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DirecTiVo versus DirecTV HR20 HD-DVR

As I've mentioned before, I recently ditched my old Series 2 DirecTiVo unit in exchange for a DirecTV-powered HD DVR. TiVo and DirecTV severed their relationship earlier this year. The HR20-700s is one of DirecTV's first hardware offerings in TiVo's place.

The HR20 has had a lot of problems. Those who think back to the TiVo's launch (or even look at the recent Series 3 launch) can see similar problems, but many feel that the HR20's issues are larger than they've experienced before. I can say that despite changing a satellite dish and adding HD, the transition has been smooth and I've not had any troubles with the HR20.

The TiVo, of course, is well recognized as having a great user interface. I've been a TiVo user since I signed up with DirecTV in 2001 shortly after moving to southern Florida. True to the word of many, TiVo changed my life. I didn't watch more TV because I watched less commercials. The simple ability to pause even live TV has led me to instinctively reach for a "pause" or a "replay" button my FM stereo in my car.

It's been a little over a week now, and I have a few thoughts on the differences between the TiVo-built UI and the one the DirecTV programmers have managed to cobble together. What follows is a brief compare/contrast:

What I Miss from the TiVo

30-Second Skip
The TiVo never officially had a 30-second skip, but you could enable it by hitting "select, play, select, 3, 0, select," the well-known "SPS30S" sequence. The HR20 has a 30-second "slip" feature that simply fast forwards 30 seconds of content in about two seconds. It's not as fast as the TiVo, of course, but it does have one small advantage: you can hit the "slip" button six times to queue up several blocks of 30-second advances. Still, I prefer the unofficial TiVo version.

One Guide Display
I became accustomed to the TiVo guide display known as "List" view (as opposed to "Grid" view). In this view, the left-hand side of the screen showed eight channel numbers and names and the currently playing show. The right-hand side displayed the next eight shows on the selected channel. I use this mode to schedule recordings on channels I know will have good shows in the next 24 to 72 hours. The HR20 supplies only the grid format, which is not great for locating programming on a few select channels.

Additionally, the "Guide" button on the HR20 remote doesn't actually show you the guide, but a menu that lets you narrow down what you see in the guide to "HD Channels" or "Movies" or "Sports" (or "Everything"). You must hit "Guide" a second time to see the actual guide.

More Visible Guide Data
The TiVo displays eight lines in both guide modes: Grid and List. The HR20 displays only six. I have a large enough TV that I'd like to see more lines. The eight lines helps most in List view, but in Grid view it's nice to see more programs on a wider range of channels.

Additionally, the HR20 applies an animation when you channel up and down (which pages up and down) in the guide, further slowing the user's ability to move from channel 2 to channel 206 via the guide.

Dual Live Buffers
The TiVo, like the hR20, has two tuners and two inputs. Unlike the TiVo, the HR20 does not maintain two active buffers and offers no way to "switch" between the tuners. Carey and I frequently paused one channel, switched to another, watched it to commercial break, paused, and switched back. It allowed us to watch two live programs without having to deal with recording each. The HR20 effectively only offers two tuners when you're recording on at least one, and only one true buffer is ever active. There are work-arounds, but they're hardly as elegant as the TiVo way.

Trick Play AutoCorrection
When fast forwarding on the TiVo, pressing play "jumps back" the playhead about ten seconds. It's an auto-correction feature that lets you fast forward until you see what you want (say, the start of your show after a commercial break) without having to go backwards to catch the portions you invariably missed. Though I rarely used it, the times I did it worked as advertised. The HR20 has no such feature.

Better Folders
One of the recent (a year or so ago?) updates to the TiVo software added folders to the TiVo's "Now Playing" list. The HR20 has folders, too, but they don't display as folders. When you select the folder, it "expands" like folders in a Mac OS X list view. That in and of itself is nice, but I prefer the TiVo method (barely), largely because it looks better.

The HR20 method does display (2 New/3 Total) in the title - a nice and helpful bit of information - but I still feel that if you're going to show the user what amounts to a collapsable/uncollapsable folder, make it look like one. Don't just italicize the title of the shows inside the pseudo-folder.

