between two programs, Double Play buffers two channels simultaneously, so you can pause and rewind during either show so you don’t miss any action. Other features include “Start Over,” which uses automatic caching to start programs at the beginning if you tune in late, and “Past Episodes,” which lets you catch up on programs in a series you might have missed as far as five weeks back.

Overall, I found that the Genie responded to commands fairly quickly, though a bit slower than the HR 24 DVR I’d been using. There were occasional lags in the response, especially when the Genie was engaged in other operations, and everyone in my family found it harder to pinpoint a stopping location when fast-forwarding or rewinding through a program. With TVs using the Mini clients, the time gap between issuing a command and the system responding was significantly greater, and there were a few occasions when it took the Mini almost a minute to display a picture when the energy-saving mode had shut the box off.

Also, several times during my review a Mini client locked up — froze with a picture on the screen — or didn’t display a picture, and I had to unplug the power cord and reboot it. Another time a recorded program started macroblocking before freezing completely; since it was a recorded show, my guess is that the glitch happened during the recording rather than as a result of the Mini misfiring.

More troubling was that the Genie also had to be rebooted several times, which meant that every connected TV was out of commission. When I was watching a TV connected to a Mini, a message stated that it was running a receiver self-check and then searching for servers, which weren’t found. Service was restored after the Genie was rebooted. This didn’t happen often, but as my wife commented — somewhat pointedly — you lost one TV with our old setup when a DVR went on the fritz; when the Genie went down, none of the TVs worked. One additional comment: DirecTV has a nice iPad app, which lets you watch live TV in your home, and even select channels outside of it. You can also use an iPad, iPhone, or Android phone as a remote.

Bottom Line

As you may have gathered, there’s a lot to like about the Genie, especially its five tuners and the ability to access any recorded content from any connected TV in your home. It’s great not to have to worry about the recording conflicts that regularly arise from having only two tuners, especially when you also want to watch live TV. I also like the idea of DirecTV’s recommendation engine, though I’d have to live with it for a bit longer to judge how accurately it reflects my preferences.

In our previous setup, each family member had “adopted” a DVR for their content, and had to manage it to keep recording new shows. With the central DVR, we quickly found that our 8-year-old son was using up most of the hard-drive space, and didn’t understand why he had to delete any shows if there was still remaining space. (We liked it better when his shows were confined to “his” DVR.) Also, while we haven’t yet maxed out the 1-TB hard drive, our four separate HD DVRs had a combined 2 TB of space. You can add a larger external hard drive to the Genie, but it replaces, rather than adds to, the box’s internal storage, which seems a waste. And while I like the fact that every recording is available on every TV connected to the system, I can add this feature for my current HD DVRs by paying a nominal whole-home fee of $3 per month.

For homes like mine with a lot of TVs, maybe a combination of the Genie with one or two separate HD DVRs makes the most sense, offering the best attributes of each. Those with fewer TVs will likely choose one or the other. The need to occasionally reboot the Genie system was a real concern for my wife, but I’m more used to seeing companies address these types of issues via firmware updates, which I hope happens with the Genie.

But for me, perhaps the most compelling reason for keeping the Genie in my system was that it’s the company’s newest technology, and is therefore likely to be the most extensible platform going forward. So it may get new features not available on older DVRs. A newer Genie (HR44) and Mini (CR41) are already in the works, reportedly with a faster processor, built-in wireless, and a new streamlined remote. So despite the glitches, I’m keeping the Genie in my system. And like Aladdin, my wife is being granted her wish — to keep a separate DVR connected to her favorite TV.

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