Our previous opinions of Top Up TV Anytime last May were mixed. We liked the accompanying PVR (or 'Top Up TV+ DTR' as Top Up TV prefers) but found the on-demand TV offerings to be lukewarm unless you were a Setanta Sports fan or just wanted cartoons on tap to keep the little ones happy.
Since then the price of the 160GB DTI 6300-16 PVR has almost halved to £100 and a number of on-demand channels have been added or revamped.
There's also a 'new' box in town. It's still made by Thomson and looks almost identical to its predecessor, save for the 250 logo on the right of the fascia that indicates its sole alteration - a 250GB hard disc.
The rest is the same - a smart-looking fascia featuring a few operating buttons but still choosing not to sport a proper readout in favour of green and red LEDs. The remote is also unchanged, apeing Sky's tried-and-trusted effort very effectively, right down to the rubberised grip.
Expanded hard disc
Top Up TV says the expanded hard disc allows for up to 180 hours of on-demand TV recorded and/or programmes recorded, dependent on broadcast compression rates.
Unlike the current generation of Sky+ boxes, the hard disc is not partitioned so the amount of space you use for shows you've recorded yourself and on-demand content is down to you.
The 14-day EPG is retained, displaying in grid form what's on nine channels at a time while a side-scrolling menu along the bottom lets you view what's available from channels on the Anytime on-demand service.
Much like Sky Anytime, Top Up TV Anytime's version of on-demand is essentially 'push' on demand. You choose which channels you want to receive from an onscreen list and a selection of programming is downloaded to the box overnight around 2am (you can't record during this time). Day by day, you build up a library of shows to watch that can be viewed within a seven-day period before being automatically deleted. If you want to keep them for longer you can opt to save them permanently to the hard disc.
You can access on-demand shows from the recordings 'library' alongside recordings you've made yourself (all sortable by genre), where they are accompanied by an indication of how many days you have left to watch them.
Recordings can be set from the EPG, from the now-and-next programme info bar or by pressing record when watching a channel. Series linking is supported.
You can fast-forward and rewind at up to 64x times normal speed and timeshift programmes while the PVR keeps a running cache of what you watch. But you can't commit cached material to the hard disc afterwards and we experienced minor sound drop-outs watching while in timeshift mode.
The on-demand line up has changed a little since our previous test and now features Paramount Comedy, Hallmark Channel, Living, Discovery Real Time, MTV, TCM, Discovery Animal Planet, Bloomberg, Life & Times, UKTV Food, UKTV Style, UKTV Gold, Boomerang, Cartoon Network, Crime Investigation Network, Sci-Fi, Nickelodeon and History Channel.
The Top Up TV Anytime on-demand service costs £9.99 a month and non- or lapsed-subscribers can still use the box as a standalone Freeview PVR.
The Picturebox movies on demand service costs £5 (£7 if you don't subscribe to the £9.99 service) and Setanta Sports is an additional £9.99 plus a £10 connection fee.
Anytime has improved, with highlights including recent episodes of South Park from Paramount and not-so-up-to-date helpings of shows such as cop drama Criminal Minds, Little Britain and classic Star Trek. Unfortunately, a lot of what's on offer is delivered in 4:3 and, worse, with decidedly low bitrates. This is particularly a problem on Picturebox, where you'd expect widescreen fidelity for your money.
It doesn't help that the films we received in our test period were also the sort of thing that pops up free of charge on Five quite a bit anyway, such as Jean Claude Van Damme Die Hard clone, Sudden Death. One film we received - Where The Buffalo Roam - failed to play.
The latest Top Up TV+ offers good value for money and performance, though as a standalone PVR it lacks some of the refinements of Freeview Playback, such as accurate recording. Nevertheless, the on-demand element still doesn't offer enough to tempt TV addicts away from what's on Freeview, and large-screen TV watchers will grumble at the often-variable on-demand picture quality from some channels.