At weaKnees, we’ve been getting endless questions about the new DIRECTV DVR Plus – the R15, and asking us to compare it to the TiVo-based DIRECTV DVR R10. The question generally boils down to: Which is better? In an attempt to give you the information necessary to answer that question yourself, we’ve written up a comparison of the units, with an emphasis on details of the new non-TiVo R15 since most of our readers and customers are somewhat (if not very) familiar with TiVo DVRs.
Read on for the full scoop, feature-by-feature comparisons, screenshots, physical comparisons, and our conclusions.
The R15 is DIRECTV’s newest DVR (they call it the DVR Plus) developed by a company called NDS. Previous DVRs that incorporate both DVR capabilities and the DIRECTV service ran on either the TiVo OS or the old UltimateTV OS (developed my Microsoft). UltimateTV units haven’t been made in years, and only two models were ever produced. There were about nine models of TiVo units produced for use with DIRECTV. The only DIRECTV DVR with TiVo that is currently in production is the high definition HR10-250. Of the remaining eight standard definition models, three were based on the first generation design, and five on the second generation platform, the latest being the R10, which, while reportedly out of production, is still available from some retailers. The DIRECTV DVR service, which is purchased through DIRECTV, continues to provide service to UltimateTV, TiVo and NDS-based DVRs.
NDS is a company partially owned by Rupert Murdoch (whose News Corp. purchased a controlling interest in DIRECTV). NDS is based in England (specifically Staines – Ali G’s home) and in Israel. NDS has made a few DVRs that are available abroad. Since Murdoch also owns much of DIRECTV, NDS started to develop DVRs for it. The R15 is the first NDS DVR to be available in the US. It is standard definition only, but rumors are swirling about an HR20-300, a high definition model.
The R15 is the successor to the R10 in DIRECTVs lineup. However it differs significantly, both physically and in its user-interface, from the R10. Since most of our customers and readers are very familiar with the TiVo interface, this review goes into a bit more detail on the R15 unit.
At WeaKnees, we are definitely TiVo OS partisans. While we continue to offer upgrades for UltimateTV, ReplayTV and Scientific Atlanta DVRs, we strongly feel that the TiVo platform is the best. So this review needs to be considered in that light.
We’ve covered a bunch of topics below, but omitted others. We’ll follow up to this review with more detail in a second piece on features like PayPerView and parental controls.
To TiVo users, the R10 and its TiVo brethren work in a very straightforward, top-down hierarchical manner. The top level is called “DIRECTV Central” (“TiVo Central” on standalone units without DIRECTV) and several categories appear below. These change occasionally with software updates, but the “Now Playing List” is always on top, and “Pick Programs to Record” and “Messages and Setup” are in there. The user can work their way down the levels by pressing select after highlighting a choice, and can move back up the hierarchy by using the left (or “back”) arrow.
The R15 interface strikes us as a bit more confusing. To begin with, the hierarchy isn’t clear. There are a few different top levels depending on what you are trying to accomplish. Moving down to specific functions is tedious. Often, you then need to navigate to the right side of the screen, then use the arrows to get to the tabs at the top, and highlight a different tab. The interface often moves you to a spot on the screen where it expects you want to be – probably the location of the next most likely action. But it’s inconsistent, and you can’t guess where you’ll be when you move between screens.
The interface on the R15 generally tries to show you what you are watching while you are using the menus, and it does this in one of two ways, depending on the complexity of the menus. If the menu is short, it will be overlaid on the lower-left portion of the program in progress. If the menu is more complex, then the current program zooms to the top-right corner and the menu fills the rest of the screen opaquely. So you can almost always continue watching the current program. The R10, by contrast, only overlays the guide and some current program information over the screen, and when you are looking at anything other than the on-screen guide, the R10 completely omits any outside video.
Live TV Buffer
All DIRECTV DVRs including the old UltimateTVs and the early TiVos have two inputs for satellite signal. They weren’t always usable on TiVos, but over the years through software downloads, DIRECTV has enabled them on all units. The R15 also has two inputs.
Dual inputs means that you can record two simultaneous shows at once, or that you can record one show and watch live TV on a different channel. Or that you can even record two shows, and watch a third, pre-recorded show at the same time.
Both the R10 and the R15 will automatically, constantly buffer live TV. So whatever you are watching will be kept by the DVR, enabling the user to rewind and pause live TV. The differences are that the R10 has a 30 minute buffer, while the R15 has a 90 minute buffer. Additionally, when you pause live TV on the R15, it will buffer for up to 4 hours while the R10 will still only buffer 30 minutes of video. But the other big difference swings in favor of the R10. If you switch tuners (more on this next) the TiVo will keep the 30 minute buffer of each tuner, where the R15 disposes of the buffer and starts a new one.
