Let's face it, Top Up TV was never cool. With Sky subscribers watching brand-new episodes of 24, the idea of paying for a subscription to UKTV Style looked as enticing a proposition as the Last of the Summer Wine DVD boxset.
This year though, the service has been spiced up and re-branded as Top Up TV Anytime, promising a new way of watching TV with content arriving on your hard drive overnight so you can view it 'anytime'.
The advantage is that you don't need a satellite dish, cable, or even a phone line to pick up this over-the-air broadcast. Just plug in your existing aerial and you're away.
So far, the Anytime service is only available on one set-top box, the Thomson DTI 6300-16 on test here. It's essentially a Freeview PVR with twin digital TV tuners and a 160GB hard drive, so you can watch and record all of the Freeview channels without paying anything.
There's a slot in the front for your TUTV Anytime card, which gives you the additional 19 channels and feeds content onto the hard drive. For now though, let's ignore the slot and pretend this is a regular PVR.
On paper, this model certainly compares well with other HDD recorders. The 160GB capacity is enough for 120 hours of material and the twin tuners mean you can watch TV while recording another channel. In terms of connectivity, you get two Scarts, S-video and digital audio outputs. It even has an RF modulator, meaning you can connect it to TVs that pre-date Scart sockets.
The lozenge-shaped Anytime box looks sharper than your average PVR too, with a tapering stripe across the front that's clearly styled to ape Sky's HD unit.
The two set-top boxes also share the same award-winning remote control. Coincidence? No. Thomson manufactures Sky's hardware too.
There is a noticeable difference in build quality though, as the Anytime box is much lighter and the buttons feel very cheap. There's no display, aside from the standby light on the front, and no luxuries like an HDMI socket at the back.
Provided you have decent TV reception, setting up the Anytime box is straight- forward. Click on auto-setup in the initial menu and it searches and sorts all of the Freeview channels. Go further into the menu system to set other preferences, such as aspect ratio or RGB Scart output.
One of the best things about Freeview PVRs in general is the ease with which you can set the timer to record programmes. With the Thomson it's a simple case of scanning the 14-day EPG and clicking 'OK' on the shows you want to keep. Choose a series and the onscreen graphic will ask if you want the whole season.
Your recordings are stored on one portion of the HDD and labelled with the programme name and a thumbnail image. When you scroll through the library, it even shows a clip of the recording in the thumbnail window to remind you what it is. This makes for great eye-candy, but does slow the process of scrolling through a long list.
So, the Thomson looks like a reasonably attractive Freeview PVR proposition, but what about that Top Up TV Anytime slot?
Well, it certainly adds significant functionality if you pay for a subscription. The box comes with a card and the first month free. After that, it's £9.99 per month, which gives you access to 19 additional channels including UKTV Gold, MTV, Cartoon Network, British EuroSport etc.
For an extra fee, you also get access to the Picturebox movie channel and seven films each week delivered to your hard drive. A new sports channel called Setanta has just become available for an additional £10.99 per month too, promising live Barclays Premiership football matches and US PGA Tour golf, among others.
Unlike other TV services, you don't watch these channels live. Instead, selected programs arrive on your hard drive overnight and stay there for seven days, or until you either store or delete them.
The box holds 100 Top Up TV programs, which are refreshed nightly and are there for you to watch whenever you like. It takes a while to get used to this kind of viewing, but the instant playback of so much material may well prove a real bonus.
On the downside, you don't get to choose which programmes you receive. You can de-select channels like Nickelodeon and the Toonami if you want to avoid children's TV, but there's no intelligent selection going on.
Of course it depends on your taste, but with no real high-quality channels to choose from, you tend to end up with a hard drive full of banal TV programming. It takes about a week to fill the HDD with material, but after that time, the most up-to-date movie I had was Elvis: That's the Way it is and then various episodes of Date my Mom. To be fair though, I can delete these and there were some good episodes of Scrubs and Pimp my Ride on there too.
In terms of picture quality, I have no real complaints. Freeview varies in bitrate and strays from quite good to plain awful, but the Thomson box outputs a faithful signal to your TV regardless. Naturally, an RGB Scart connection is best and with this you'll get a fairly vivid and robust picture. Playing back recorded material from the hard drive is virtually the same quality, which is a good sign.
There's a coaxial digital output for delivering PCM stereo to your home cinema amplifier cleanly and without loss of quality, which is a better option than the stereo analogue jacks.
While the original Top Up TV deal looked a bit mean, the new Anytime service is at least something new. And if you really need more mediocre TV in your life, this is a great new way to get it.
Whichever way you look at it, the Thomson DTI 6300-16 is a very good Freeview PVR in its own right. Just think of the TUTV Anytime slot as a bonus.