DIRECTV’s Whole Home DVR service
So about a month ago I noticed a “Multi-Room” option on my DIRECTV DVR’s system menu. Turns out there was an ongoing beta test program that would allow you to watch shows recorded on one DVR on another DVR if they were both connected to your home network. It may have been there a while, I don’t often pop over to the system menu.
Anyway this was really exciting for me, since in our old Chicago brownstone our media room only has a single coax cable run to it, which meant our HR21 DVR could only record or watch live one show at a time (which causes a ton of recording conflicts in our house). Our backup had been a second DVR (an older HR20-700) in the basement where it had been easy to drop two lines from the satellite without tearing up the walls. Since we didn’t want to watch TV down there, we were using a SlingCatcher to stream video over the wireless network from the Slingbox HD hooked up to the basement DVR (note that all our TVs and DVRs are HD, we don’t have any “standard def” equipment at this point).
While this worked pretty well, there was obvious picture degradation viewing our shows on the 60” Pioneer Kuro plasma in the media room. The Multi-Room Viewing (MVR) beta was a godsend in that the picture quality was exactly the same as if the show had been recorded on the DVR in the media room (it was just getting the undecoded data streamed over the home network, and then decoded by the HR21 DVR in that room). Awesome! Sure it could be a little pokey to start the playback, and trick play (FF, RWD, and skip) could be a little wonky, and sometimes the DVRs had to be rebooted as they would drop off the network and couldn’t be “seen” by each other, but overall the MVR beta was very impressive.
The catch was it was a beta. I guess living in the Google Age has desensitized me to the word “beta”; after all, everything seems like its beta software these days whether its labeled that or not. However it turns out DIRECTV was really doing testing, and on May 21st they actually shut the beta program down; imagine that!
After a responsive tweet from @DIRECTV, I checked their website and found all the info on the newly re-named Whole Home DVR service. At first I figured it was just time for DIRECTV to collect their $3/month charge for this feature (well worth it IMO), but after calling Customer Service to activate WHDVR I found it was actually a little more involved.
I could just turn on Whole Home the way I had it setup now; each DVR connected to a wireless N bridge that provided network and internet access, and the service would stream the data over the network and pull Pay-Per-View and other “connected home” features like TV Apps from the Internet. However my CSR told me that would be an “unsupported” network and in the future could be deactivated or new features might not be available on it.
The CSR went on to explain the preferred method was to upgrade my DIRECTV hardware to what’s called SWM with DECA connections. SWM (they pronounce it SWiM) stands for Single Wire Multiswitch, which means a DIRECTV dish installation is a lot more like CATV – only a single coax line needs to be run into the house, and then a splitter with a power inserter is used to distribute the signal to all your other rooms/receivers/DVRs. The beauty of this is a single line can now support up to 16 DIRECTV tuners! That’s the extreme example, more typical is what I got, a SWM8 switch that supports up to 8 (remember though that a DVR with two tuners is going to use two of those 8 available connections even though its one box). Key to that however is now a DVR with just one coax connection can record two shows at once!
This was exactly what I needed – it was actually better than the MVR option because now I’d be able to record two shows at the same time on the media room DVR, ending our show “conflicts”. The CSR (who really knew her stuff, by the way), then went on to explain that because the Whole Home DVR service let you share DVRs across all DIRECTV connected TVs, you could now do functions like pause in one room and pick up the show in another (similar to the UVerse options being advertised by AT&T), use non-DVR receivers in rooms like the kitchen or bedroom and still have access to all your shows. She explained the upgrade cost was $99 for the hardware and $49 for the installation; I was sold and we scheduled the install for that Saturday (which was only two days away, which I was pretty impressed with).
The install comprised of installing the new SWM8 LNB on my dish, and then just one of the existing four coax lines was used back to the basement. I have a distribution closet there where all the coax for the house feeds into (we’ve been using basic cable in the rooms that don’t have a DIRECTV receiver, because with the old system only allowed a maximum of four connections: one DVR with two lines [basement] and two more DVRs [media room and bedroom] each with a single coax line). In the distribution closet where the line from the dish came in, the tech hooked up the 8 way splitter and and the lines that connected the basement, media room and bedroom DVRs.
