Review of Cox Communications / Scientific Atlanta Exporlorer 8300HD DVR

In summary: All DVRs are not alike. Don't waste your time with anything other than a Tivo regardless of the cost.

Some of my criticisms of the SA Explorer 8300HD DVR are a result of Cox being an inept cable provider since they haven't released an updated firmware that addresses atleast one bug that the 8300HD DVR has (Scientific Atlanta released a fix last year). So it impossible to provide a review specific to the 8300HD DVR without commenting on the only cable provider, Cox, in my area.

Don't get me started

My first complaint about the 8300HD DVR was revealed about 20 seconds after connecting it to my A/V system. I intended to connect the 8300HD to my A/V receiver via the HDMI connector of the 8300HD. The HDMI protocol provides the highest quality audio and video signal using a single, digital cable. After connecting the 8300HD via HDMI to my Yamaha RX-V2700 receiver using one of it's 3 HDMI inputs, I then connected the HDMI out of the receiver to my TV. Upon viewing an HD channel I received a message stating that I could not view it because my TV did not support HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection). This message is completely false since both my TV and receiver support HDCP. The fact of the matter is that the 8300HD does not support what is known as an HDMI repeater device (ie. my Yamaha A/V receiver repeats the HDMI signal to my tv). That is, if I connected the 8300HD directly to my tv, then things would work properly but this isn't an option for me and also proves that the 8300HD error message is incorrect.

Apparently, Scientific Atlanta released a firmware upgrade (over 1 year ago) that fixes this problem which Cox has refused to provide. Although Cox claims to be "your digital experts" clearly they are anything but. First off, when I reported this problem to them they didn't even know what HDCP was. Then they inisted the error message about the HDCP violation was coming from my tv and not the 8300HD DVR (which is false considering the documentation of the 8300HD DVR includes this error message!). Finally, they gave me the response that I've now heard several times, "we don't support HDMI in your area". I take this to mean, "we don't have any competition in your area so we're not going to bother supporting HDMI". I suspect in areas where consumers have multiple options (Verizon, Comcast, etc) then they probably do support HDMI. Why do the so-called "digital experts" only support analog signals? Clearly, Cox has limited knowledge of the 8300HD DVR which they promote and provide and by their own admission their self-proclaimed "digital experts" status is meritless.

To make matters worse Scientific Atlanta doesn't provide end-user support so if you have a problem with their 8300HD DVR you have to deal with your cable provider. Cox routinely runs anti-satellite ads claiming that with satellite you don't know who to call if you have a problem (the provider, the installer, etc)... however, when you call Cox with a problem they can't even come close to solving it, so I'd rather call someone who did (in this case, Scientific Atlanta, since they have the fix, but I can't because they won't support end-users).

In order to get around this signficant limitation, I needed to connect the 8300HD DVR to my receiver via the analog component video connector and digital audio co-axial connector. The end result is that I now have several cables running from the 8300HD DVR to my receiver and slightly less video quality although, it's probably not considerably since Cox over-compresses the video signal anyway so that it's supposed 1080i HD quality looks no better than an upconverted DVD (which is 480p) using an Oppo DV-971HD DVD player.

Prior to leasing the 8300HD DVR from Cox I used a Tivo Series 1 (from 1999). When I took the plunge to digital cable and HD it was hard for me to justify spending $799 on a Tivo Series 3 considering Cox offered the 8300HD DVR for about $15/month. However, after using the 8300HD DVR I am convinced that shelling out $800 MSRP for a Tivo Series 3 is an absolute bargain!!! If you dropped a Tivo into molten lava for several seconds it would likely behave more intelligently than a brand new Scientific Atlanta 8300HD DVR.

Bugs, bugs and more bugs

Like Tivo, the 8300HD DVR allows you to fast forward from 1x to 3x. Unlike Tivo, the 1x mode only performs properly 1 out of 3 times! Most of the time, when I press forward once the image on the screen appears paused rather than forwarding, however when your press play the video has indeed forwarded but you have no visual indicator of how far. Tivo's forwarding works flawlessly.

