Competing at the budget end of the digital satellite market has never been harder, but when the BBC and ITV finally launch their Freesat scheme to complement the success of Freeview, there will be a big demand for cheap, free-to-air satellite receivers.
Topfield is the current king of satellite PVR, and we've seen some good budget receivers as well, but the TF6500 FTA is a full-frontal attack on the lower end of the market, with a price of just £65. We've always been impressed by Topfield quality, so how has this been achieved?
The receiver doesn't look obviously cheap, with the standard metal case and plastic fascia - featuring a fake flap that's firmly glued down (there are CI models in the TF6500 range). The remote's a little plasticky, but is responsive and clearly labelled.
Something's obviously missing on the back panel; there's only one Scart socket, but it does support component video, as well as RGB and composite - which is sometimes better for flat-panel LCD and plasma displays.
Digital audio output
A digital audio output is also supplied, which isn't bad, either. Most satellite receivers can support both PAL and NTSC TVS via the Scart but, unusually, the TF6500 can also supply an NTSC signal via its modulated UHF output.
The serial port can be used to upload software from Topfield's website, and edit channel lists on a PC. Software updates are also provided by satellite on Astra 1 and Hot Bird.
User menus are clearly laid out in colour scheme, and we didn't come across any confusing menu arrangements.
There's no instant setup wizard, but the Installation menu is set up as a step-by-step process. Each satellite is set up independently, with its own LNB configuration (including a selection of LNB types).
Fixed dish multi-sat users can go with up to 16 LNBs, using tone burst, DiSEqC 1.0 or 1.1 commands. Motorised users can have either plain DiSEqC 1.2 or smarter USALS mounts; there's a full range of stepped and continuous dish movement commands, although if you've got a USALS motor you should set the movement limits first in DiSEqC 1.2 mode.
There are signal strength and quality meters on all of the setup and search menus, although you can only change the reference transponder on the search, DiSEqC and USALS menus.
The automatic search can be enhanced with a Network search to look for NITs directing to other transponders outside the database.
There's also a manual search option, and an advanced search with PIDs for individual channels. In each case you can choose to search for all channels or just unscrambled ones, but you can't set up a search of several satellites. There's no blind search, but you wouldn't expect it on this product.
Our first search for free-to-air channels on Astra 1 was fairly quick - under five minutes. But the busier transponders at 28°E took longer to scan and save, clocking in at about 12 minutes.
The satellite database holds some 90 orbital locations, and you can add many more, delete unwanted entries, or rename the existing satellites. You can also edit each satellite's transponder database. There seems to be no limit on the number of active satellites you can have, although DiSEqC/ USALS motors are usually limited to 32 positions.
There's capacity for 5,000 TV and radio channels in the TF6500's memory - plenty for an FTA receiver, and you can also quickly set up to 30 favourite channel lists, mixing TV and radio from any satellite.
The first four favourites are prenamed - News, Movie, Music and Sports - but you can change the names to suit yourself. Favourites can be added and edited through the main menu, or while you're flicking through the channels, which makes them easier to set up.
The main channel list can be fully sorted (alphabetical, scrambled/free, favourites, or by satellite) and edited (renamed, moved or deleted) in a very nicely laid-out menu that keeps the current channel playing underneath in a window larger than the usual thumbnail, so you needn't miss out.
Browsing through channels with the onscreen list is made easier by shortcuts for sorting it alphabetically or by satellite, and you can jump forward or back 100 channels at a time!
There's also a channel mosaic which will show one live channel and stills from up to 3, 8, 12, or 15 others. You can browse around the channels, and in the 13-window version the centre screen is a zoomed version of the selected channel.
The EPG comes in two flavours: four channels over three hours or one channel over six programmes, and you can flick up to seven days ahead if the information is available. There's a thumbnail view of the selected channel, and you can set timers or reminders directly from the EPG.
The onscreen banner also shows now-and-next programme info, along with the channel name and number, satellite name and tuning details, signal strength and quality, time and programme duration.
The TF6500 performs as well as most satellite receivers in its price range, and better than some. It faithfully reproduces any digital signal, although it's getting hard to find a free digital channel to use as a gold standard. Certainly, the likes of ProSieben and Sat.1 in looked as good as ever to us.
The analogue audio output, likewise, seems a reliable reproduction, and as usual, the digital audio out seems to add an extra level of clarity and crispness, especially with the BBC's satellite radio channels.
Channel changes are fast, and the tuner shows any evidence of insensitivity to borderline signals - it's also capable of going to symbol rates as low as 1000MS/s.
There's a built-in teletext browser, and it's also reinserted into the VBI for viewing on your TV. You can place parental locks on the menus and on any channel, with an agecoded option for channels that use the DVB age-rating option.
You can have an apparently unlimited number of event timers with no apparent date restriction; these can be set manually or via the EPG. DVB subtitles are supported, and there's the usual selection of arcade games. Alex Lane