How to Shop for Satellite TV Receivers and Dishes

It's undeniable - shopping for a new satellite tv system can be tough. Take a look, for example-if you dare-at Rapid Satellite, a one-stop Internet shopping point for satellite TV. A recent search turned up the following entries:

DIRECTV DVR80 3-Room 70 Hour DIRECTV DVR Satellite TV System w/ TiVo (1) DVR80 (2) D10 with Standard Dish, Multi-Switch & Standard Installation

DIRECTV DVR80 3-Room 70 Hour DIRECTV DVR Satellite TV System w/ TiVo (1) DVR80 (2) D10 with Triple LNB Dish & Standard Installation

DIRECTV 3-Room 70 Hour DIRECTV DVR System w/ TiVo (2) TiVo Receivers (1) Hughes Director Receiver with Standard Dish, Multi-Switch & Standard Installation

DIRECTV 3-Room System (1) HR10-250 200 Hour (STD) 35 Hour (HDTV) DIRECTV High Definition DVR w/ TiVo (2) DIRECTV Receiver System with Triple LNB Dish & Standard Installation

A little help here? Those ads are about as welcoming as a brick wall, and they present us with more acronyms than the U.S. military. For pure reading pleasure, they rank somewhere between Finnegans Wake and the book of Leviticus. Am I buying satellite TV service, or naming robots for science fantasy sequels? Relax, Luke Skywalker. Scanning through orbital space may not be like dusting crops, but we'll work our way through this thing together. Let's start with the first ad.

DIRECTV DVR80 3-Room 70 Hour DIRECTV DVR Satellite TV System w/ TiVo (1) DVR80 (2) D10 with Standard Dish, Multi-Switch & Standard Installation

Okay, first things first. DirecTV is a national satellite TV subscription service owned by Hughes Electronics and, in large part, Fox Entertainment. In order to watch DirecTV programming, one must first by a dish to collect the signals beamed to Earth by the satellite. Then one must buy a set-top box to decode those signals. Lastly, one must have a TV of some kind to display the imagery represented by those signals. The first ad is trying to sell us a hardware package that'll allow us to watch DirecTV, but it adds a few nifty bells and whistles. For example, this package includes another device called a DVR80. And what exactly is that? It looks like a license plate.

Good guess! No, a DVR80 is a brand of receiver manufactured and sold by RCA. To be more precise, it receives DirecTV signals as well as TiVo interactions. TiVo is a kind of DVR, or Digital Video Recorder, manufactured by the TiVo company. A Digital Video Recorder does exactly what it claims to do: It records video, not on tape as a VHS video recorder would, but as digital data in a dedicated hard drive. The DVR80 is capable of recording up to seventy hours of digital material, just as promised obliquely in the ad. What the ad doesn't make clear is that the amount of material the hard drive can store depends on how detailed the information is. Just as a VHS tape can hold anywhere from two to six hours of material, depending on the image quality, so do DVR image recordings suffer when recorded at the seventy-hour setting. The DVR80 has Dolby Digital sound capability and comes with a universal infrared remote control. When sold separately, it retails for anywhere between $100 and $150.

The comparison to VHS tends to minimize what TiVo can do. The hardware and allows for instant replays of live TV, plus the ability to skip through commercials while a program is airing. The Season Pass feature tracks the user's favorite shows, even if they change network time slots, and records them each week automatically. It's even capable of predicting which unfamiliar shows the user might like, based on his or her previous recordings. Simply put, TiVo is neato.

But what in blue blazes is a "D10?" Isn't that Eminem's Detroit rap posse? No, that would be "D12," Slim Shady. A D10 is nothing more than the set-top box that receives DirecTV signals. It features an Advanced Program Guide interface, and is capable of receiving signals from several DirecTV satellites to the tune of over 225 channels. The box itself costs about $50 retail. A "multi-switch" is, well, a switch designed to allow more than one set-top box to receive information from the same satellite dish receiver. Some models feature built-in amplification. The model offered with this package has three different outputs to send video to TVs in three different areas of a house. Other multi-switches are designed to allow one satellite dish receiver to provide video to more than one home. As might be easily guessed, DirecTV does not encourage the sharing of its video offerings by entire neighborhoods of houses. It does, however, promise to install these devices for you, at a combined package cost of only $47.95. What a bargain! It's a good thing RapidSatellite doesn't charge by the acronym.

The second ad presents only one new complication, the "Triple LNB Dish." A Triple LNB Dish, also known in DirecTV parlance as a Phase III Mulitsatellite Dish, is an 18" by 20" dish receiver that collects broadcast signals from three different satellites. Customers with high-definition TV sets will definitely want to upgrade to Triple LNB, because without it, it's impossible to receive satellite broadcasts in HDTV. "LNB" stands for "low-noise block." It's the device that hangs off the arm of the satellite dish and looks sort of like a flashlight. So what does it do? To find out, we first have to crane our necks and stare up into orbit. The DirecTV satellite at 101 degrees has 32 transponders, numbered 1 to 32 for some reason, each of which sends a group of channels. Back on Earth, an LNB converter responds to changes in the voltage transmitted by the DirecTV receiver by looking at either the odd- or even-numbered channels. A Triple LNB Dish, not too surprisingly, includes three LNB converters, each operating independently of the other two. That way, three different DirecTV receivers can look at three different stations on three different transponders. Long story short, it means Mom can watch HGTV while Dad checks out Sports Center. Meanwhile, their progeny have gathered around a third TV set to enjoy Aqua Teen Hunger Force, all at the same time. Thanks to DVR and TiVo technology, it's entirely possible that all three programs were recorded weeks ago.

As for the third ad, a "Hughes Director" is the standard receiver offered with basic DirecTV packages. How standard? Many DirecTV vendors are now offering the device free with purchase of a dish receiver. Still, it's a perfectly adequate receiver, with many of the features offered by the snazzier DVR80. While it can't record video, it does offer a WatchWord search feature that scans through DirecTV program menus and alerts the user when favorite shows are about to come on.

The "HR10-250" receiver is a much pricier alternative, cashing in at somewhere around a thousand bucks. Still, as Ferris Bueller once noted, "It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up." It contains four tuners and a built-in DVR with TiVo. These four tuners allow for two HD shows to be recorded at once, even as the user watches a third prerecorded show. The 250 gigabyte hard drive holds about 30 hours of HDTV, or as many as 200 hours of non-high-def video (at 480 lines of pixels). PCWorld critic Cathy Lu's review of the HR10-250 decided, "Cost aside, the DirecTV HD DVR is the best way that I've found to watch and record HD." She gave it four and a half stars out of five. That's pretty good for a machine whose profoundly uninspired name makes it sound like a tax form.

Sarah Gustafson is a freelance writer and contributing author to - a site that provides satellite TV news and consumer buying advice.

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