Review: DirecTV Genie whole-home DVR

In the book of 1,000 and One Nights, Aladdin discovers a magic lamp that when rubbed releases a powerful, wish-granting genie. DirecTV is hoping that its new Genie whole-home DVR will grant your TV-viewing wishes — no bottle rubbing required.

The concept of a multiroom DVR, which uses one centralized DVR server connected to smaller client boxes in other rooms of the house, isn’t new. In our September 2012 issue we reviewed Dish’s Hopper whole-home DVR, a product that has received a bit more press thanks to its controversial AutoHop commercial-skipping feature and the ensuing CBS lawsuit to ban it. The Genie lacks an auto ad-skipping feature, but has a few unique tricks of its own. One is RVU, a DLNA-based technology that lets it connect not just to small client boxes but also directly to TVs with baked-in RVU technology. (For more details about this feature, see sidebar “RVU: Our View,” on page 3.)

At the heart of DirecTV’s whole-home system is the Genie DVR, technically called the HR34. The smaller client boxes are called CR31 Minis. The HR34 is a bit larger than the company’s standard HD DVRs, perhaps because it houses more stuff, including five HD tuners and a 1-terabyte hard drive that can store up to 200 hours of high-definition programming, twice the capacity of other DirecTV HD DVRs. Though the Hopper has twice as much storage capacity, the Genie offers two more tuners, making it less susceptible to recording conflicts.

If you’re a new DirecTV subscriber, you can get a Genie plus up to three Mini clients and free installation, provided you’re willing to sign a two-year contract for a premium service package. Current subscribers may have to pay up to $299 for a Genie and $99 for each Mini, but some existing customers may be eligible for a discount or even a free Genie upgrade. There’s also an “advanced receiver service” fee of $20 per month that is required when taking on all the equipment. The $20 fee can be cut in half if a subscriber sets up auto bill pay.

Setup

Since I’m already a DirecTV customer, my experience will likely be much different from someone leaving cable for DirecTV. While many cable subscribers will likely find DirecTV’s screen interface superior to the one they’re currently using (my experience when I switched), for me personally a big question was whether a centralized DVR would work better than my current multiple-DVR setup, which uses four HD DVRs plus an HD receiver in a home office.

For this review, I replaced the HR 24 DVR in the family room with the Genie, and the HR 21 DVRs in the living room and master bedroom with CR 31 Minis. I left one HR21 DVR in my dedicated home theater. I have to say that the DirecTV installer was excellent, as my system — which uses a fairly sophisticated central demarcation panel in the basement — is more complicated than the average home’s. The installer had to upgrade my older wiring to the newer Single-Wire Multi-switch (SWM) system required by the HR 34, which runs from the satellite dish to an internal splitter. The  HR 34 also uses the MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance) IP network standard. MoCA, which supports RVU, is what allows the Genie to share content with the Mini clients via RG-6 cable connections.

Despite the new innards, the Genie doesn’t look radically different; it’s slightly larger and seemed to run slightly hotter, at least when I touched the bottom panel. The black cabinet has an attractive glossy black faceplate with fairly bright blue LED lights, which fortunately can be dimmed by pushing the right and left directional buttons on the unit’s front panel. A door on the left side of the front panel covers a USB port. When the system’s energy-saving mode is activated, the unit shuts off after four hours of inactivity.

When the system is on, the front panel illuminates with markings for guide, menu, record, and resolution (480i, 480p, 720p, or 1080i/1080p) highlighted in blue. There’s also a circular navigation controller with a select button in the center. Thanks to capacitance sensors, you can control all these features by touching the front panel. DirecTV’s remote control is fine if nothing special; it isn’t backlit, which makes it hard to see in dark rooms. An RF version is also available.

The individual Mini boxes are a little smaller and thinner than the average paperback, and they’re very light — so much so that the heavy-gauge coax cable kept pulling them to the back of my A/V rack. It looks like the Minis are small enough to be placed between a TV and its stand, and it looks like they could be wall-mounted, though no bracket is supplied.

The installer paired the Mini boxes with the Genie during his visit, but it’s easy to add Minis to the system using the “Add a Client” option, and you can quickly copy all your preferences to the newer box. The Genie system supports up to eight Minis, though only three of them — plus the main Genie DVR — are operational at any one time, so you can have four TVs in use simultaneously. If you have authorized whole-home activation — for an extra $3 per month — you can also see other advanced DVRs in your home, as I was able to do with my basement DVR.

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