The Remote
The "peanut" won some industrial design awards. The central "pause" button, though seemingly unusual, turns out to be perfect, as most of the time you use a DVR, you're playing a show, making the pause button the most likely button. All other shuttle controls - play, slowmo, FF/RW, skip and jump back were all centrally located. Less frequently used functionality - the List, the Guide, the directional pad - were located farther away. The only complaint I had about the peanut was that the rather destructive "TV Power" and "Replay" buttons are not only similarly shaped and sized, but located near to each other.

The DirecTV remote, on the other hand, has mysterious red, green, yellow, and blue buttons that do different things in different situations. Deleting is done via menus or a "dash dash" sequence that offers no confirmation. While my quibbles with the DTV remote are admittedly minor, comparison with the peanut makes them plenty obvious.

Sound Effects
The TiVo had interface sound effects to confirm button presses. The "boop" "bop" effects, perhaps initially annoying, became a part of the TiVo personality the way the slight accent of a trusted friend becomes part of what you love about that person. And, from a user interface perspective, they confirmed that button commands were entered and received. The HD20 offers no sound effects.

For $299, technically you're only leasing the HR20. Granted, the HD TiVo still ran about a thousand dollars (and you can buy an HR20 for the same price), but $299 only gives you the opportunity to lease the HR20. You still pay $9.99/mo for an HD package and you still pay a $5.99 monthly DVR fee. You're locked in to DTV for two years and if you ever upgrade the equipment, you have to return the HR20 to DTV!

The DTiVo was a rock. Only when one of the hard drives died in the first Tivo did I have to buy a second (I'd hacked the first to add a second hard drive to up the capacity). In six years of recording, I never lost a recording. My TiVo never needed to reboot itself. It never needed servicing. It never crapped out or exhibited bugs. The HR20 has already failed to display a recorded program and, just as I was writing this entry and watching the Steelers and Buccaneers, froze and then rebooted itself when I hit the 30-second slip button to get past a Norelco commercial. A quick perusal of this forum will tell you that the HR20 still has bugs and issues.

Things I Now Enjoy on the DTV DVR

No Phone Line
Though you can use a TiVo without a phone line, it reminds you daily after 30 days that it has not made a call lately and a test call is required during the setup process. The HR20 doesn't require a phone line at all ((A phone line is still needed for PPV movies, particularly when you attempt to exceed $10 in charges.)).

This is admittedly a small issue, as it really has little to do with the DVR itself, but rather the capabilities of the receiver built in and the fact that I can tune in and receive the broadcasts (local and EPSN HD, Discovery HD, HDNet, etc.). While some TiVo models are capable of doing the same thing ((Like DirecTV's no-longer-offered HR10-250, a TiVo-powered HD DVR.)), the ability to record and view HD content is a plus over my old Series 2 DirecTiVo.

One-Click Recording, Two-Click Series Link
If I see a program I'd like to record in the guide, I can press the record button once to record it, twice to set up a "Series Link" (see: "Season Pass"), or three times to cancel a recording. This handy shortcut beats the TiVo method of selecting the show, arrowing to the "record" option, etc. I was able to set up all of my Series Links in much less time, and scheduling oddball one-off recordings like "Charlie Brown Christmas" or this week's Steelers game is much easier.

Non-Modal Interaction
Except for the guide, nearly every other TiVo menu cut away from a live picture to show a full-screen interface. The HR20 nearly always displays video in the top right corner of the screen, allowing you to do just about everything except repeat satellite setup with a live or pre-recorded picture playing back. Sometimes this is bad - when starting the viewing of a sports program late I'd often hit "List" before turning on the TV with the TiVo. Now I hit mute and try to avoid looking at the screen. Still, the times when this is good - setting up or checking on things while in commercial of a recorded show in playback - outweigh the disadvantages of seeing how badly the Steelers are losing this week.

Available Disk Space
The HR20 displays "84% Free Space," something the TiVo could never do, despite only recording SD content. The HR20 records SD, MPEG-2 HD, and MPEG-4 HD, all of which stream in varying bitrates, and lets you know how close you are to having a few of your older shows deleted because the system has run out of space.

External eSATA Expansion
In the future, the HR20 will allow you to plug in a series of eSATA drives to expand on the internal hard drive capacity of the HR20. Currently, that functionality is available, but the external drives effectively replace the internal drive's storage instead of supplementing its capacity. The TiVo had no such feature for easy expandability.

