(Neither Verizon FIOS nor AT&T UVerse were available in our area, so we can't review those. I haven't used Dish's Hopper, either. This is a straight compare/contrast review of WOW vs. DirecTV.)
Both Ultra TV and Genie have their plusses and minuses. Both offer 1080p output, but that's primarily for the menus, as most TV content is provided at lower resolutions.
Both systems have a similar design architecture - a central hub, with multiple tuners and a large hard drive, recording and storing all TV shows, and distributing them to televisions around the house upon request.
Both systems also bring a number of "add-on" apps and have ways of accessing "on demand" content.
We've had each system for enough time to really put them through the paces and make an informed review. Let's get started:
WOW! Ultra TV
WOW! stands for "Wide Open West", a regional cable/phone/internet provider, generally operating around some great lakes states - Michigan, Ohio, Illinois. Their website is wowway.com. With UltraTV, WOW! attempting to leapfrog their larger competitors with a high-tech whole home DVR solution.
WOW! doesn't require a contract - if you want to give UltraTV a test drive, you can keep it for a single month and then downgrade or cancel service.
The primary Ultra TV box is large, but sleek. It's not just your whole-home DVR... it's also your VOIP box, your cable modem, and can even be your wi-fi router. I use an Apple Time Machine, so I did not use the Ultra TV box as a wireless router.
Because Ultra TV is handling your VOIP calling, it displays CallerID information onscreen. That's nice.
All of this all-in-one functionality comes at a small price - the box needed to be in my home office, because that's where the computers are - but where the TVs aren't. As such, both of our TVs were on the (very small) "client" boxes, and all recordings had to be streamed through the UltraTV network.
WOW! really hypes the "Smart Menu" interface (right), probably because it's unique and differentiates them to some extent. Unfortunately, it's borderline unusable for browsing live TV.
When using the Smart Menu, you scroll vertically through your channel list, with about 8 channels visible onscreen at a time.
The major drawback - you can only see what's playing at that particular moment. If it's 8:56 PM, you're interested in what will be on at 9:00 - but the guide will still be showing you the list of shows that are currently on - even if they started at 8:00 and 8:30.
What this means, in practice, is that everyone uses the "Grid Guide" (right). Unfortunately, that's not a great solution, either.
WOW! really wanted to show off the channel logos - and that's neat - but they provide the channel logos in lieu of the channel names.
You'd better be good at recognizing channel logos, or you'll never be sure what channels you're looking at.
Also, the text in the Grid Guide is small. REALLY small. I have 20/20 eyesight and a 55" TV, and I could not read the Grid Guide easily from across the room.
Navigation can get a bit laggy. Not "Comcast Motorola Box" kind of laggy - just bad enough that you occasionally wonder if a button press was registered, press the button a second time, and wind up overshooting your target.
Finally, menu navigation with Ultra TV is just strange. Selecting a prerecorded show requires the user to navigate to the show's name, and WAIT a while. (If you click "select", you'll see upcoming showings for that program.) If you wait a few beats, your recordings show up to the right - then you can navigate to the recordings and select one. It's completely counterintuitive.
Even stranger is the method for browsing and selecting on-demand content. As you navigate deeper into animated menus, selecting a genre, then a channel, then programs, then a particular episode, you occasionally have to move to the right to move "deeper", occasionally to the left, and occasionally pressing select. After 3 months with the system, I was still a total novice.
A major drawback, for me, was the lack of an iPad app. All of the problems with the Grid Guide and Smart Menus and On Demand would melt away if I could just select programs from a second screen. Oh well.
They do have Flickr, for what that's worth. To me, not much.
One great idea is the "ticker" - a bottom-of-screen crawl that you customize for your favorite sports teams, your local weather, local and national news, and so on. Unfortunately - as far as I could tell - turning this feature on and off is ONLY accessible through Ultra TV's arcane menu system. If the ticker had a one-button on-off feature, it would be a true differentiator and worthy of praise. As it is, it's cute, but too difficult to access (and I don't want to leave it on permanently.)
The "Ultra Arcade" is a series of videogames (blackjack, and so on) that you play with your remote control - it's very, very similar to the videogames available on airplanes with "personal entertainment" screens. I tried them once. I'm sure that's about the average.
Smart TV *does* support streaming media from your home network - be warned, however, that this requires some specialized software (and hardware). I didn't get it to work, but by that point, I wasn't trying very hard, either.
WOW! Ultra TV isn't a bad solution. Any Whole-Home DVR is a major leap forward - just the idea that recordings can be accessed anywhere in your house, instead of "stored on a particular TV", is fantastic.
That said, it's an undercooked, strangely designed TV solution. Our installation took no fewer than FIVE visits from WOW! - and three Ultra TV boxes - before things were working properly. The system would occasionally freeze, requiring a hard reboot of both the main hub and client boxes.
The composition of the channel lineup is a little strange. All of the standard channels, HD channels, and movie channels are grouped together, instead of any attempt to group by subject matter.
