DIRECTV Whole-Home DVR: Impressive, but what a pain to get installed

Summary:DirecTV's new Multi-Room DVR experience is impressive, but you may have a hell of a time getting it installed in your home.

DIRECTV's new Whole-Home DVR experience is impressive, but you may have a hell of a time getting it installed in your home.

Recently I had DIRECTV's Whole-home DVR service installed in my house, after watching the promotions on TV. The software and hardware execution is excellent, but is marred by the fact that DIRECTV's technicians/subcontractors are not yet properly trained or are up to spec on the new technology.

Firstly, if you want to see the technology in action, take a look at this video I took recently which shows you what the new service can do.

Watch a 10-minute demo of DIRECTV's Whole Home DVR service in my living room.

If you're a DIRECTV HD DVR owner, and you have multiple TVs in your house, you probably have wanted to be able to share content between multiple DVRs or to stream content from one DVR, say, in your living room, to another TV set in your house, such as in your bedroom.

In order to do this in the past, special appliances such as the SlingBox Player and Sling Receiver were needed, or through the use of simple devices such as the X10 video receivers.  However, the integration with these devices was difficult and the video quality was not necessarily perfect.

SlingBox, while an excellent remote solution for streaming to PCs, Macs and Smartphones, is not an ideal solution for transmitting HD video to different rooms in your house. For starters, as good as the video quality as Slingbox HD is (720p) there is a very perceivable lag-time when remote-controlling your Slingbox from a receiver device or software.

Additionally, networking with these types of streamer devices requires either the use of very fast wireless Ethernet bridges (Such as 5GHZ 802.11N) or hard-wiring your house with Cat-5 to push a 1000Base-T signal back and forth between the devices to ensure a high-quality connection and enough bandwidth to handle HD video.

There are also Power Line Ethernet Adapters such as the ones produced by NETGEAR and Linksys, but the performance of these devices vary depending on the age and configuration of your home's electrical wiring and have a maximum speed of about 100Mbps. While this is fine for games and Internet access, it really isn't fast enough to push HD video.

DIRECTV's solution eliminates the wireless problem by using the coaxial cable that is already in your home going in and out of your satellite dish -- it creates a closed circuit between the DVR and "Receiver" devices in your home and permits the transmission of very high-quality HD video in a nearly instantaneous manner.

DIRECTV's Connected Home Adapter uses the coaxial wiring coming in and out of your satellite dish to share HD video content across multiple DVRs and receiver units.

In order to provide this service, an installer sent by DIRECTV needs to make a home visit and install new "Connected Home Adapter" units to your DVRs and/or install compatible receiver units. Depending on the age of your DIRECTV DVR hardware and receiver units, you may need to upgrade to new technology.

In my case, I was lucky -- my two DVR units, an HR-20 and and HR-21 were deemed compatible, and all that was required was the software update, the $9.99 per month for DVR Service plus Whole Home coverage (a $3 increase per month above the $7 per month for just HD DVR). It also requires the new Connected Home Adapters, of which I needed 3 and was included as part of a $100 installation fee. Sounds simple, right?

Er, no. Here's the simplified version of what happened.

After placing my order on Thursday with DIRECTV to upgrade my service, the first technician arrived the next day, late Friday morning, after I had waited several hours for him to arrive during a 4-hour expected time window. When he got here he was absolutely nonplussed.

Apparently, he didn't receive the correct order from his dispatcher, which was a subcontracting service that does the DIRECTV installs in my area. He also didn't speak English fluently. This wasn't a problem for me as I was immediately able to switch to Spanish, being a fluent speaker, but your average person might not be able to do that.

Also Read: DIRECTV, What About Make the Products Work and Keep the Customers Happy Do You Not Understand? (July 2008)

Also Read: DIRECTV, Well HERE's Your Problem, Ma'am (July 2008)

After listening in on a 45 minute call with his dispatcher/supervisor (in Spanish) we apparently found out that that our dish wasn't compatible (we needed to get updated to a new SWM-compatible Multiswitch) and the correct parts for the Multi-Home DVR weren't sent to him (The Connected Home Adapters and the new Multiswitch).

This required the parts to be sent to our house and a second visit.

The "initial" second visit was supposed to have occurred the following Monday. I wasn't at home, as I was away on business, but my wife waited all morning and nobody showed up.

She called DIRECTV, extremely angry. To make a long story short, another technician showed up the next day, Tuesday. This one was apparently correctly trained and spoke perfect English, did some re-wiring to simplify our Coax install, upgraded the dish to SWM, and installed the Connected Home Adapters and pulled off the BBCs (B-Band Converters) which were Thank God, no longer needed.

So, how is the DIRECTV Multi-Home DVR service now that it is installed? Very cool. As you can see in the video I have posted above, I can now share the playlists between both of the HD DVRs in my house and also watch the content from either DVR in either room of my house.

The HD video quality of playing connected DVR content is exactly the same as if I had been watching it right at the DVR where it was recorded. If I so desired, I could buy additional receiver units and watch DVR content from either of these two units in other rooms.

My wife and I can watch the same recorded program on both the Master Bedroom DVR and the Living Room DVR at the same time, and we can also watch programs recorded on the opposite DVR from each room, simultaneously. If we watch a DVR-recorded movie in the Living Room during the evening, and we get tired, we can go upstairs and watch the rest of it in the bedroom.

The only drawback to the current system is that the two DVRs are still autonomous, even though their content is shared with each other.

In other words, I have to continue to program them independently and be aware that each unit is consuming recording space and maintain a To-Do recording list on each. The software and Multi-Home system as it exists today cannot "Load Balance" DVRs and maintain a unified recording To-Do list and assign recordings automatically to whichever DVR is underutilized.

Additionally, if you have two or more DIRECTV HD DVR units in your home parental content control becomes difficult if you want to block what your kids can watch. With a single, centralized DVR it's easier because you can set content controls on the receiver units not to display movies and programming with specific ratings, but if you have more than one unit, all you can do is set a DVR not to share its playlist.

So if mommy and daddy have a DVR in their bedroom and record mature content (say, "Spartacus, Blood and Sand"), they have to set that DVR not to share its list, but that means that when they are downstairs in the living room, they can't watch any of the G or PG-rated stuff the bedroom DVR has recorded either.

With play list sharing between DVRs it's an all-or-nothing proposition, and with the parental controls, you have to manually turn it on or off if you want to watch or block adult-oriented (X, TV-MA, R, NC-17, PG-13, etc) content.

Still, for an initial offering, the DIRECTV Whole-Home DVR service is excellent, and I highly recommend upgrading to it especially if you already have compatible DVR units. Just be prepared for a bit of hassle getting it installed until DIRECTV gets its installer subcontractor act together.

Do you have the new DIRECTV Whole-Home DVR service yet? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Mobility, Hardware

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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