There are plenty of flatscreen TVs with Freeview tuners. The vast majority are now HD Ready too, so if you add a high-definition Sky or cable box, you can see even better pictures. Many of these screens are reasonably stylish as well, beyond simply being flat. So what can a manufacturer do to be distinctive? Sanyo has become one of the few to include a hard-disk recorder, making it a TV that can record from itself without an external box.
Set-top receiver specialist Humax tried this in early 2005 (see issue 294) with mixed results, and you can get a PVR upgrade module for certain Loewe TVs but the 'Y:TV' - as it's nicknamed by Sanyo - aims to be as straightforward and affordable an option as possible.
This is one of Sanyo's 'designer' LCD TVs and is made in the UK. Its attractive, minimalist frame comes in blue, black, white or red. The screen can detach from its stand and be wall-mounted, but it's stocky for an LCD due to the extra interior hardware.
Unusually, the stereo speakers are rear-mounted and use what's called a Time Domain system but not to great effect. They are removable, however, it's unclear how else they can be placed.
The back panel is adorned with sockets, such as HDMI for high-definition viewing, component video for analogue progressive scan and three Scarts - two with RGB in and two with video out for external recording, though the output quality is only basic composite video.
The TV's 160GB hard-disk drive (HDD) records between about 40 and 181 hours of TV from the internal analogue or digital or tuners (including digital radio). There are seven quality settings, but only one digital tuner, so you cannot watch or record another digital channel while recording.
The HDD can buffer current digital broadcasts for two hours, even if you change channels, so you can pause live TV or 'rewind' anything that's gone by. However, you cannot store any of the 2 hour buffer as a permanent recording. Oddly there's no proper off switch, so the TV continues to use electricity unless it's off at the wall; though our tests confirm that it uses 2W in standby, which isn't too bad.
The on-screen electronic programme guide (EPG) covers up to seven days. Apart from the 'now and next' option shown with the Info button, it's hard to browse listings across Freeview channels as you can only view one channel's schedules at a time.
Setting the timer is quite simple at first; you press the red fastext button (not the Record one) in the EPG, but then you must wade through three confirmation screens, giving you too many chances to manually edit the entry. if you don't want to make changes then it's tedious.
Getting out of the final confirmation screen is fussy too. The normal Return or Menu exit keys have no effect here, so you have to use the Timer Rec one instead, which is covered by a flap. When manual recordings clash with pre-timed ones you get an onscreen warning and two minutes to act before it goes ahead as planned. There is also a two-minute warning when the timer needs to change Freeview channels for a recording.
This is helpful in theory, but you get a long, on-screen interruption even if you are watching an external source, a DVD for example, which is both pointless and annoying. Another irritation is that it takes six presses of the AV input button to reach the highest quality HDMI input.
The names from the EPG are not copied over into the recordings on your playlist, so it's not easy to tell what programmes they are. The system is often sluggish to respond and, on top of that, you cannot play anything else from the hard drive while recording. So, not only does the Y:TV lack twin digital tuners, it doesn't offer simultaneous play and record features that are standard on other hard-drive recorders.
The analogue TV picture is generally good and the Freeview tuner had no problem accessing all available channels in our test.
However, it looks like the internal links between the digital tuner, the hard drive and the screen use only a basic composite video connection, therefore the performance for live Ratings and recorded Freeview pictures is awful. As far as it's possible to tell, the HQ and SP recording modes seem adequate, while the lower modes of LP to SLP are full of video noise and break-up.
We plugged in a Denon DVD player via RGB Scart to see if that was any better, but that revealed further problems. Watching the stunning Australian 'western' The Proposition on a Region 2 PAL disc shows sun-drenched highlights that are just too burnt out, while edges are overly sharpened and artificial looking.
Motion is not smooth either, there is too much gradation in the grey scale and the overall effect is far from cinematic. Switching to progressive scan with component inputs is more successful. This gives a calmer, better balanced picture than RGB, and natural moving shots, but detail is rather soft.
Then we tried HDTV via HDMI. The picture was cleaner again and with an even warmer colour scheme. Motion presents only a tiny amount of dot crawl and strobing on fine highlights. Some of the detail in the BBC's moody Bleak House is lost in shadows so this TV's black level is not the most impressive. The less-than-perfect gradation issue also shows up with HDMI, but less than it does via the Scart.
Putting the speakers at the back is a design concept driven more by looks than function because in practice the sound is so 'boxy' and indistinct that the volume needs to be almost at maximum to be clear.
Combining a TV with a hard-drive Freeview recorder is an idea that looks good on paper, but it's difficult for a manufacturer to get every element right. Sanyo, sadly, cannot make things gel successfully on this attempt. The Y:TV's ease of use is slightly better than its Humax equivalent, but it's hindered in other ways, such as the lack of two Freeview tuners and no simultaneous play and record.
Hard-drive recorders get better every year so you're likely to want to replace it sooner than the screen you're watching. With superior combined DVD, HDD and Freeview recorders available from Sony, Panasonic and Pioneer, why settle for a second-rate PVR inside an LCD TV that's not too brilliant either?