On Black Friday, some of you walked home with your first HDTV. Or second. Discount voodoo is understandably hard to resist. But unless you've got HD content, you've got nothin' but a pretty frame. Since it's the holidays, you probably don't wanna screw around in customer service hell. If you've narrowed your choice down to satellite because of where you live or a prior (bad) experience with cable, we've done some homework for you, sorting through the near-legalese of HD packages and talking to chipper sales reps from the two majors, Dish Network and DirecTV. Which one offers the most HD goodness at the best rates?
Getting 'Em to Your Door
Dish and DirecTV both have online package-builder tools to keep you off the phone. You are supposed to punch in what kind of TV(s) you have and what services you want, but the tools are worthless. Our unexpected advice? Dial, don't click. The crappy flash interface leaves too many questions unanswered, and our phone experiences were shockingly good—short waits and friendly reps. Besides, they'll call you after you submit the online build anyway.
Our Dream Gear
Taking one for the team, we went through the online package-builders anyway, with an imaginary setup of one HD DVR and one vanilla HD receiver. For some bizarre reason, Dish would not allow us to select the HD DVR at all—the options is grayed out on the gear screen—despite the main pages blasting its awesomeness (it's a free upgrade!) far and wide. When we called, though, we could order it. DVR runs about $5 a month from both, and the functionality's worth the fee. Extra standard-def receivers are free (to a point).
So, What's on TV?
Dish promises over 70 national HD channels. DirecTV touts 75. But half of those will cost you extra—premium channels like HBO and Showtime plus 22 regional sports channels— so your base lineup in either case is something closer to 35.. Both carriers offer an "everything" package that includes, well, everything, though you can always add premiums a la carte. We should note Dish wouldn't give us a definite number of HD channels with the "Everything" package, saying it's changing every month and it depends on what region you live in, which goes for DirecTV too—another reason to call. The rates listed in our chart include the fees for local channels and DVR service.
The Total Damage
DirecTV's startup fees are painful, totaling nearly $300—$200 for the HD DVR, $100 for our second HD receiver. Dish has a much more reasonable $50 activation fee, but they're running a promotion that refunds it with an 18-month contract, according to the rep, and it also nets you their best HD DVR for free. Both are offering so-called "free" install.
Making Your Choices for You
The analysis that made the most sense for us was to pit DirecTV's two HD DVR service offerings against Dish's Top 200 and America's Everything plans. You get about the same stuff for around the same price, though DirecTV's a bit cheaper. When all things were about equal, it seemed the deal-breaker was DirecTV's massive up front cost. The best value then is Dish's Top 200 since it doubles what you get with their 100 channel package for only about $8, and start-up and install is apparently gratis with the current promotion.
We realize price isn't everything so we went to hallowed customer surveyor JD Power & Associates to ask which satellite provider takes care of its customers best, and again it turned out to be a toss-up: JDP's last survey from April showed "no statistical difference between DirecTV and Dish" regarding satisfaction with their HD service.
Let's skip the JD Power and go straight to Giz Power: If any of you guys are DirecTV and Dish HD customers, what horror stories can you share to keep potential comrades in arms from entering a treacherous pool of satellite-beamed misery? Or maybe, you know, what kind of high praise can you sing because it's nothing like all that? We've supplied the data, but now it's your turn to share the real-life experience. [Dish Network, DirecTV, Flickr]