On the R10, you can pause a show on one tuner, press the Live TV button to switch to the other tuner, and watch there (and that show will have a 30 minute buffer). When you swap back, you’re first program is still paused, and has its buffer. Try that on the R15 and you’ll find it un-paused, and without a buffer. You can get around this on the R15 by recording the show before switching, but it’s an extra step, and then you’d need to delete it later.
DIRECTV is reportedly working on a software update that will enable the R15 to buffer on both tuners, but for now, this drawback persists in the R15.
List of Recordings: Now Playing and myVOD
Maybe not exactly a study in contrasts here, but these machines are pretty different in this regard. Both, of course, accomplish the task at hand: present a list of recorded shows and allow the user to watch. The R15 shows you a screen called ‘myVOD’ – for Video On Demand. It’s rich with detail and even has a small window showing the live program you were watching. The R10 calls its list ‘Now Playing’ and the screen is spare and large.
Here’s a screenshot of myVOD on the R15:
It shows six recorded shows and/or folders of shows. It shows when they were recorded (time and date) and the channel (number and call letters). There is a key to the four colored, generic buttons on the remote (the uses change from screen to screen). The screen also shows the current time and date, access to Showcases, and, as mentioned before, a window onto the channel you were watching – in this case, a news mix. But the biggest departure from the R10 (and from any TiVo) is the ‘Disk Space’ bar showing space available. TiVo DVRs have never had this, and it’s a constant source of complaints and complicated (but reasonable) explanations about compression. Well, the R15 has it, but, due to the difficulties in making this an accurate expression of available space, the unit still only tells you how much space is available percentage-wise – it doesn’t commit to a number of hours that you could record. But it’s a step in the right direction.
Here’s the R10’s Now Playing List:
There’s simplicity and power here. First, since you’re here to see what’s recorded, you get it – eight shows appear here instead of six on the R15. You get the day and date of each recording (but not the time – we’re not sure we’ve ever missed that) and, not in this screenshot but generally, the channel logo. The icon to the left of the show name tells you if it’s a folder, or what its status is: saved forever, soon to be deleted, etc. Pressing ‘Select’ on the remote gives you the show detail that the R15 shows on this first screen, and you can then page down show to show to see the detail and take other actions.
The comparison of these two layouts is a pretty good example of the larger differences here in interface design. The R10 takes simplicity and usability as its lead, while the R15 uses information as its top priority. Do you need to be watching live TV in this list? That’s probably a personal preference – some might find it distracting and others appreciate the extra input. Of course, this is a DVR, so if you want to get back to live TV and find what you missed, it’ll be there.
Pressing the ‘Guide’ button on the R10 remote brings up – surprise – a TV guide. But not on the R15. You get a categorical list of options, and you have to choose among those to get to the real guide. The resulting guide is a bit smaller than that on the R10. It shows six channels, and three half-hour segments of each. For the R10, this comparison will refer to the “Grid Style” guide which seems to be the most popular, but it should be noted that a “List Style” option exists also and some prefer it. The R10’s guide shows eight channels at once.
Navigating forward and back time-wise, and up and down channel-wise is fairly confusing on the R15. We seemed to often jump twelve hours instead of one screen-worth – or one and a half hours. And, since you get six channels, we found that we did more navigating than on the R10. The two extra lines may not seem like much, but they make for a third more information and, therefore, less scrolling.
Interestingly, this is one of the few screens where the R10 overlays the menu on the live video. For the R15, the live video zooms to the corner. Just as the R10 has its alternate guide style, the R15 has a ‘Mini Guide’ that overlays future programming information for one channel on the live TV screen.
Beyond the cosmetic differences, and the amount of information, the data is identical, since it all originates from the same satellite signal. The screenshots here (R10 first) show the same program selected so that you can get an idea of the differences in look and feel.
Recording All Episodes – Season Pass versus Series Link
What TiVo refers to as a Season Pass, DIRECTV now calls a Series Link. Options include recording and keeping multiple episodes, choosing to record first run and/or repeats, and overshooting the record start and stop times. When using the R15, you can easily choose to record a show you are watching, but Series Link options are only available from within the Guide. Conveniently, with the R15, you can select to record a single episode or all episodes with one or two presses of the record button, but again, only from within the Guide. The Series Link, in this case, is set to your default preferences for episodic recording. More options for recording upcoming episodes are available in the separate Series Link menu – but try to find it. It’s pretty well hidden. We can only assume this will change with a software update.
So pressing the Record button twice will set a Series Link for a show that is part of a series. What happens if you press twice on a movie or other one-time show? You cancel the recording. On an episodic show, you press three times to cancel (record, get a series link, cancel). Pretty confusing – especially given the minor feedback here. If you aren’t sure if you’ve pressed twice and you hit Record again to be sure – well, you’ve just cancelled even this episode.