Moreover, the channel lineup just doesn't quite compare to the competition. My wife watches several shows on Bravo, for instance (yeah, that's the ticket - just the wife), and it's ONLY available in standard definition. There's no NFL Network, which means Thursday Night Football is out.
All told I can't recommend Ultra TV. Not at $165/month (for phone/internet/"standard tier" TV), and not when there are better alternatives out there.
Rating - 6/10
The DirecTV Genie is the new brand name for the HR34 Home Media Center whole-home DVR. It's such a major step forward for DirecTV that even three months after install, I kind of can't believe that it exists.
When we got the HR34 last fall, we had to pay a $100 equipment fee. Based on DirecTV's new marketing, however, that fee is no longer being charged, and the "Genie" is now free.
It was worth the $100.
The Genie HR34 can record 5 HD channels at once - while playing back a previously recorded HD show.
That said, it is awfully big. Like, "almost as big as a stereo" kind of big. It will fit into your media cabinets with no problem, but be aware that it's quite a bit larger than your previous DirecTV box.
It's approximately the same size as the Ultra TV box - and that one had a cable modem/router and VOIP circuitry in it. So be forewarned.
At the same time, the "client" boxes are just ridiculously small. Approaching "3rd gen AppleTV" kind of small. And still stylish, with the blue LED logo. Whoever is designing equipment at DirecTV is doing a fantastic job - this client box is the size of a paperback book, and it's fully capable of pushing 1080p video streams.
And if you have RVU-enabled TVs, you don't need a client box at all. We're living in the FUTURE, man.
We have, on rare occasions, had recordings "lag" a bit on the client box. It seems to pause for a few seconds, and then continues with no issues. It's strange, but this almost only seems to happen with my son's recordings of "SpongeBob Squarepants". Not sure what the issue could be. It's not a major problem, however.
DirecTV updated their onscreen interface last year, going from a rather ugly 16-bit look, to a gorgeous black-and-neon-blue look. (I think it's objectively great - your mileage may vary, I suppose.)
Text is bright white, and legible from across the room.
As you scroll through shows in the guide, it displays the corresponding movie posters, TV cast photos, and so on.
It's a really nice touch - and more comprehensive than you'd expect. It's uncommon to see an empty placeholder graphic.
Pushing "up" on the remote brings up a 9 tile "quick change" pop-up - you can set your favorite 9 channels, and their logos will appear here.
One drawback - DirecTV has a *ridiculous* proliferation of home-shopping infomercial channels. And it's often the same channels repeated throughout the guide, with channel names like "LOOK", "SALE", and "BUY". You are essentially required to set up a custom channel list.
Over the course of the last 4 months, DirecTV has refined the HR34 software, consistently making the interface more responsive. At this point, lag is nonexistent.
Finally, one feature that has snuck up on me to join my favorites is the "what's on now" page - DirecTV provides graphic tiles of the most-watched shows that are currently playing - and selecting the graphic takes you directly to the show. "Hey, Jimmy Kimmel is on. That'll do." Even if you keep the guide open and keep looking for something else to watch, this feature eliminates the 2-3 minutes we all previously spent looking for *something decent* while some show we disliked played in the background.
DirecTV's iPad app is just mindblowingly good. I can't believe it works like it does. -It's essentially magic. It's incredibly fast.
It allows you to search for and set recordings, download entire seasons of on-demand content, and change the channel on any TV on your network. And for a lot of programming, you have the option to watch on your iPad.
The app provides all of the scores for games that are currently being played - and clicking on the score gives you the option to immediately change the channel to that game.
The app provides the 5 shows that are, at that moment, the most-watched nationally and in your time zone - again, clicking on the title lets you watch the show on your TV or your iPad.
The extras for the Genie system itself are also great. Their YouTube implementation rivals the AppleTV (which is still the undisputed champ, IMO.) There's Pandora, and games and so forth - and they're fine, but we (and you) presumably have better options for music and video games.
You're going to have to get a satellite dish installed on your roof if you go with DirecTV. For many, that's a serious drawback. In our case, it's on the back of our house so we never see it.
In theory, satellite TV will not work in serious weather. We haven't had any outages yet, even in big rainstorms. I have seen DirecTV lose signal at other people's houses in the past, so I'm not sure if this is a "new dish tech" issue or if we've just been lucky.
DirecTV's channel lineup is as good as it gets. Literally everything is available, if you're willing to pay for it. (For me, Sunday Ticket is a bit too much - but RedZone is required.)
At the moment, we're paying about $65/month, with HBO and Showtime. That's an increase from the $50 we paid for the first three months, and this price will increase during the second year of our contract, too. Over the course of a year, that adds up to a lot of cash, and I'm sure some cable-cutters will balk at that bill.
But thus far, DirecTV feels like a TV company that is really trying to deliver value for your money. Their iPad implementation shows real attention to detail. So does the new user interface. I'm sure these things weren't cheap, and I appreciate the effort here. Ultimately, DirecTV's Genie is a system that continues to surprise and impress us.