There are now 10 million Freeview boxes spread around 6 million UK homes,with Freeview's total number of households expected to overtake Sky's 8 million by the end of 2006.However,while 16 per cent of Sky's customers have a Sky personal video recorder (PVR) at the last count, hard-drive equipped Freeview recorders amount to only six percent of digital terrestrial products.That could soon change as Freeview PVRs shrink in price,such as this Astratec-branded box, which is sold in Comet for around £130.
If you read our April issue (305) you may have spotted the DigiFusion FVRT90 reviewed. You'll therefore work out from this picture that we're dealing with a 'clone'. In fact, the Astratec comes from a UK company, Access Devices, which makes the FVRT90 for DigiFusion.So while it might seem the shops are awash with Freeview PVRs,there are fewer variations than you think.
Like the DigiFusion, the PVRTU1 looks stylish with a large fluorescent display and main control buttons on the front. These are useful for playing Freeview's digital radio channels through a hi-fi as without needing to turn on your TV. Meanwhile a slot on the front takes a Top Up TV subscription card to receive a few extra channels, such as UK Gold and Eurosport. This gives the PVRTU1 a clear benefit over its DigiFusion FVRT90 doppelgänger.
Rear connections include two Scarts, one marked 'TV' and the other 'VCR'. The former can be switched in the menu to output S-video or RGB for a better picture quality (or composite if your TV is not compatible).The VCR output is composite only, so don't use this for linking to DVD recorders as the quality won't be as good as the 'TV' output. You also cannot get a digital TV picture from the PVR via its RF aerial output (it only passes on analogue aerial signals to the TV).
The PVR uses an 80GB hard disk, which can record up to 40 hours of TV. Another good thing about PVRs is the on-screen programme guide. In this case you get a full week's listings and it's easy to set programmes to record. You can also pause a current broadcast for up to an hour, or store it properly on the hard drive for viewing later. The live-TV buffer is not rolling constantly, however, which means you can't do your own instant replays whenever you like.
A major drawback with this model is that there is only one digital tuner, so you cannot view another digital channel while recording or store two overlapping programmes. This being the case, heavier TV users might want to check out 'Also Consider', above.
The on-screen menu is clear and logical and fast in reacting to handset button presses. There's no automatic 'padding' to extend the running time in case of late-running broadcasts but you can alter this manually if there's no new recording scheduled directly afterwards.
A more mysterious limitation is that you can only put up to eight titles in the recording timer memory. You can set daily or weekly repeat events - which don't affect your allocation of eight programmes - but it seems daft to impose VCRstyle restrictions on an 80GB PVR.
There is more flexibility in playback. You can watch a recording from the start even if the broadcast hasn't finished, and of course you can view older recordings while a new one is taking place. If you have to stop watching before the end of any recording, the PVR will remember where you left off.
However, some economies have been made to keep the cost down. Therefore you won't find fancier PVR features such as editing, bookmarking, compressing recordings to save space or grouping recordings together to back them up automatically on a DVD recorder.
In our test we had a repeat of an installation snag we encountered with the DigiFusion version. The PVR refuses to record when it's been setup straight out of the box. It takes a 'software reset' and mains reboot to get it going, after which it seems fine. The hard drive is relatively quiet and, as the box is larger and more ventilated than some PVRs, there's not much fan noise. Picture searching is quick and smooth but we don't like the handset's small and fiddly playback control buttons.
We had no problems getting the PVRTU1 to find all available Freeview and Top Up TV channels, though there's an odd hesitation before it decrypts Top Up TV as it immediately announces the channel is scrambled before realising that the smartcard is active. Its general reception quality is decent, with little evidence of break-up or digital blocking, even on a large TV. The colour and contrast performance are as good as any Freeview receiver and, naturally, the hard disk recordings look identical to the original broadcast.
On the down side there's a large amount of video interference in the picture through both RGB and S-video outputs which shows up in two ways. Firstly there are ghostly edges around sharp outlines that make highly detailed images look messy.
Secondly, and more seriously, there's a diagonal 'herring bone'- style pattern that shows up in strong colours, especially reds and yellows, or in skin tone on movement. You are particularly likely to see it on bigger screens. We had the same issue with the DigiFusion FVRT90, which suggests the problem is endemic to both models.
On balance, the PVRTU1 compares well to other PVRs at this price because its physical design and onscreen menus are fairly well thought out. It even has an advantage over its DigiFusion counterpart with the addition of a Top Up TV slot for practically no extra cost. While it's easy to use in day-to-day operation, the PVRTU1 falls down by lacking a second digital tuner, which will severely limit what you can record or watch. Lastly, the picture often suffers from ugly interference, especially if you connect via the RGB Scart - traditionally the highest quality option for Freeview boxes.
If you are a light viewer with a tiny TV, then this could be the PVR for you but more serious users should consider spending more on a higher calibre product. Ian Calcutt