The 8300HD DVR allows you to schedule multiple recordings at the same time. However, I have found that if you make changes to recordings it sometimes seems to lose track of them. I wanted to record 2 football games the other day. Since games can go into overtime I always add an hour to the telecast. I had accidentally scheduled the 10 AM - 2 PM and 1 PM - 5 PM games on the standard def channels. I then cancelled them and added the HD channels in their place. I received messages stating that there were already 2 recordings scheduled which wasn't the case. After I finally corrected the problem and began to view my in-progress recording I discovered that it was still recording the standard def channel for both games!

I typically view football games in a delayed mode. That is, if the game starts at 1 PM, I let the DVR record the game from 1 PM. I can then begin viewing the game at 3 PM from the beginning. The 8300HD DVR doesn't allow you to do this easily. When you select an in-progress recording (as opposed to one that has completed) it takes you to the end (or real time) rather than the beginning of the recorded program! This is clearly one of the stupidest behaviors and it absolutely spoiled one football game for me since I learned the late 4th quarter score immediately. Afterall, if I really wanted to view the live (current) state of the recording, wouldn't I simply tune to the appropriate channel? Considering that it's far easier to tune a channel than to navigate through the available recordings and then select one, why would anybody choosing an in-progress recording want to view the live event?

In order to get to the beginning you need to press rewind 3x and allow it to churn away for 10 minutes or so. However, if you are recording a sporting event you need to avoid viewing the screen or else you'll know the score and it'll probably ruin your experience. Unfortunately, I found this out the hardway. Tivo's skip button will toggle between skipping to the beginning and end of any program, so you can seemlessly go from one end to the other without exclusively relying on the forward/rewind buttons for 10 minutes. Intuitively, on a Tivo, when you view an in-progress program it starts at the beginning.

When viewing an in-progress program when the actual recording ends your viewing of the in-progress programs ends abruptly and the DVR tunes to live programming! I had just watched 3 3/4 quarters of a football game and my game simply vanished from the tv. In order for me to continue my viewing I needed to view my recorded shows, select the game and then, since it starts from the beginning if it's already recorded, I had to forward through it for 10 minutes until it was at the point that it lost track of.

As if those gripes weren't enough, occasionally, when watching TV the picture becomes enlarged and unwatchable with black bars inserted that divide up the screen in 4 non-uniform parts. I have to press zoom repeatedly to correct this glitch.

I'm sick of the 8300HD DVR, outside of it's ability to record HiDef content, there is not a single feature about it that I prefer over my Tivo Series 1! Considering that I purchased my Series 1 in 1999, the fact that a much newer 8300HD DVR can't compare to an even legacy Tivo interface is quite astonishing.

I'm buying the Tivo Series 3. Those price gouging "friends in the digital age" (Cox's slogan) are charging $60 to install the CableCards into the Series 3. It's a ridiculous price (I believe most other cable companies charge less than $40, even as low as $13, but not Cox, they need to nickel and dime the consumer to keep their Santa Barbara area monopoly intact).

To make matters worse, they initially told me the cost would be $60 no matter how many Cablecards (with a maximum of 2) I wished to have installed. I had the salesperson repeat his response several times to make sure I was hearing correctly. Two hours later I completed my Tivo Series 3 puchase and decided to place the Cablecard order they then informed me it would be twice as much as they initially quoted-- a whopping $120 to install 2 Cablecards for the Tivo Series 3. I spoke with a Tivo salesperson and they were amazed, it was by far the highest price they had heard for Cablecard installation. Cox typically charges $60 for a digital connection and $10 for each additional connection, so I believe they are totally abusing the consumer that wants to steer away from the less than adequate DVR that they provide.

However after finally speaking with a Cox customer service supervisor, she agreed that the initial quoted price should prevail. Thankfully, atleast one person at Cox has some integrity.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD DVR a 0 and Cox a -1000 (minus 1000). Considering that the 8300HD DVR has ruined atleast one sporting event for me and frustrated me to no end with it's ridiculous interface and bugs, I cannot insult a Tivo by awarding it a positive rating. Since Cox fails to provide HDMI support in my area, fails to incorporate Scientific Atlanta firmware enhancements, provides limited knowledge of the products that they provide and insists on taking outrageous financial advantage of their Santa Barbara monopoly, I rate them a minus 1000. Even if the Cox supervisor saved some face (and a customer, for the time being) that isn't enough to offset the frustration I have had to experience because of their practices.

You may also be interested in my review of the Tivo Series 3 HD DVR.

This review is copyright Phil Schwartz
January 2007.

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