HDMI and All Active Output
The HR20 has an HDMI port, which is nice. One cable connects to my TV or stereo receiver and carries both digital video and audio. Some day, all receivers may be HDMI. I use not only the HDMI port but the digital optical audio (as my current receiver have no HDMI ports). That gets at one of the nice features of the HR20 - all the audio (HDMI, optical, and stereo) and video (HDMI, component, s-video, and composite) are all active, all the time. I can send video and audio to several different components (like, say, my DV camera, a computer, a DVD recorder, etc.), all at the same time.

Non-Crippled Hardware
DirecTiVos have a long history of being crippled. The series 2 DTiVo that currently resides upstairs has a pair of USB ports and an ethernet port. They do nothing. Though some hardware features on the HR20 are currently disabled (USB ports currently do nothing, and networking hasn't yet been implemented), they are not crippled by rule, merely because their features haven't yet been enabled.

Moot Issues

Season Passes are Series Links
It's a different phrase, but the same options still exist: you can record first runs, repeats, or both. The nice thing about the HR20 is that you can set a default means of recording your series links (first run, keep five episodes, no padding, etc.).

Wishlists and Searches Exist
Wishlists (called "AutoRecords") and searches still exist on the HR20. The DTV DVR doesn't have the TiVo's "Suggestions," but that's the first thing I disabled on both of my TiVo's. Suggesting things I might like is one thing: automatically recording them is another. I could tolerate the former, but the latter was just annoying.

Channel Changing Speed
The HR20 supports "native" resolution: it will automatically output 480i, 480p, 720p, or 1080i depending on what the source resolution is. Negotiating the HDMI handshake takes awhile, and switching to the new channel takes awhile. Stopping and starting the buffer takes awhile. While the TiVo could switch channels in well under a second, the HR20 takes as long as three to four seconds before a picture and audio appear. Since I've never used an HD TiVo unit, perhaps the problem is inherent with HD. I don't know, but I don't find it terribly annoying, either.

Record Two, Playback One
You can still simultaneously record two programs while playing back a third. Nothing is different here.

OTA Recording (Eventually)
I don't personally care about recording off-the-air programming, as I get high-definition local channels via satellite and Erie has horrible, horrible programming, but eventually this will come in handy. This feature will be turned on soon, though it's currently disabled.

So There You Have It

Because I enjoy HD, and because I've had only one or two small issues with the HR20, I'm willing to put up with some of the bugs present in the HR20. It is what it is: both better and worse than the TiVo in different ways. I'll report more as I discover it, but for now, please remember: this is my opinion, nothing more.

P.S. Follow-up discussion is available both in the comments below and here at

13 Responses to "DirecTiVo versus DirecTV HR20 HD-DVR"

  1. Thanks for your imformative piece on TiVo versus Direct TV HD 20 (my most recent upgrade). Like you I miss the dual live buffers but you mentioned a work-around. Can you forward that to me?

    Thanks in advance of your help!

  2. Thanks for the great article. I can't stand using an HR 20 and have an HD Tivo which, however cannot be upgraded with a simple MP4 codec needed to handle satellite based HD local channels.

    This technical problem is senseless and will "require" all TIVO based hD units to be replaced.

    I find the user interface and remote on the HR 20 to be grossly unsatisfactory and love using the Tivo unit.

    I would also be surprised if the deterioration in customer service by Directv isn't also a serious problem for any user. My 2nd dish based local channels regularly disappear and a customer service call generates a fix based on a total misunderstanding by DirectV personnel of their own equipment, software and services.

    However good Tivo equipment may be, Directv needs to clean up its act. With only a couple of HD channels after YEARS and only empty promises about increased bandwidth and the promise of new....fairly lame new HD channels, we are chasing dreams if we think we can genuinely benefit from working with Directv.

  3. So far I am happy with the new HD DVR. I am wondering just what the USB port is for. I am also wondering if eSATA drives can be chained to provide more recording space. Simply replacing the internal 750GB drive with an external 750GB drive does not enhance the functionality of the unit, other than to switch between volues so to speak. So far I like the unit better than my old Comcast unit. I lookk forward to future enhancements.