Now that alone would give me the capability to record two shows on one DVR with a single coax connection, but in order to stream shows between receivers a data network needs to be established that connects all the receivers together. This is where the DIRECTV Ethernet Coax Adapter (DECA) comes into play. The latest DVRs and receivers from DIRECTV (H24 and HR24) have DECA support built into them, but my HR21 and two HR20-700’s needed special DECA adapter boxes attached to them in order to establish the “DECA Cloud”. An additional DECA box needed to added to the cloud as well to provide Internet access for the receivers. This was done by splitting the line going to the basement DVR and hooking a DECA with its own power inserter (since the receivers/DVRs usually supply the power to the DECA units), and then I connected the wireless N bridge that originally connected directly to the DVR to that “standalone” DECA instead.
The beauty of the DECAs is twofold. First, the video streaming happens within the DECA cloud network, not on my home network, so all that traffic doesn’t clog up the network my home PCs are one. Second, a single internet connection supplies internet connectivity to all my DIRECTV receivers. My house three-story home plus finished basement doesn’t have any pre-wired network drops so everything is wireless, and the further you get away from the basement router the weaker the signal and slower the throughput. Now all the receivers use the wireless connection closest to the router (same floor, only 30 feet away). The bedroom on the third floor didn’t have a wireless bridge so it had no internet access; now it does.
So how well does it work? Beautifully. When watching shows from a “remote” DVR there is still a noticeable pause before the program actually starts, but once it’s rolling the trick play functions like 30 second skip are very responsive. The internet access for things like PPV and TV Apps seems the same as it was when each receiver had its own dedicated wireless bridge, so nothing given up there. I forgot to mention this setup also gives you access to media sharing off your home network, so I can now stream pictures and music from my HP MediaSmart Windows Home Server (and videos too, but I’d need to change some settings on my server as the DIRECTV receivers can’t decode h.264 encoded video). This setup also lets you use DIRECTV2PC, which lets you stream shows from a DVR to any of your home PCs/laptops (that meet the somewhat stringent hardware requirements – I actually have found that my Slingbox still works best for this functionality).
For me this was definitely worth the $145 fee to upgrade the system, and the $3/month fee for the Whole Room service seems reasonable. The system works so well I’m adding a H24 receiver to the kitchen to replace the basic cable HD service and if that works well I will replace the bedroom HR20-700 DVR with a new H24 receiver as well. Two DVRs is plenty, mainly providing extra storage capacity and the ability to record a third (and even fourth) show at the same time, should the need arise. Since you can schedule, watch and delete recordings from the non-DVR receivers, there’s no need for a DVR in the bedroom, and this will give us an additional “tuner” if we want to use it in another room.
If you decide to move forward with upgrading your existing system, be sure to read up on exactly how the installs are setup, the hardware configs, and of course verify your receivers and/or DVRs support the system. Here are a couple of links to get you started:
You need to understand this because the upgrade process is very new to the DIRECTV technicians, especially if a third-party contractor is dispatched. The tech who did my upgrade was very knowledgeable on setting up the SWM (since this has been around a while), and while he knew he needed to install the DECA units at the receivers, he thought that they should be left connected to their own individual wireless N bridges instead of using an extra DECA unit to provide internet access. Fortunately he was very interested in my explanations regarding the difference between streaming over the home network vs. the DECA cloud, why a separate DECA for internet access was needed, and was receptive to reviewing the example installation diagrams I had printed from the DBSTalk forums (he actually took those with him!).
This just started rolling out nationally in late May and based on the poll results in the DBSTalk forums you probably have a 50-50 chance of there being some sort of headache with your install (from the tech not having the right hardware with him or just flat out confusion on what needs to be done). That said, if you’re willing to arm yourself with a little knowledge, I would wholeheartedly recommend you move forward today with the upgrade and modernize your DIRECTV experience with the latest features, it’s all pretty amazing!