The guide on the R15 will indicate when a show has been set with a Series Link – this seems like a nice feature, and it’s a feature that the R10 lacks, but we’re guessing that most people know when have a Season Pass on a TiVo, so this omission isn’t obvious on the R10. As far as digging deeper into the recording options on these DVRs to adjust what shows are recorded (number, repeats, etc.), the R10 is much more straightforward. This can be done while watching an episode of the show (live or recorded) or from the Season Pass Manager on the R10 – which is a blessing to use after working with the R15.
In general, the R15 provides a healthy number of options for recording, but programming the unit will seem cumbersome at first, especially if you are accustomed to programming a TiVo.
TiVo Suggestions – Thumbs Ratings
This is a feature that only exists on the R10. Many TiVo users turn the feature off and never use it; others find it vital. Essentially, by parsing your recording and viewing history and your thumbs-up and thumbs-down ratings, the TiVo will find similar programs that it determines you might like. You can view these as a list, or set them to auto-record. The R15 has no comparable feature.
R15 Advanced Features
So what does the R15 have that the R10 doesn’t? For one, information channels that display horoscopes, weather reports, and lottery numbers. Maybe useful, and maybe just a harbinger of more information to come, but for anyone with either a newspaper or an internet connection, pretty redundant. Still, features.
But the real advanced feature that the R15 has that’s actually useful is the multichannel feature. DIRECTV broadcasts ‘mix’ channels which display six streams of the same theme on the screen at once, and allow the user to watch them all and select one to make it a full-size window. For a sports fan, or during a breaking news event, this can be a pretty handy feature – it’s like picture-in-picture, times three. There’s even a kids selection, which might be good for kids who are too young to read the guide.
Well, it’s finally here – but maybe it’s too late. Caller ID has been a feature that DVR users have been requesting for years. It makes good sense and it’s a perfect fit for a DVR. Here’s a computer connected to your phone line with a video display. Further, when the phone rings while you are watching – that’s exactly when you want on-screen Caller ID. And the R15 has it. The R10 doesn’t – older TiVos could be hacked to create this feature, but that’s a pretty large amount of work (and, if you are looking for a DVR for hacking, really neither of these machines is right – you’d be better off with an older DVR).
But this feature arrives in a time when people have multiple phone lines at home (the R15 will only connect to one) and cell phones are taking the lead – and the R15 won’t show the Caller ID from that either. Finally, as discussed below, you may not even choose to connect your R15 to a phone line. But, clearly, this is a feature which many will use and appreciate.
Navigating within a show is probably familiar to most users and is similar between units. To move forward or back, a timeline appears on the bottom of the screen and marks your current position.
The R15 allows for four speeds when scanning both forward and backward, but there’s no reaction time compensation (this is, on TiVo DVRs, how the unit will adjust for your reaction time when stopping a fast-forward or reverse – so if you are fast forwarding at high speed and then stop, the DVR will automatically begin playing a few seconds before the point where you stopped fast-forwarding to compensate).
You can move frame by frame while in pause mode (with the fast forward button), and holding down the ‘Play’ button switches playback to slow-motion. Also, the R15 has a ‘Bookmark’ feature. The R15 allows you to set tabs at favorite spots within a show for easy finding at a later point. If you want to refer to a funny scene in a movie or a clip of yourself in the stands at a sports event, you set a mark, and you can navigate back to it easily.
If you leave a show mid-way through playback, the unit will begin playback at that same location by default (as on every other DVR we’ve used). Instant replay is available with the touch of a button, but two key features are absent. Unlike the R10, the R15 doesn’t allow you to move through a recording quickly by jumping from predesignated tickmarks. The R15 also has no provision for skipping in 30-second increments. (We all know what that’s for.) It’s nice that they’ve made an innovation here, but the omissions will be more noticeable.
Most of these features are the same on the R10 (three forward and reverse speeds instead of four) but the R10 doesn’t have bookmarks. We’re not sure how useful that will prove to be – we think the skip-to-tick and 30 second skip will get more use on the R10. And, of course, the reaction time compensation is pretty elemental to any of these units – it may be that the engineers of the R15 didn’t want to be seen copying this feature from the TiVo world, or maybe they hadn’t used DVRs enough to understand its importance.
Remotes may be the most personal and psychologically important component of your entire audio/video system. They are your direct interface, and if they are designed well, they almost cease to exist because they are so effortless. And once you learn one remote well, it’s like learning to type on a QWERTY keyboard – you rarely even look at it or consider that there may be another way.
