Freeview set-top-box specialist Humax is the unlikely winner in the race to deliver an affordable digital LCD TV with an in-built PVR digital recorder. But, while there's little doubt that the company's experience in tuners and recording devices has borne attractive fruit, can the LCD panel's match up to such lofty ambitions?
There's certainly nothing wrong with the video connectivity. In fact, a socket or two is pretty much provided for anything you could think of plugging into the set. Three Scarts are on offer, with two RGBenabled. S-video and regular composite AV inputs are catered for, and a component input is provided which handles both NTSC and PAL progressive scan as well as 720p/1080i high definition sources.
A PC can be connected through the standard VGA port (with corresponding stereo sound through mini-jack), but the coup de grâce is the DVI socket with full HDCP support. Not only does that mean you will be able to receive Sky's forthcoming HD broadcasts, but utilise the benefits of a host of new DVD players with video upscaling, such as Samsung's HD-945 (with a HDMI/DVI adaptor).
It also gives a cleaner picture from a media PC, than through standard VGA. There's one final surprise too. Tucked around the back is a USB 2.0 port for link to an external hard drive, which allows HDD recordings to be transferred from the internal drive. It means that recording space is only limited to the size of the external drive you attach - a major bonus if you don't particularly want to back everything up to DVD.
Aesthetically, this doesn't upset the fascia of the TV, as all connectivity is tucked away out of sight (around the back or on the side). Thought has clearly been put into matching bigger brand displays with its glossy black frame and smart, bottom-ranged speaker grille.
However, it's the interior gubbins that elevate the Humax to class leadership along with an impressive features list.
Lovely bit of tuner
Two digital tuners (with Top Up TV compatibility through a common interface port) are included alongside an analogue old timer. There's also a host of picture-inpicture modes to choose from. However, a majority of the feature set revolves around the in-built 40GB hard drive. It offers three recording modes - HQ, SP and LP - allowing a maximum of 44 hours to be stored before having to transfer it to DVD or an external drive for archiving purposes.
Traditional HDD modes are present, including the ability to pause and rewind live TV - buffer up to 30mins of a programme and watch it later, or retrospectively record it. And setting recordings is a doddle through the 7-day EPG, although I did find that some tasks, such as searching for shows and setting up favourites were rather laborious tasks thanks to a mildly confusing user interface. You can also record from other sources straight to the HDD; DVD, cable/satellite box and media PC all produced quality recordings. In fact, any image source you can plug into the TV can be captured to the hard drive. And at HQ mode you'll get as close to a perfect image as you'll need.
The mid-range SP recording mode is highly watchable and is likely to be the default setting for most users of the PVR; it allows as much as 20 hours of footage to be recorded onto the hard drive. Unfortunately, the LP mode is only a last ditch option, where you have very little space left, as it introduces a large amount of blocking noise with edges ending up as sharp as marshmallows.
Overall TV picture performance is pleasing. The digital tuners do a fine job, only seeming to have the usual artefacting associated with Freeview. Overall, the screen has a highly impressive black level response. There's only slight tell-tale signs of the greyish mist that often blights LCD panels. Generally, blacks are deep and bold.
With high definition feeds, image quality jumps dramatically, being crisp, detailed and colourful with no obvious banding effects on gradients. But I did find one minor problem. While playing console (PS2) games through the RGB input I noticed some rather pronounced ghosting around some characters. It only really happened during football games (when the background was almost entirely green), so it was a fault that was hard to figure out. Also, during fastmoving action, some blurring was evident, a by-product of the fairly slow 16ms response time. However, for all other television tasks it does a very fine job indeed.
Sound, while nothing spectacular, is certainly functional. A decent soundstage is created using virtual surround, although distortion is apparent at highly volumes, but it's more than capable of coping with movies, casual television viewing and even music.
There's no shortage of flatpanel TVs currently available, so you need something special to stand apart from the bigger brands, with their proprietary image enhancement systems and general clever dickery. But this Humax is special, thanks to its innovative implementation of an integrated PVR. The advanced connectivity and general picture quality also stand up to scrutiny. Well worth auditioning.