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The DIRECTV iPad app in depth

The DIRECTV iPad App, a free app that we briefly wrote about when it was first released, is one of the best, most complete iPad apps I've used. If you are one of the 160,000 DIRECTV customers with a Wi-Fi connection to an HR20, HR21, R22, R23, HR24, H21, H23, H24 or H25 model receiver (or multiples of these for that matter), download the app before reading any further. Those with other models can't set a recording, but can browse the program guide. This app is almost perfect with only a few minor caveats, which I'll get to later. In function, it does all that the free iPhone app does (like searching for shows) and much more. I don't have a 3G iPad, so my testing was Wi-Fi only.

When you first run it, it will find all of your connected receivers. If it fails, you'll need to execute the following steps on your remote control: Menu button > Parental Fav's and Setup > System Setup > Whole Home > External Devices > Allow. To confirm that you've done it correctly, touch the little gear in the upper right corner to produce a screen that looks something like this:

This screen not only lists your DVRs, but it also gives you a great deal of control over how the app will operate. I suggest that you check out every option before you really start playing with the app. Tap the little arrow on the right, and you'll find out if your receiver has an IP address and can be used with the app without using a wired or wireless Wi-Fi connection. In my house, I have connections to Theater 1 and Theater 2, and checking each with the arrow tells me my IP address and that control is enabled. All the rest show no IP address and can eventually be used if I connect them to Wi-Fi. At the bottom left of the screen, you can see your enabled receivers as well as which one is controlling your TV, marked with a check, as seen on the next page.

Choose one, and you'll be brought to the "Home" screen. My situation is different than most. I have a home theater with two DIRECTV DVR's installed that use the same projection screen. I use a Crestron home automation system, but it was in the shop, so this solved my unique problem of having one physical remote control both boxes. DIRECTV couldn't even figure out how to use two different remotes to access individual boxes. I used electrical tape to cover the the "eye" of the DVR I didn't want to use so that I didn't delete shows from the wrong DVR. The iPad app solved that since it's using Wi-Fi.

The "Home" screen is a customizable listing of information. The first panel shows what you're watching and lets you record the show or gives you the option of tapping on the "More Info" button. Many shows don't provide any additional information, but for those that do, you'll be able to see a lot more than you can by using the physical remote control. When you tap on a show, you're shown a box that gives you the option of displaying more information or watching it on TV, but that is an extra step before you can get at the program you want to see. This is where the "QuickTune" panels come in. It's a small thing, but something I found quite useful. If you populate the "QuickTune" panel, you avoid the interim step. Your TV immediately plays the requested show. To make it even nicer, there is a "QuickTune Icon" panel that allows three lines of icons in each row. Tap on an icon, and the selected station's programming appears without delay. If you do want still more information, tap on anything not on a "QuickTune" panel and you'll get the following screen.

Scroll up to find other airings, the cast and crew, some photos, other shows that are similar and parental information. If you tap on photos, you'll get a gallery of pictures in the main panel. Along with recording the show, there is an option to record the series based on criteria that was selected on the Settings page. Tap the "Home" button and return to the three panel display. This display allows you to scroll left or right to see a fully editable number of panels that let you customize to your heart's content. The far right panel lets you set up the order in which the panels will be displayed. You can delete panels you're not interested in, add ones you like and change the display order.

Slide any choice up or down on the right of the screen to change the display order. Delete the ones that don't interest you. Any deleted item can be replaced later. "Done" brings you back to the "Home" screen where you'll find that any panel can be personalized. But there is a slight problem there; when you edit a panel, you'll see a screen that can be a bit confusing:

You can view channels in a number of ways. When you tap a channel, a check mark appears and it's added to the current panel, but the check marks get in the way of choosing how to get to channels by number (which are in increments of 50). It's quite easy to hit the wrong thing, and I think this could have been designed better. After channels have been selected, you can edit their display order on a screen similar to the "Customize Layout & Content" screen. This is especially nice since you're not limited to seeing channels displayed in numeric order.

Tapping the "Playlist" button and selecting which DVR you want to check out is viewable in either a "List View" or a "Poster View." In the list, if there is only one episode, you can watch it instantly. If there is more than one episode, tapping a folder on the right brings up all the shows with a "Watch on TV" button for each. This is the "Poster View."

