Review: DirecTV HDTV Video On Demand Service

DirecTV adds new Video On Demand ServiceDirecTV has introduced a new, nationwide Video On Demand (VOD) service to complement their existing satellte TV programming. At present, the only way to receive this programming is if you have one of their newer HD-DVR receivers, or if you happen to own one of a handful of their older non-HDTV DVRs and buy a special network adapter. These older receivers are no longer offered for sale, although you might be able to find used ones on sites such as eBay.

There are actually quite a number of requirements you must meet in order to use the new service, which offers movies, news clips, documentaries and other content that is recorded directly to a customer’s DVR.

First off, DirecTV customers must lease a combination DirecTV receiver and DVR and subscribe to programming with DVR service. Downloading of any HD content requires the lease of a DirecTV HD-DVR, along with a subscription to their DVR service and HDTV programming option. DirecTV charges its customers an extra $9.95 per month in order to have access to any HDTV programming. This is in addition to normal programming subscription fees. The customer obviously must also have an HDTV capable television or converter box in order to view any HDTV content. Next, you will need access to a broadband Internet connection, as all Video On Demand content is actually downloaded via the Internet, rather than being received via satellite.

The service claims to currently have up to 4,000 titles available for download. This may sound like a lot, but actually looks pretty paltry when compared to the thousands of hours of programming available to DirecTV subscribers, who can already use their DVRs to schedule recordings months ahead of time. DirecTV was also the first programming provider to make its DVR features available to control via the Internet or cellphone, allowing customers to choose what they want to record from almost anywhere. DirecTV is offering this as a “free” addition to their regular programming, so it doesn’t cost anything extra to those who already have the above mentioned services.


Installation

Setup for the service is very straightforward if you already have normal DirecTV service up-and-running. An Ethernet port built into the back of most late model DirecTV receivers plugs directly into your broadband router. It will work using DHCP detection or can be programmed to use a static IP address. I was able to have the service activated and working in less than 5 minutes. It will likely take you longer if you don’t already have an Ethernet port available near your TV set. It is also possible to use a wireless broadband router in order to provide your receiver/DVR with Internet access. However, I would not recommend it due to the high transfer speeds and associated bandwidth bottleneck it would create on your network.

Once activated, you simply use your remote control to surf to channel 1000. From there, you are taken into a sub-menu, where you can browse programming by content type, genre or by individual channels. A number of networks such as The History Channel, HBO and Comedy Central have their own sub-sub-menus, which allows you to view all available VOD programming available from their respective networks.

The Bad News

Up until this point, I was pretty impressed with what I saw. It was only after I started taking a close look at what programming was available that I began to wonder whether this new service was really worth the effort. The most disappointing aspect of the service, by far, is the large number of movie titles that are only available via pay-per-view. From an economic perspective, this certainly makes sense. DirecTV isn’t making any “extra” money on this, unless you pay extra, so they have to have some type of “value added” programming. Still, the breadth and width of movies and TV programs that are classified as pay-per-view is rather staggering. Some of the movies on PPV are 20 or even 30 years old, and have been shown on network television for free on many occasions. Some network programmers, such as NBC, have also started charging for content that you can normally view for free. Personally, I find it rather insulting being asked to pay $1.99 just to watch a re-run of a network TV show. That’s just me though.

Another let down was the fact that there is no ability to sort through programming based upon what channels you already subscribe to. For example, almost all movies that do not fall into the PPV category are on premium movie channels like STARZ, HBO, Showtime, TMC, Cinemax, etc. Those listings will appear, even if you don’t subscribe to them. So, anyone browsing through the “movies” category that does not subscribe to DirecTV’s most expensive programming packages (which can easily run you well over $100 per month) will find very little that is available to them without paying extra.

Another disappointment is the lack of HDTV programming available to subscribers. Only a small percentage of DirecTV’s overall HDTV content is available via its VOD service. This is likely due to the high cost of bandwidth for transmitting HDTV content across the Internet. Even at broadband speeds, HDTV programs seem to take forever to download. It’s standard definition programming does not transfer all that quickly either. Even with the full bandwidth of a commercial T1 connection, waiting for features to complete downloading can be like watching a teapot and waiting for the water to boil. This is quite obviously not a real-time type of service. It’s nice for scheduling things to download well ahead of when you want to watch them, but not if you want to watch them immediately.

