DishPro PVR 501 Review

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By Ken Stuart (Revised 7/8/01 to reflect V118 SW changes)

My Dish Pro 501 just arrived on Friday afternoon from Dish Depot (who I hear have been incredibly busy trying to get everyone's unit shipped out). (I opted to upgrade the shipping, since almost all of my favorite TV programs are on the weekend). I have bought previous products from them (a DISHPlayer and some accessories) and have always received good and prompt service, so I chose to pre-order my 501 from there. (It's if you want to check out their prices and products.)

I decided to write a long and comprehensive review that would contain everything about the receiver that would be valuable for someone who is somewhat new to DBS, rather than just the highlights. So, it might be a little boring for the enthusiast, but everything is in there. :-)

My comments are based on not having bought a receiver in two years - some things that seem new to me might also be found on other recent receivers. I have previously owned a 4000, 3000 and DISHPlayer.

The 501 comes with:

The two main features of the 501 not found in older receivers, like my 4000, are Open TV and a hard disk.

Open TV is an interactive TV system. Currently, the only application for Open TV on Dish Network is AccuWeather local weather information on channel 9500. However, my city was not included - the closest one is 40 miles away, with somewhat different weather conditions. Future applications will undoubtedly include impulse shopping, as well as possible interactive sports (multiple angles and stats) and game show applications. But, OpenTV is still mainly a future capability at this point - but one that could eventually be valuable to have on your receiver.

However, the main feature of the 501 is the hard disk. This provides two main features, TV Pause and Hard Disk Recording (“PTV” as it is called by Dish Network).

TV Pause allows you to pause any TV viewing, just as you would on a VCR. And, like a VCR, you can rewind and fastforward, at speeds of 4x, 15x, 60x and 300x. And, very useful is the 10-second replay button (to see that sports play again, or to replay that line of dialogue you couldn't quite make out), and the 30-second advance (just the length of one commercial, of course).

The Pause button is a yellow button right in the middle of the remote and “toggles”, ie one press to pause, and another to resume. While the program is paused, a counter appears with the length of time that you have paused. This counter is cumulative, ie it is the total amount of time that the program has been delayed. This is valuable in case you are planning on watching another program soon on another channel, since the delay only applies to the channel you are viewing. TV Pause is a very useful feature, as you will find out the first time that the phone or the door bell rings during a program you are enjoying!

The other major feature of the 501 is Hard Disk Recording, which Dish Network calls “PTV”. At this point, they simply added a “PTV” option to the usual options of “Auto-tune”, “VCR” and “Reminder” and the usual repeat options of “once”,“daily”,“weekly” and “Mon-Fri”. And, as with previous Dish Network receivers, you can create a timer manually, using the above options, and then entering channel number and start and end times. Or you can create a timer by selecting a future program in the Guide, which adds the usual option of “start one minute early”.

Anyway, if you select “PTV” as the type of timer, the program is recorded to the internal hard disk. The hard disk is 40GB, which allows approximately 30 hours of recording. Pressing the “PTV” button on the remote, allows you to select any of the previously recorded programs to view. The same VCR-like controls that you use in TV Pause also work here.

You don't have to wait until the program is finished to start watching it. Any time after the recording starts, you can go to “PTV” and select that program and start watching. Or, you can select any other program you have recorded, and you can view it while your other program is still recording.

When the hard disk is full, ie once you have recorded 30 hours of programming, then the system will automatically delete the oldest programs in order to fit your new recordings. But, if you have an old program you haven't viewed, but really want to see, you can mark it as “protected” in the recording's screen that you can select after pressing the “PTV” button.

And, one-time timers can be set to “protect” in advance! That means, you can go on vacation, and set a protected timer for that season conclusion of your favorite show, and be sure that the daily timer for a less important magazine show will not cause that important recording to be deleted -- no matter how many days your plane is delayed. (Daily and weekly timers cannot be protected, undoubtedly because they cannot guarantee there will be enough space weeks later for the recording.)