  4. Doug,

    The internal drive is not a 750GB drive. I don't know what it is (I assume it's a 250GB drive), but I can tell you that when I connected an external 750GB drive my space increased about 3x. After doing some quick calculations based on the amount of HD content recorded and the percentage it was reporting was still available, I believe the HR20 records about 9 minutes per GB. If that's true, then the internal drive can hold about 37 hours of HD, and the 750GB drive can hold about 112 hours. I spent all day yesterday watching football games, jumping around, skipping ahead and back, and experienced NO problems with the new drive. It kept up fine and never once gave me any trouble. Football is the main reason I decided to use the external drive - 3-4 hours per game, with many games per week being recorded loads up that internal drive pretty quick...

    As far as I know and have read online, the USB port does nothing and I don't think there have been any plans for it announced.

  5. you say when i connected 750gb drive, to what reciever? is there a mod for the hr20? thanks. nobody likes change but we all adapt. its give and take.

  6. No - no mod needed! The HR20 has a eSATA connector on the back of the unit. Just plug an eSATA drive into it and it works! Really nice, undocumented feature... So here's the deal with that:

    1. HR20 will only use the internal drive OR an external drive, but it won't use both (you can't "add" the external drive space to the internal).

    2. I found out the internal drive is 300GB. So it really only makes sense to do this if you can use a 750GB drive or larger.

    3. Steps to connect the drive: disconnect power to HR20 - plug in and power up external drive - plug eSATA cable from external drive to HR20 - reconnect power to HR20 and power up. The first time will take a bit longer since it has to reformat the external drive, but it works very well (at least it does for me) and provides you with TONS more recording space...

    Good luck!


  7. I too would like to know about the work arounds for the 2 tuner live buffers, we just received our 3rd Directv DVR from DTV (because one of our DTV Tivos wasn't working right), but after hooking it up we learned that there wasn't a live buffer for the second tuner. I was so disappointed that I really wanted to throw the thing away. The ONLY advantage that I can see over the Tivo is that you're capable of recording of a program that you wouldn't have been able to with TIVO i.e. you haven't changed the channel, a funny story comes on a talk show, so you hit record, but according to the program guide a soap opera had already started (at the time you hit the record button) so it jumps ahead and maybe records 3 to 7 minutes of the previous program, but doesn't get the part that you wanted. With the Direct TV DVR you can record whatever is in the buffer regardless of what the program guide says.

  8. Much like a few other people I just got the Direct TV HD DVR and had a TiVo unit with two active buffers and offers no way to "switch" between the tuners to pause one channel, switched to another, watched it to commercial break, paused, and switched back. It allowed me to watch two live programs without having to deal with recording each.

    You say there are work-arounds, but they're hardly as elegant as the TiVo way. I would like to know what they are.

  9. [quote comment="44419"]You say there are work-arounds, but they're hardly as elegant as the TiVo way. I would like to know what they are.[/quote]

    I don't think a "work-around" is ever elegant - or else it wouldn't be called a "work-around."

    I don't find myself watching nearly as much live TV these days as I did with the TiVo. I have a family and, except for sports (when I usually care only about one game), I just wait to watch things later.

    So, the whole "dual buffer" thing is much less important to me now than it used to be.

    As for what the work-arounds are, I suggest you visit the appropriate forum at

  10. [...] in December of 2006 I wrote a little entry comparing the DirecTV DVR to the TiVo. The DirecTV HD-DVR (the "HR20" as I'll call it from now on) has improved dramatically since then. [...]

  11. I just received mine yesterday. HR20 that is. Been Tivo for many years. Its definately gonna take a while to get used to. But all in all I think the benifits of having it will allow me to "deal" with the shortcomes.

    Some of the things I really like:

    1. No phone line, plug in the lan cable and you communicate to directv thru internet.

    2. All the new HD channels are nice.

    3. When you plug in the lan cable the on demand is an awsome feature. Seems like IPTV to me.

    4. OTA antenna is a great feature.

    I guess I will get used to it soon enough

  12. I finally upgraded my HR20 storage by purchasing a 1TB WD sata drive and installing it into an external drive case which came with an esata cable for about $75.00. After I attached the 1TB storage solution, I was never able to exceed about 20% of the available storage for the few shows I like to grab. Its a great upgrade 🙂

  13. I till can not move to the dark side, I love my DirecTV Tivo. My big scare is if it dies what do I do to get it replaced???