The PVR capacity of the tiny Linux-powered Dreambox DM600PVR is determined by your preferences, and how much you're prepared to pay for the HDD you need to acquire.

Thanks to its size, notebook-PC type 2.5-inch IDE drives are the order of the day. We can also thank the DM600PVR's diminutive design for the external power unit.

This supplies 12V to the receiver and could be dispensed with entirely if the unit is to be installed in, say, a caravan with a 12V DC supply.

Compact receiver

Despite the smallness of this receiver – a mere 196 x 130 x 40mm – Dreambox's designers have crammed in a card reader. This is only active if you're emulating a CAM with one of the numerous plug-ins or third-party firmware that typify Dream Multimedia's maverick future-proofed approach to set-top boxes.

No CAM emulation is provided as standard, but a search of the various Dreambox-support internet forums will probably reveal what you're after. You don't get the CI capability, CompactFlash slot, USB ports or front-panel display of the DM600PVR's bigger brothers. The only control present is a standby button; the handset is essential. Made by UEI, this is identical to the remotes supplied with other Dreamboxes.

Although there's only one Scart, its output is switchable between RGB, composite, S-video and component. Composite video and S-video outputs are also available, and they're always active regardless of the Scart settings. Complementing them are a stereo analogue output and an AC3-ready optical digital output.

The single tuner's LNB input is accompanied by a loopthrough facility. There are no UHF aerial connections, which obviously means no modulator output. But you do get Ethernet which, as we'll discover, bestows upon the DM600PVR much power and, unusually, a built-in analogue modem. USB connectivity is absent, but a RS232 serial port is present for PC-based channel database organisation and firmware upgrades.

Simple enough setup

The first thing you'll probably want to do is fit an HDD. This is not a taxing task, although the lid needs to come off. An internal bracket is removed and the drive screwed to it. A ribbon cable is then plugged into the drive and the bracket and top cover refitted. The tuner module – an ALPS BSBE1-702A type – is plug-and-play.

You could replace the supplied satellite (DVB-S) tuner with a DTT (DVB-T) or (though not suitable for the UK) digital cable (DVB-C) one. The replacement rear panel is supplied with the receiver. Opening up the DM600PVR reveals that it's powered by the same variety of PowerPC-driven 'jungle chip' that you'll find in other Dreamboxes. However, this is rated at 250MIPS; the bigger Dreamboxes have faster (300MIPS) chips.

When you first power up the DM600PVR, which is supplied with the Enigma firmware as standard, a series of wizards help you install the receiver. They cover language, TV system, time-zone, initial dish/DiSEqC configuration and searching for channels – all parameters that can be modified later on via a battery of setup menus (here, you'll also find the option that formats any HDD you've installed – you'll need to do this before recording).

Get your motor running

If you're replacing an existing receiver in a motorised setup you can enter the original DiSEqC memory locations ('satellite numbers') LNB input and loopthrough output assigned to the motor by your original receiver. This saves you a lot of time. The DiSEqC capabilities are good; in addition to 1.2, the DM600PVR caters for simple switchboxes (1.0) and 1.3/USALS. All of the usual controls for dish movement are supported.

Searching can take place on single or multiple transponders – multiple-satellite searches are also allowed. Here, you just select the satellites from a list and the receiver 'visits' each in turn, moving the dish where necessary.

Unfortunately, on occasion it starts searching before the dish has stopped missing some of the lower-frequency transponders. As regards manual searching, PID entry is supported for non-standard services. Also welcome is a 'satfinder' option, with its large signal strength/quality bargraphs and ability to select a specific satellite/transponder.

Blind search is invoked by a plug-in selected by the handset's blue button when the receiver is in its normal operating mode. Unfortunately, it didn't work for us. When I mentioned this to the manufacturer I was told that 'the wrong' tuner had been installed in the review unit (you need an ALPS BSBE1-D01A module). Dreamboxshop.co.uk told us that blind search would be enabled on the receiver via a future software update.

Navigation and features

The DM600PVR doesn't behave like regular satellite PVRs, and its use is fairly unintuitive. What looks like a pair of channel-change buttons in fact switch between 'bouquets' – Dreambox nomenclature for favourite channel lists. The 'standard' list has a Germanic flavour, but thanks to the DM600PVR's 'service management' option it's easy to delete these and add channels more to your liking. It's also simple to add additional bouquets.

