Freeview is on the way to overtaking Sky as the main way to see digital TV in the UK. Around 8m homes subscribe to Sky, as of early 2007, while about 7m use Freeview exclusively - and sales of Freeview-enabled TVs and set-top boxes have been buoyant, with 2m sold during Christmas 2006.
One of Sky's main weapons in seeking viewers' hearts, minds and wallets has been Sky Plus, the hard disk-based digital box that makes it easy to record programmes or series. It outlasted the pioneering TiVo - which remains popular in the US - and is a respectable hit, installed in around 2m Sky subscribers' homes to date. Cable subscribers can use an equivalent box (formerly the Telewest TVdrive) but Freeview fans need not feel left out for much longer.
Admittedly, hard-disk recorders that work with Freeview have been on sale since 2003, with brands such as DigiFusion, Humax and Goodmans specialising in this area.
The UK focus (reflecting digital terrestrial TV's popularity here) continued with products from Welsh company TVonics . Most combined DVD and hard drive recorders from the likes of Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer and Toshiba now feature a Freeview tuner (combis normally only feature one digital tuner while standalone Freeview recorders often have two for recording overlapping programmes).
Adoption of these clever (but fiddly) devices has been somewhat slow, with 43,000 recorders sold in the last quarter of 2005 in the UK and 90,000 towards the end of 2006. However, Freeview's backers are now involved in a marketing push to improve and standardise Freeview recorders.
Enter the new Freeview Playback brand, a sticker campaign that will denote machines specifically designed to be a Sky-style PVR but for Freeview. The first six brands involved producing machines are Alba (Bush/Goodmans), Humax, Sagem, Sharp, Sony and TVonics.
The good news for anyone with one of the better Freeview recorders is that some models, notably the acclaimed Humax PVR9000T, can receive over-the-air software upgrades to work with the new features. Some, such as Sony's RDR-HXD860, are already compatible with basic features. For most people, though, it might pay to wait for newer recorders with the Freeview Playback logo in the latter half of 2007.
So what are the new features? The first phase, launching around now, is Accurate Recording, which catches late-running programmes in full. Added to this is the ability to grab two-part broadcasts, such as films divided around a scheduled news bulletin, without having to make separate timer settings.
The more intelligent features are due in September, when Series Recording and 'conflict resolution' should be fully available. This already works on the BBC's channels, for example, with others due soon. It means that a whole series can be recorded automatically (like TiVo's season pass and Sky's Series Link). Conflict resolution, which is available on TiVo but not Sky Plus, uses programme listings to find any imminent repeats in case the first showing clashes with other recordings.
Finally, by March 2008, you should be able to set recordings directly from trailers being broadcast (like Sky's green button reminder service) and, more impressively, the machines should be able to offer recommendations from the schedules based on what you've recorded. So far this facility is not on Sky's popular box but it was a part of TiVo from day one.
It's not a mandatory part of the spec for a recorder to come with a card slot for pay-TV channels such as Top Up TV (including Setanta Sports), so that will be an extra feature to consider. It's also worth also bearing in mind that Sky intends to remove its three Freeview channels from the line-up in the autumn and replace them with a pay-TV package that would require new hardware to receive.