It's still unclear whether NTL's in-development MPEG-4 HD PVR will now see the light of day, but Telewest has delivered the UK's first cable PVR in the shape of TVDrive.
Suitable for viewing/recording Telewest's HD output, its 160GB hard disc stores up to 80 hours of standard- definition recordings or 20 hours of HD material in their original MPEG-2 format. Unlike Sky's receivers, however, it has three tuners, so you can record two (standard or hi- def) channels while watching a third 'live'.
It's a bit bigger than a standard Sky and pleasingly futuristic-looking; the fascia is fronted by an elegant thin strip of black plastic housing two circular arrangements of buttons and the LED readout. The latter includes numerous indicator lights telling you which mode you are in, although these are rather on the small side. Nonetheless, the fan is noticeably quieter than our Pace Sky 3100.
Connectivity covers pretty much all bases, including an HDMI input, component video inputs, twin Scarts (with RGB on the TV Scart) an optical digital audio output with Dolby passthrough, stereo phonos and an aerial loopthrough. It also has an Ethernet port, presumably for adding more broadband-related features in future, and a powered USB port.
The latter can currently be used to charge USB devices such as an iPod, but is doubtless intended for use with portable media devices down the line. And a SATA port adds the potential for connecting an external hard drive (not currently supported).
The remote control is solid, with tactile, well-labelled buttons arranged around a central navigation pad. A dedicated TVDrive button takes you to the main options menu for using for the machine with the VCR-equivalent buttons at the top end of the remote. It's not as intuitive as the Sky controller, but it does the job well enough.
Setup In the settings menu you can select from 4:3, 4:3 letterbox or 16:9 aspect ratios, while HD-watchers can choose either component or HDMI and whether they want to display in 720p or 1080i. You can also turn subtitles on and off, PIN lock channels and select a favourites list.
The menus are generally well thought-out, but ever- present hand-holding messages asking you to confirm your actions may be frustrating for more confident users.
The main menus show a mosaic of up to nine options at a time while always keeping the current programme displayed to the right of the screen.
The EPG includes a grid of what's on for six channels at a time and information can be browsed up to seven days in advance with the option to skip by day. You can browse a complete list of channels or view particular types such as High Definition.
Currently, the HD line-up is restricted to two channels, the BBC HD trial and, exclusively, ITV HD. ITV's test channel is a mixed bag at the moment, showing mainly old semi- obscure movies and TV shows in their full visual glory augmented by low-key US imports such as nature documentary 'Jean-Michel Cousteau - Ocean Adventures'.
You can schedule recordings directly from the EPG and a 'record series' feature (much like the Sky series link option) gives you the option to record all future episodes or just those showing that week.
You can view lists of programmes grouped under category headings such as 'news & factual' on a day-by-day basis, but this can be rather slow in operation. There's also a manual recording option. Radio recording is not currently supported.
The recorded programmes list shows the name of the programme, the channel it was on, and the length. This can be organised by series, date and A-Z.
Telewest also has an on-demand service, Teleport, which includes standard-definition programmes from the BBC, Channel 4 and others, and on-demand movies from the Filmflex service. There's also a modest selection of on- demand HD content which is semi 'hidden' in the Teleport Life menu. On offer at the time of writing were episodes of the BBC's nature documentary Blue Planet, pay-per-view episodes of Lost and Desperate Housewives from Channel 4, and a small selection of documentaries from History Channel HD. Filmflex is also offering a selection of on- demand HD films with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound.
Hooked up to our 50in Sony Bravia HDTV, the TVDrive makes a decent fist of presenting hi-def material. BBC HD's high-quality output (Planet Earth, in particular) looks outstanding, although ITV's promo reels are none too shabby. We also got our money's worth watching Russell Crowe's boxing flick Cinderella Man in HD on Filmflex too.
Standard-definition picture quality compares well with Sky's service, although channel-changing can prove a little sluggish. Navigating through some hi-def recordings also proves a jerky experience; the PVR often dropped out of rewinding and fast-forwarding unprompted.
We also encountered a bug after recording the Tour de France highlights on ITV2. The programme information told us we had recorded the full hour but to our dismay this was incorrect. An onscreen bar shows how many hours you've got left to record, but we'd have liked some indication of how much space each recording takes up.
Timeshifting (here called 'Delay TV') is possible and the TVDrive keeps a running cache of what you're watching. You can fast-forward and rewind at 2x, 6x 12x and 32x speeds, and there's a seven-second replay button, but you can't commit cached material to the hard disc afterwards.
You can set start and end buffers for recordings and, should clashes arise, specify which types of programmes (e.g. an ongoing 'planned' series) should be given priority. You can resume watching a recording from where you left off (or choose where you want to start watching) and archive recordings to DVD or VHS.
Although the triple tuner arrangement and on-demand services give it an edge over Sky's PVR offerings, in its current form at least the TVDrive feels like a service-in- progress owing to its comparatively limited amount of hi- def content. No doubt deals are being done to rectify this, but with Skys broadband operation gathering momentum and likely to lead to the launch of its own on-demand service within 18 months, the gap between the two rivals is set to narrow. Grant Rennell