Audio-only music channels can also be paused (!) and rewound and fastforwarded. So, you can still find out what that great song was, even if it ended before you could get to look at the screen. (Great if you keep your TV off while playing the music channels to save electricity.)

And, audio-only music channels can be recorded ! Both pausing and recording is complete with song titles. And, like the 4000, the song titles move, instead of using a screen saver, so - unlike DISHPlayer - you can continue to view the song titles indefinitely.

Another nice feature not currently found on DISHPlayer is that the PTV list of recordings tells you how much hard disk recording time is available. So, no guesswork as to whether you can fit that upcoming show.

Another nice touch is a red light on the front panel that indicates a PTV recording in progress.

You can also record the current program to the hard disk simply by pressing the record button. Unlike DISHPlayer, this works on any portion of the current program, in other words, if you change the channel and decide you like the program enough to record it (for example, if you are watching something and think that your spouse would like it too), you can rewind back to the beginning and press the record button and it will start recording at that point.

Another useful feature (found on most Dish Network receivers) is “browse”. This key on the remote places a transparent banner at the top of the screen stating the program name, channel number, start time, and time remaining in the program. Another identical banner appears on the bottom. But, pressing the right button changes the bottom banner to represent the next program on that channel. Or entering the number of a channel gives information on the current or next program on that channel - allowing you to “browse” all the other channels and programs. This can also be done while the program is recording or while it is delayed.

My subjective impression is that the interface and guide are significantly faster than the 4000 or DISHPlayer. [And, a free software upgrade downloaded to all receivers at the end of June 2001 put the guide on the hard dive. This means the guide doesn't have the “please wait or cancel” messages found in many DBS receivers. The guide is now accessible instantly and will scroll to future time blocks without that annoying delay sometimes found in other receivers. The guide now also has a fully functional PIP, meaning that you can still see what is happening on your current channel, while you look through the guide listings. Also included in the upgrade was an increase in the number of timers to 50.]

Unlike the DISHPlayer, the 501 is surprisingly quiet. It puts out a fraction of the noise of a DISHPlayer.

Other useful information is that the previous UHF remotes, such as used for the 4000, will work on the 501. The “vcr” buttons on the 4000 remote control the TV Pause functions - except that the FF and REW buttons have already been previously mapped to Page Up and Page Down, so there are no keys to do FF and REW. Also, the 501 remote does not put out as strong a UHF signal as my old 4000 remote.

All other features of the 4900 are still present - Dolby Digital output through Toslink optical cable, favorites lists including a “subscribed only” list and so on. See the 4900 on for details.

Since the 501 is based on the existing 4900 satellite receiver design, there are a few drawbacks - relative to other hard disk recorders - that should be mentioned. I would like to point out that EchoStar receivers can have their software upgraded by automatic downloads from the satellite and all previous receivers have had new features added this way, such as song titles and timer enhancements. So, some of these “drawbacks” may be temporary, as future software upgrades may contain some of these features. But, there is no guarantee.

First off, DISHPlayer has a 7-day Guide, while 501 has only the standard Dish Network 44-hour guide. Dish Network had announced that they were going to implement its own 9-day guide by the end of June 2001, but this was not completed in time, and no new date has yet been announced. Also, DISHPlayer has a search function that can look for a word or phrase in the entire Guide. There is a “search” button on the 501 remote, but this feature has yet to be implemented.

The EchoStar Dish Pro Model 501 receiver adds some valuable new features to its previous model 4900, including TV Pause and Hard Disk Recording (“PTV”). Currently, unlike some hard disk recorders, there is no extra monthly charge for these features, and the current situation is that those who purchases right now will not have to pay a monthly fee for PTV for the life of their 501. But, this may change for future purchasers, and may be different for other models yet to come.

Currently, the retail price on the 501 is $349 for a standalone unit and $399 for a complete system with a Dish 500 dish (and I'm told the complete system includes installation instructions).