A great package, with just as much to offer as the competition
Easy to use combination of PVR and on-demand
Free BBC catch-up
Can’t watch recordings until they’re complete
Picture quality extremely variable
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Tiscali - formerly Homechoice - had been hitherto an exclusively broadband-based service, but it's now offering a combined Freeview and broadband PVR, with on-demand channels as well.
It's partly practical; you can't get more than one broadband TV channel over Britain's lousy broadband connections, but Freeview covers most areas.
A more comprehensive service
So Tiscali+ can offer three tuners, with reservations: you can't record more than one broadband channel at once, or watch on-demand while recording from a broadband channel.
On the bright side,Tiscali's basic TV package is considerably better than Freeview, and the minimum £20/month package includes unlimited weekend phone calls and up to 8MB broadband.
Unlike Virgin or BT Vision, you can get channels like Sky One, and there are even special on-demand channels from the likes of Discovery. It's also pretty cheap for a PVR - £50 up front or £5 a month competes very well with all the competition.
We've seen minimalist boxes before, but this really takes the biscuit. The matt black exterior with no display is a designer's dream, but if you haven't got the TV on you'll have no idea what it's doing.
The only control is a power switch on the back and, since Tiscali+ has to be turned on 24/7, you'll only use this to reboot if the box crashes (which ours hasn't yet done).
The large green light is either on or off, so it doesn't indicate anything useful. You'll only know if there's a recording in progress by the sound of the hard disc/fan - ours is well-ventilated but still noticeable.
Plenty of connections
The highlight of the back panel should be the HDMI port, labelled here as 'Digital AV', but it's not operational and my installer hadn't been briefed to use it.
Instead, you get an RGB Scart and optical digital audio output, plus analogue stereo audio, a composite video VCR Scart, Ethernet port from your router and two USB ports. These aren't active either, and at least one would be more useful if front-mounted.
Your TV aerial plugs in via a loopthrough socket, so you can also have Freeview - or conventional analogue TV - on your TV or VCR. There are two Freeview tuners inside Tiscali+, plus a single DSL broadband TV tuner.
The remote continues the box's black theme and although it looks nice the buttons are a little small and fiddly, and because they're all square you don't get any tactile feedback. I also found the square directional pad quite awkward and cramped.
There are dedicated buttons for Film, Kids, Music, All TV (the complete channel list), MyTV, the main TV Guide and a search facility - this doesn't do anything yet. The remote will also learn your TV's volume control command.
Unusually for almost any piece of electronic kit these days, Tiscali+ is made in Italy by Telsey. I know Italy used to have a proud electronics manufacturing industry, but I own a Fiat and I'm used to Italian electrics! Let's hope it bucks the trend.
Simple set up
Tiscali doesn't do self-installs with TV, but if they did it would be fairly easy. The free DSL modem/wireless router comes pre-configured and the connections are fairly straightforward.
There's an engineer's channel (999) where you can check the DSL video signal is coming in and select a video output mode.
For tuning in the Freeview channels Tiscali+ will first check whether there's a suitable signal for each channel, with a very clear onscreen strength and quality indicator.
It then tunes in all the Freeview channels quite rapidly if you've got a signal. If you don't have a signal it will default to access the channel via broadband from Tiscali.
It has only one DSL tuner - this means you can't record two channels at once, and not all of the Freeview channels are available via broadband.
On the bright side, the DSL video signal for some channels is better than the Freeview signal, giving high efficiency MPEG-4 another victory over old-fashioned, over-compressed MPEG-2.
It does, however, take quite a long time to turn on - well over 20 seconds until you're into the main channel menu. These days that's unacceptable.
The mixing of DSL and off-air channels is invisible to the user, there are just channels and on-demand. Tiscali - in its former guise as Homechoice - was ahead of the pack at providing TV on-demand and already has iPlayer-style catch-up for the BBC and FX.
Channels with this Replay function are indicated by an onscreen 'r', although there's no dedicated Replay button on the remote. There's also a separate on-demand section, while live channels and on-demand are also grouped together by genre.