This view doesn't have a mode to watch instantly. Instead, tapping on an item brings up a window offering a bit of information and a "Watch on TV" button if there is only one show. A folder of shows brings up a listing allowing you to watch any one of them. It also gives you the date and time that each show was recorded in both views. Often there is no graphic, which is fine because it's really only eye candy. An annoying thing about "Playlists" is that they don't automatically update. The date of the most recent update is displayed, and you have to tap on it to poll and update. The problem is that this can take quite a long time. Often, I've had to wait up to five minutes for the screen to refresh. When it it does come up, the playlist can be filtered to display in alphabetical (A-Z or Z-A) order, watched or unwatched shows and categories such as Movies, Sports, TV shows, HD shows or everything at once.

Tapping the "Guide" button gives you a screen similar to the one found on the TV, but with more information. It's easy to navigate to different days, and a button to the right of the time lets you set the display to show from one to three hours on one screen. You can sort the list by channel numbers or the first letter of station names. Tapping on the heart on the left panel reduces the list to display only stations that you've selected to appear on any of the panels set up on the "Home" screen. This can be quite a time saver. I found the "List View" to be less useful since it only shows what is currently playing.

The "Movies" button brings up a very flexible listing of the movies on demand. It can be sorted quite a number of ways with the "Poster View" providing less information than the "List View," which gives you star ratings, whether or not the film is available in 1080p and the MPAA rating. In both views, you can browse by genre, new releases and what's currently playing. Tapping a choice or a poster displays a window that gives you more information or allows you to record the film.

For sports fans, the DIRECTV iPad app really has you covered and provides information not available on your TV. Tapping the button on the "Home" screen brings up a display of games currently being played, including the score and how far the game has progressed. If the game is currently being broadcast, a tap will put it on your TV. You also get to see upcoming games and when they'll start. This is in addition to the scrollable "Home" screen panel. You can customize this information by designating your favorite sports so that only those will appear, and you can choose their order.

From the "Home" screen Sports panel, you can designate your favorite teams or conferences so that only those will appear.

Sports is the most customizable part of the app, and although I'm not a sports fan, I can see that this can bring an amazing amount of specificity, not only letting you really hone down your intererests but also telling you when upcoming games will air, which makes it incredibly easy to not miss a game.

The "Remote" button brings up most all the functions of the physical remote, but this remote is on steroids. As you can see, most all the functions are there, so the app is really all you need to fully control your DVR. If you are a DIRECTV user, you will be familiar with this screen, but there are a few extras that I found. The button that lets you skip two and a half minutes as well as the button that fast forwards at three times the normal speed are adjustable if you hold them down for a second or two.

This is perfect for skipping commercials, and since each station, and show for that matter, can have varying times for commercial breaks, I found this to really come in handy. Once you set it, the time skip button changes from two and half minutes to whatever you set until you repeat the process and give it a different time. The same is true for the three minute fast forward button that can be set for one, two or three times the normal playback speed. If the time skip button is pressed a few times, the app knows it and handles it properly. For example, if it's set for three minutes, tapping it three times will skip nine minutes at up to 30 times the regular speed.

Although this app is amazingly well-designed, there are are still a few kinks that I'd like to see ironed out. It doesn't really support multitasking. When first launched, it validates your account before it gets to the "Home" screen. If you double press the iPad's Home Button and choose another app, when you return to the DIRECTV app, it doesn't pick up where you left off -- it starts again by re-validating. Not the biggest of deals, but I'm impatient. Another glitch is that when you pause a show using the "Remote" function and check out another show, when you come back to the first show, it doesn't resume where it left off -- it starts the program from the beginning. This is one thing the physical remote does that should be built into the app. I don't know if it's possible to fix these problems, but doing so would make using the app a much smoother experience.

This has been quite an exhaustive tour of one of the finest apps I've seen for the iPad. I wanted to be as complete as possible since there is so much built in that it took me a few weeks to find everything, often by accident. The first graphic in this post shows an overlay of many of the things that the app can do, but this screen only shows up on first launch, and it's never to be seen again. Although there is a question mark button on the upper right that takes you to a document of questions and answers, it would be nice to have the overlay displayed any time you would like. But carping aside, DIRECTV has done a masterful job, and I am still in awe of both how much they built in and how easy it is to tailor it to your liking. Great job!



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App Review

The DIRECTV iPad App, a free app that we briefly wrote about when it was first released, is one of the best, most complete iPad apps...