Samsung SIR-TS160 DTV/DirecTV receiver & SIR-T151 DTV receiver

Anyone in the market for a digital television receiver in recent months might have found them hard to come by. Manufacturers stopped making older models early this year when they began working on newer ones with updated features and receiver chips. Because most digital receivers these days also double as DirecTV tuners, one factor motivating this retooling was DirecTV's decision last year to make DVI the official digital-connection format for the service, forcing manufacturers to provide new receivers with DVI outputs.

Beginning now, however, a slew of new receivers is going on sale from many manufacturers, including a full suite of products from Samsung, two of which I review here. The SIR-T151 is a basic terrestrial digital receiver with a price of $499—for now, the least expensive DTV receiver on the market. (Zenith promises to come out with a cheaper one soon.) The SIR-TS160 is Samsung's top-of-the-line, full-featured DTV/DirecTV receiver, which costs $699.

A third Samsung product in this suite, not reviewed here, is the SIR-T165 ($799), a terrestrial DTV receiver that provides two digital outputs, DVI and IEEE 1394 (FireWire), neither of which is included on the less costly SIR-T151. (The T165 costs even more than the TS160, which provides DirecTV reception, because a 1394 output is an expensive option.) Anyone contemplating the purchase of a D-VHS high-definition recorder might consider the SIR-T165; current-generation D-VHS machines have a 1394 input for digital programming.

Both models are pleasant-looking but relatively featureless silver-fronted boxes. Unlike my reference Sony SAT-HD100 receiver, the Samsung TS160 has no front-panel display. I find a display useful for seeing at a glance the station, output format, and other information, but the Sony is the only receiver I know of that has one. On the TS160, the control buttons are behind a fold-down door; on the T151, they're on the front panel.

Like several other recent DirecTV receivers, the fanless TS160 was mercifully quiet. That's one up on the Sony, whose fan is quite loud.

The SIR-TS160 and SIR-T151 offer similar functionality in some respects. For example, both are able to output digital signals in all four of the formats used today: 1080i, 720p, 480p, and 480i NTSC. Unfortunately, both models require you to change output formats using a four-position switch on the back. Some people with multiscan monitors might want to change the output format often; e.g., when switching between NBC or CBS (which broadcast in 1080i) and ABC (which uses 720p). Reaching around, probably in the dark, to find a rear-panel switch is not the preferred means of doing that.

The TS160 offers composite, S-video, component, RGB, and DVI outputs, while the T151 offers only composite, S-video, and component. Both offer format control, allowing you to reformat the picture to fit your display, with four options: Letterbox, Pillar Box (to display a 4:3 picture on a 16:9 screen), Full, and Zoom. Missing are some of the creative options other products offer, such as one that stretches the margins of a 4:3 picture to fill a 16:9 screen while leaving the center of the picture virtually untouched.

The SIR-TS160 DirecTV receiver offers a creative, colorful, and flexible onscreen guide that can hold up to seven days of information formatted in a variety of user-selected ways. It can display a standard full-screen grid, a shrunken half-screen grid that displays only the current-hour shows, and a grid that lists channels by their logos. A nice touch on the full-screen guide is a pulsating purple diamond at the top of the current-hour program box that moves along the top line to show the actual time.

The SIR-T151 DTV receiver also offers an onscreen grid, displaying the data that digital stations are strongly encouraged to broadcast under a protocol developed by the Advanced Television Systems Committee, the industry group that sets standards for such things. Unfortunately, few stations actually broadcast the data, and none of them are in Washington, DC, where I live.

With RF inputs for DirecTV, cable TV, and analog and digital TV, the guide on the TS160 can display everything you receive from all of these sources in one grid—a nice touch that's becoming commonplace in these devices. This can mean duplicated channel numbers—in my area, for example, channel 26 is an over-the-air (OTA) channel and a cable channel—so the guide tells you the source of each listing: cable, air, digital, or DirecTV.

Recording shows with the TS160 was easy. Like most receivers, this one has an IR blaster that you can paste over the IR window on the front of your VCR. With that, the unit can turn the VCR on and set it to record on command. You can specify a show to be recorded while the guide is on the screen by pressing a button on the remote, or, using a standard VCR-like menu, set it to record a show repeatedly or in the future. (The T151 has no such automatic recording capabilities.)

One issue that some receivers handle better than others is the output format to your VCR. The first HD/DirecTV receiver, RCA's DTC-100, output everything at 1080i when so set, but automatically switched the output to 480i when the record mode was activated—a reasonable implementation. On the other hand, the Sony SAT-HD100 requires you to manually change the output setting to 480i before it turns on the VCR, which is the least convenient option.

The Samsung TS160 does it just right. A VCR can take a signal from only the composite and S-video outputs; no digital display can receive a digital signal from those outputs, so the receiver is designed to send a 480i signal from those outputs all the time, no matter what format is being used for the higher-level outputs. That means you can watch a show in a higher resolution while recording it in standard definition. Everyone should handle it that way.

Both Samsung models came with well-designed, programmable remotes that were easy to use, though neither is backlit.