The Good News

The reason that titles take so long to download using this service can easily be justified by watching the final product. Since you are actually downloading an MPEG4 file, which is the same type of compression method used to transmit their programming via satellite, the quality of picture you will receive from their Video On Demand service is literally indistinguishable from DirecTV’s regular programming. In fact, other than the “VOD” label that shows-up next to each title, there is almost no way of telling the difference between programming you have recorded via satellite and VOD titles that you have downloaded over the Internet. They all appear right together when viewing a list of your recorded content.

One benefit of using DirecTV’s VOD service to download titles, rather than recording them to your DVR the traditional way, is that most titles currently have few, if any, commercial interruptions. So, DVR users who are used to hitting the fast-forward button to skip through commercials on recorded content can finally give their fingers a rest. Most shows have been re-edited to include a limited number of commercials, most of them being “teaser” ads for other network shows. It actually makes some network programming tolerable to sit through.

There is also a slew of exclusive content available to DirecTV VOD subscribers. Most of the titles we ran across were compiled by sources such as CNN. They have quite a number of interviews and short segments available that never quite made it on to their regular broadcasts. The presentation style seems to be much more laid-back than you would expect from some of these programmers. You are just as likely to see interviewers wearing a T-Shirt as a tie. I’m guessing that a large number of these shows will never see the light of day on regular television. The same can be said for many of the short clips you will find for reality shows and documentaries on other channels. There are a large number of outtakes, bloopers and other material that normally would never have gone any further than the cutting room floor. Enjoy it while you can. Once the mass public starts watching these services, we doubt that this type of programming will show-up anyplace other than YouTube.

Programming Pros and Cons

The programming you will find available from different programmers might not exactly be what one would expect. While some channels provide a wide array of programming that substantially duplicates what is available on their regular video channels, others provide only a small glimpse of what is available. For instance, while you will find a very good assortment of commercial-free movies available to you from HBO and Showtime (if you also subscribe to their premium movie services), you will find that others such as American Movie Classics don’t make ANY movies available for download. As for sports programming, you won’t find any. None of the national or regional sports channels have video on demand programming. Period. You will need to rely upon traditional DVR recording to catch any sporting events, unless they happen to be on pay-per-view.

Another programming oddity lies in the ability to download clips from some shows, but being unable to download the entire show. For example, while a number of clips from Comedy Central’s “Roast” series are often available for VOD download, you won’t be able to find entire shows from the series for download.

Probably the most frustrating thing for me is the inability to distinguish which programming is available to me as as a subscriber, and which isn’t. You won’t be able to download any programming from HBO’s Video On Demand service unless you subscribe to HBO, which makes sense. However, there are quite a few Video On Demand channels in the menu that I don’t even recognize. Some of these include The Smithsonian Channel, The Anime Network, Eurocinema, Film Festival, MGM, SONY, Warner Brothers, WWE, etc. New ones seem to be added all of the time. How do you know if you will be allowed to download programs on these channels or not? You won’t. You are seemingly allowed to schedule recordings on every channel that appears. If you are “eligible” to receive programming on these channels, the program will be downloaded for you. If you are not, the program will simply never appear. Seriously! There are no error messages or other menu help to clue you in on what you are allowed to download. Other than that, and perhaps your own memory (who can remember an exact list of the 200+ available channels that they subscribe to?), there is seemingly no way to tell which programs you are allowed to record, and which you aren’t.

The Bottom Line

Despite a number of programming “quirks”, if you already have DVR service with DirecTV and a broadband connection, this one really is a no-brainer. There is no extra cost involved and it takes only minutes to get up-and-running. The number of titles is limited at the moment, but everything we have read would tend to indicate that much, much more programming is on the way. While the service is definitely not something that would make me want to rush out and subscribe to DirecTV if I didn’t already have it, the superior programming, picture quality and customer service you will get as compared to cable is more than enough reason to make the switch.

DirecTV’s VOD service is a win-win situation for DirecTV, the programmers and consumers. If you don’t already have DirecTV, this is just another reason to make the switch from cable. I’ve been subscribing to DirecTV for well over 10 years now, and you couldn’t pay me to go back to cable. For those of you who have to have “everything” when it comes to television, this is about as close as you can get to TV Nirvana at the moment. If you can’t find something worth viewing with DirecTV HDTV service and video on demand, there truly is nothing to watch!

Update: This is just a brief update to the original article that I wrote above in 2008. Since I originally started viewing DirecTV’s Video On Demand (VOD) service, some additional technical issues have come to light. For starters, it seems that the original HR-22 HD-DVR receiver I started out with was a true lemon. It suffered from numerous “technical difficulties” during the few months that I owned it and finally had to be returned to the factory for replacement. I was sent a slightly updated version of the HR-22, which seems to have undergone some slight cosmetic as well as internal changes.