Selecting channels instead involves the up/down keys of the navigation 'joypad'. This doesn't change channels; it instead brings up the channel list. Using the handset's coloured buttons, the list can be switched between all services, the channels carried on individual satellites, service providers and the previously mentioned bouquets.

If you just want to change channels, use the left/right keys. A nice touch is that if the relevant EPG data is in the machine, the name of the programme currently being broadcast by the channel is listed next to it.

Although it supports both now-and-next and seven-day schedules, the EPG is rather dull looking. It's simply a text list and is not presented in the traditional magazine format. The timer can be programmed from the EPG; highlight the relevant entry and press the green key. Manual timer programming is also allowed, although there's no OTR.

One tuner, two channels

This may only be a single-tuner unit but the DM600PVR will let you watch one channel while another records, if both are on the same multiplex. As with other PVRs, you can play an existing recording while a new one is in progress – bring up the channel list and then press the 'text' button to access the table of recordings.

Timeshifting is also possible, but via a similarly non-obvious route: press the 'video' button and then the
yellow button. The timeshift buffer is retained as a recording, so don't forget to delete it if it's no longer required!

A key Dreambox advantage is the promise of third-party firmware, which can be obtained freely from
various online sources. Here's where the DM600PVR's networkability comes into its own. Hold down the
receiver's front-panel standby button and then enter its IP address into a web browser. You can then
upload the firmware (which must have a '.nfi' extension) from a PC via the 'bootloader' page that's shown.

This is better than the documented procedure, which involves messing around with crossover Ethernet
cables or null-modem cables! If you simply want to update the pre-installed 'Enigma' firmware, then just let the 'Itsy Package Management System' plugin do all the work.

Under normal use, typing the receiver's address into a browser takes you to the password-protected Enigma web-interface. Channels can be remotely selected from here – you can also invoke recording, access EPG info and schedule timer events. But it gets really cool if you have the freely downloadable VLC Media Player (www.videolan.org).

Desktop TV

Click on the 'VLC' button, and the channel starts streaming to a window on your PC. Yes, desktop TV without the hassle of installing a tuner card. Recorded files (which take the form of 'as-broadcast' transport streams) can also be played, in theory, at any rate. Sadly, even the most recent version of VLC didn't seem to support them.

You can, however, download the files to your PC via the web interface and play them from there; transfer via a PC FTP (File Transfer Protocol) client is also allowed. You'll find your recordings in the /media/hdd/movie directory.

These can't be played by VLC Media Player, or the TSplayer application that accompanies some versions of DVBViewer, but the audio and video streams buried within them can be extracted using the ProjectX transport-stream demultiplexer (http://project-x. sourceforge.net).

The results can be remultiplexed with Mplex1.exe (http:// members.aon.at/johann.langhofer/ mplex1.htm) into standard .mpg files that are compatible with most media players and DVD authoring software.

Internet access

Those with IT knowledge should be able to set up a system whereby the Dreambox can be securely accessed from any location in the world with an internet connection.

Such a system may be too slow for reliable 'real-time' streaming of MPEG-2 digital TV content, but you should be able to schedule recordings or (slowly) transfer recordings for playback on the remote PC.

That's an exciting possibility and one that puts networkable Linux receivers like the DM600PVR ahead of the rivals.

Dreambox performance

We judged the DM600PVR to have good sensitivity, presumably thanks to the high-grade ALPS tuner.

It managed to pull in some of the non-UK transponders of the Thors (0.8°W) and Sirus (5°E) with a 1m motorised dish and old 0.8dB LNB, although most of the channels in question were encrypted and thus couldn't be viewed. Searching is reasonably fast, a full search of the Astra 1x cluster clocking in at around five minutes. The user interface and menu system were pleasantly responsive.

Sound quality was excellent but, even with an RGB Scart connection, pictures on a large-screen TV were a tad 'soft'. Finer details of high-quality full-resolution (720 x 576) broadcasts were thus rather subdued, although this property did help to mask artefacts like mosquito noise. Some odd bugs need resolving, most notably the refusal to record certain channels (like the EbS channel on Sirius).

This was accompanied by a receiver crash that necessitated a 'power-cycle'. The unit doesn't run as warm as you'd expect, thanks to the external power supply. Overall, the Dreambox DM600PVR is quite an achievement.