The TiVo remote has won awards for its innovative deisgn, and while there are some who disagree, most find it intuitive and easy to use. The New York Times even wrote an article on the remote specifically. It fits nicely in your hand, and the most-used buttons are in the easiest places to reach. It’s identifiable (called the “Peanut remote”) and even in its few revisions, the essentials don’t change. Even the universal remotes made for DVRs (we like the Harmony 880) echo the design of this remote.
By stark contrast, the DIRECTV RC23 (like the similar RC16 and RC24) is itself a universal remote meant to be backward compatible with literally all previous hardware that was ever sold or supported by DIRECTV. It’s a jack-of-all-trades remote – with the usual caveat: master of none. It weighs more, it’s less comfortable in the hand and – who thought of this? – it’s white. White? For something that hands touch constantly? We’ve never even seen a white remote before – it’s a major dirt collector.
But the real problem with this remote is that it’s not DVR specific – not even close. It has 45 buttons (compared to 34 on most TiVo Peanuts) and they’re small and cluttered, with larger open spaces making the layout generally inefficient. Included are four colored buttons which change function depending on the current menu. These are included to cover the bases when this remote is used with other equipment also. It’s a shame that DIRECTV didn’t make a specific remote for this unit.
If we had a nickel for every time someone asked if they could connect their DIRECTV TiVo over an internet connection . . . Sadly, neither the R10 nor the R15 will use a broadband connection still – even though both have USB ports. Both like the plain old phone line. But do they need it?
The R10 needs at least one dial-in to be able to work as a DVR. Until it dials-in, all DVR functions are disabled. But after the one dial in, the unit works fine, even if it is disconnected from the phone line. If the R10 has not dialed in for a month, it will remind you of that fact once a day, but that reminder is easily dismissed with one click on the remote. Many DIRECTV TiVo users haven’t had their units dial-in for years. So what don’t you get if you don’t dial in? You have a limit on how much PayPerView can be ordered through the unit (PPV can still be ordered from another unit on the account, or by phone, or online, and the unit in question will receive it). And OS updates won’t install without the occasional dial-in. But, otherwise, the unit will still operate and get guide data, and Season Passes and all normal functions will work.
The R15 claims in its promotional material to require a phone line also. But, in actuality, we didn’t need to dial ours in to set it up and begin recording. It was also able to download guide data and OS updates and install them – all without phone line access. It may be that after a certain amount of time, it requires a phone connection, but ours hasn’t and it has been up for almost a month.
System test – SAT test
Hands down, the winner here is the R15. The level and detail of the satellite testing is better, and instead of forcing the user to move through transponders (as the R10 and all DIRECTV TiVos do) the R15 tests them all and shows you the results on one screen.
Of course, the R10 certainly conveys the core information: does each tuner work? If one of the satellite inputs is bad, it’s pretty obvious. But troubleshooting the rarer situations would be easier on the R15. Is there a splitter installed instead of a multiswitch? It should be obvious on the R15 test screen.
weaKnees is pretty focused on storage space, so we think it’s important to keep in mind that the R10 ships with 70 hours of space in its stock configuration, and, the R15 gives you 100. But that’s as far as it goes. The R10 can get much larger – up to 900 hours of space with larger drives.
The inevitable comparison that keeps coming back to mind is the iPod versus the generic MP3 player. At heart, the main function is the same, and while in that state – listening to music on those, or watching a program on these DVRs – the equipment doesn’t really matter. But it’s the other times – the navigating, recording, configuring – where the differences appear. And in those areas, the TiVo OS, maybe due to its maturity, or just to better design, truly shines. The interface is uncluttered, efficient, effective, and intuitive. The R15 gets the job done, but with more steps along the way, more thinking, less automatic movements.
|Connections||Grounded Power Outlet
RJ-11 Phone Line
2 Satellite inputs
RF in (pass-through)
2 Composite Video outs
2 Left-Right Audio outs
2 USB ports (inactive)
Digital Optical Audio (Toslink)
|Grounded Power Outlet
RJ-11 Phone Line
2 Satellite inputs
2 Composite Video outs
2 Left-Right Audio outs
1 USB port (inactive) (back)
1 USB port (inactive) (front)
Digital Optical Audio (Toslink)
RF Remote Antenna (inactive)
|Capacity||Variable, up to 70 hours (upgradeable) (80 GB drive)||Variable, up to 100 hours (160 GB drive)|
|Size||15″ x 12.5″ x 3.25″||15″ x 11.75″ x 3″|
|Remote||TiVo Peanut w/ SAT-TV Switch||Generic DirecTV RC23|
|Included Items||Remote, manual, power cable, composite A/V cable, phone cable, two AA batteries, DTV access card||Remote, manual, power cable, composite A/V cable, phone cable, two AA batteries, DTV access card|
|Warranty||1 year parts / 90 days labor||90 days parts and labor|