The cause of the old HR-22 having to be replaced was fairly obvious to me… a crashed hard drive. Unfortunately, I lost all of the pre-recoded content I had saved, including a number of pay-per-view events. The big loss here is due to the fact that DirecTV no longer allows you to save these events as long as you want on your DVR. They automatically “expire” after a certain amount of time, just as all DirecTV Video On Demand content eventually does.

As a side note, I had to pay a $20 shipping and handling charge to get the receiver replaced, even though it is technically a rented product. I have never understood DirecTV’s rental scheme. First, I had to pay $200 to (I thought) BUY the receiver. I didn’t sign any agreement saying that I agreed to “rent” the thing. After that, I have to pay an extra $5 per month to “rent” the HD-DVR FOREVER! To add insult to injury, activating the receiver that I paid $200 for puts me on the hook for the next TWO YEARS to pay an extra $10 a month for access to HD programming, whether you are able to view it or not. Strangely, DirecTV also gives you the option to pay another $6.95 per month for “insurance”, just in case you need help with a defective product of theirs. This seems more like the kind of scam that the cable companies or DISH Network would think of. It’s one of the few things about DirecTV that I really find myself insulted by, as a consumer.

On to more technical matters… I have found that not all video quality is created equal, when it comes to DirecTV’s Video On Demand service. Some “channels” on the VOD system seem of much higher quality than others. In particular, STARZ offers a huge selection of movies for download to those who purchase their service on DirecTV. Far more than any of the other premium movie channels. There’s just one problem… the video quality of their titles in standard resolution can be nearly unwatchable. I downloaded quite a number of STARZ movies on VOD that I had to quit watching after a few minutes, due to their awful video quality (or lack thereof). The problem was always the same. Video contained washed-out colors and blurry images. The blurriness was bad enough that it was difficult, if not impossible, to read any text that appeared in movie scenes. The quality difference was clearly visible when comparing it to the video on any standard resolution DirecTV channel.

Generally, poor video quality like this is usually the result of over-compression. That is, STARZ and/or DirecTV is likely trying to save money on bandwidth by purposefully reducing the picture quality in order to achieve faster download times. There really is no technical way to quantify the difference, due to the proprietary nature of DirecTV’s encoding system. However, the results are quite obvious to anyone that does not have severely impaired vision.

Another small “quirk” of DirecTV’s Video On Demand Service relates to volume control. For some reason, the audio levels of all programming downloaded via video on demand is significantly lower than that of DirecTV’s live, satellite programming. Unless you adjust the volume when switching from live satellite to video on demand, you will have a very difficult time hearing anything. Conversely, switching from video on demand titles to the live satellite feed will likely result in sound levels being so high as to severely annoy your next door neighbors. If you are unlucky enough to switch from a video on demand title to a live DirecTV channel during a commercial, you could be in for a very rude awakening, indeed. DirecTV raises audio levels during certain commercials so high as to make me worry about permanent hearing loss. The Federal Communications Commission bans this type of practice by over-the-air broadcasters, but it seems that DirecTV is immune from these regulations.

Speaking of which, I must admit that I no longer watch ANY DirecTV programming (that has commercials) in real-time, with the sole exception of news and some sports programming. Their blatant disregard for public safety by jacking up audio levels during their own commercials has finally pushed me to the point where I refuse to sit through ANY commercials on their service. Unless it’s a live event, I simply pre-record programs to my HD-DVR, then watch them later. I skip through ALL commercials using the fast forward button. It’s obvious that DirecTV itself is the one behind this, since the problem is worst during their own in-house ads. Some of these spots are promos for DirecTV, while others are simply those that they sell to other advertisers during time slots made available to them by the basic cable channels that they carry. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know when or where these ads will appear, so I am simply forced to stop watching all ads that appear anywhere on DirecTV, or order to avoid the pain and suffering that results from the outrageously high volume levels of DirecTV’s ads.

So, a note to those companies that advertise on any of the networks carried by DirecTV. I DO NOT WATCH YOUR COMMERCIALS. EVER. IF YOU ARE PAYING DIRECTV FOR “ADVERTISING”, YOU WARE WASTING YOUR MONEY. As long as DirecTV continues their current eardrum torturing scheme, I will continue “boycotting” their advertisers. Not that DirecTV is the only company guilty of this. Most cable systems do the same thing. It doesn’t mean that I have to put up with it though.


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