It's very easy to navigate and although you don't have the sheer number of channels you'd find on Sky, that's neglecting the depths of on-demand available if you subscribe to one of the specialist entertainment, music, kids' and movie packages.
In the basic package there are (including Freeview) 45 live TV channels, 19 radio channels and eight on-demand. You get an extra 15 live channels in the Entertainment mix, nine in the kids' mix and four in music, with each also offering more on-demand.
Only sports fans are really under-served by Tiscali. You get Eurosport, but Sky Sports is only available through Sky by Wire, which is very expensive compared with Sky's own service (ironically, Sky controls the price of this option). Setanta's not available either.
The My TV section lets you create a list of favourite channels, programme reminders, and programmes saved from the on-demand library for posterity, or just to finish later.
The basic package offers eight on-demand channels: three of these are pretty much commercials for Disney holidays, Thomson Holidays, and What Car magazine, but Time For Bed, Taste V:MX, Taste C1, Take Two and 4oD as a flavour of what's on offer at a higher cost.
The entertainment on-demand package is aimed at a general adult audience and includes Discovery, National Geographic, HBO, 4oD, classic UK and US comedy and drama.
It's very easy to get stuck into just browsing through the selection, especially if you're looking for gems you might have missed in the past few years.
Music would be an essential purchase for anyone with teenage children, who will love the on-demand V:MX channels - each one dedicated to a different genre. The Easy and Retro sections cater to older tastes - only classical and jazz are missing.
Parents of young children will likewise gravitate to the children's section, particularly because of its special 'minimote', which restricts users to the children's channels.
Youngsters take to the four on-demand channels like ducks to water and will probably have trouble understanding typical listings when they grow older.
There's a strong pay-per-view films selection, with very competitive release windows, and the full library runs to over 1,000 movies, which can be searched by title, actor or director. The Picture Box channel has 28 films at any time, with seven new arrivals every week.
Many of the libraries include whole series of shows, and you can choose to watch one episode or the full run, or you can copy episodes to your personal on-demand library to watch when you want. This doesn't take up space on your hard disc - it's just a set of bookmarks to the shows on Tiscali's servers.
Time-limited content like movies can't be stored this way but it is held in your 'My Rentals' list as long as you've got access.
There are also special libraries for favourite music and children's programmes.
There's no difference between the experience of watching recordings, paused live TV, or on-demand TV. You get the same forward and rewind menus: 30 seconds, 1 minute, 3 min and 10 min in each direction, plus jump to start.
The skip buttons can be used to jump to the next episode in a series of shows. The box responds quickly to commands, although there's only fast-forward/rewind speed, which corresponds roughly with 12x on Sky+.
The record button lets you set up a single or series recording, and you're told if there's a recording clash and how long remains to resolve it, although it doesn't offer an alternative recording time.
Paused TV can be turned into a full recording, with series link options.
Storing your recordings
Your recordings library has the benefit of showing not just how much of the disc has been used already, but how much will be used the current week's crop of recordings - the 160GB library should store around 80 hours of TV.
You can sort recordings by name or date, but not by genre or series. The scheduled recording list has similar functions and if you delete a forthcoming show it asks if you want to delete just one episode or the whole series.
One surprising drawback was that you can't watch a recording until it's complete. It was a common problem in the early days of PVRs, but today it's unacceptable.
Mixed picture quality
Picture quality varies tremendously across the different sources available on Tiscali+.
Not surprisingly, movie rentals are very high quality, with some of the best analogue RGB Scart pictures we've seen. Freeview is as variable as you'd expect, but generally a lot less than the equivalent channel via Freesat.
Most of the on-demand channels are pretty good, although you have to accept that some of the 'classic' TV is never going to look very good. Music videos are typically over-compressed and frequently show blocky artefacts and edge effects, which must be the price of having an extensive library to choose from.
Audio quality follows roughly the same hierarchy, though it never gets as bad as some of the pictures. Movies are encoded in Dolby Surround, which is a bit old-fashioned but still works pretty well.
Tiscali's promising PVR
Tiscali's service is easily as good for quality and value as Virgin or BT Vision.
It's also a pleasure to use and promises to get better. Tiscali+ is a good PVR, but with one or two annoying and unecessary flaws
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