Choosing a FreeviewHD recorder

I’ve just finished reviewing the TVonics DTR-Z500HD Freeview HD recorder for Register Hardware; it should be published in the next week or so. I can’t tell you exactly what I thought before then (after all, they pay me for my opinion), but I thought it’s worth raising some questions that people will have to think about when they head out to buy something like this, because there isn’t really a single product that ticks absolutely all the boxes.

I’ve looked at four ‘pure’ FreeviewHD recorders, by which I mean units that record only to a hard drive, and also a Panasonic one that can burn DVDs. There are some interesting new models coming along, which I hope to look at including the new Sony, which is the first model to be certified with all the necessary software for the BBC iPlayer via Freeview.

So, it’s worth taking a look at what you’ll find from the various products that are out there, and the key ways in which they differ. I’m not necessarily intending to direct people towards a specific product, but rather to explain the things you might need to consider when you buy, so you can choose the best product for your needs.

It’s worth stressing at this point that many manufacturers will tell you that something “is planned for a future firmware update.” It can be tempting to make your decision based on such statements, but do try to check them first, and make sure they really have come from a reliable source, and not just wishful thinking on a forum somewhere. The best advice, really, is always to buy a product for what it does now, rather than what you hope it might do at some later date, if there’s an update to it.

Under consideration

I’m going to refer to five products here, to give you an idea of the sort of breadth of functionality you might come across; four are ones I’ve tested myself – the Humax HDR-Fox T2, Icecrypt T2400, TVonics DTR-Z500HD, and DigitalStream DHR8205. The final one is the new Sony SVR-HDT500. I’m purposefully leaving aside the Panasonic disc burning kit – it’s not really in quite the same class as these others.

All of these products have differing degrees of functionality, but you can pick them all up for between £200 and £300, give or take a bit. The DigitalStream and TVonics are at the cheaper end of the range, the Sony is more or less in the middle, and the Humax and Icecrypt come in at the top of the range (that’s assuming a 500GB disk; some are available with different sizes; if you want to know how that relates to recording time, read this article).

Key differences

All the recorders have their own little quirks and differences, which I’m not going to enumerate here; you’d do best to read the reviews for more insight on that. But there are also big functional differences that might make quite a difference to what you want to buy, so that’s what I’ll look at here.

BBC iPlayer is one of those; only two of the products have it available – the Humax and the Sony. In the case of the Sony (and it will roll out to future kit, as I mentioned here) it’s provided by supporting the iPlayer on the red button services, so you press Red while watching any BBC TV channel and select it from the menu. On the Humax, it’s via their own TV portal, which also provides access to Sky Player – and it’s the only kit so far that will let you access Sky content that way. Some of the others may get iPlayer via red button later – but remember what I said about updates.

Dolby Transcoding (a favourite topic on this site) isn’t universally supported; of the products I’m talking about but the IceCrypt have it at the moment, though on the Sony it’s apparently not available via HDMI. Is this important to you? Only you can tell, though to keep things in perspective, so far it’s just a few HD programmes that broadcast with surround. All newer kit should have it, but I’d still advise checking exactly how much support there is.

Some people just want a recorder that lets them watch and record TV. Others want it to be able to view other things, like movies they’ve downloaded, or photos. The Humax can play media over your home network; the others don’t – but the IceCrypt lets you copy files to it via the network, and then view them. The others will let you view photos from a USB drive, and sometimes play MP3 files, but that’s as far as it goes.

How much TV do you watch? That might sound a silly question, but it can be important. Most of the kit I’ve mentioned is clever enough to let you watch a third channel while you’re recording two others, a trick made possible by the way digital TV works. But the TVonics doesn’t. Some people won’t be bothered, but others will find that pretty limiting.

Subtle shades

Those are the main differences you’ll find, really – is surround sound supported, is iPlayer available, can you view files stored on your home network. But of course there will be more subtle things too, like the interface, and how you can organise recordings (the TVonics, for example, just has one list, and no folders), or whether you can browse the programme guide by genre, or even search by name.

Some of those things might sound like things you’d never do, but it’s worth thinking about them, because they can be the little things that will make using a PVR a completely different way of watching TV, as I tried to explain here. Only you know which will really be important to you, but I hope I’ve pointed out some of the key areas where products may differ from one another, even though they seem superficially similar.

4 thoughts on “Choosing a FreeviewHD recorder

  1. Manufacturer’s are often guilty of promising features and not delivering them. Got bitten by this once and will never be taken in again.

    As you said “buy a product for what it does now, rather than what you hope it might do at some later date, if there’s an update to it.”

  2. Much like the Sky player that has not materialised on the Humax HDR but Humax have promised since last Summer. Even this article assumes it has been released.

  3. “because there isn’t really a single product that ticks absolutely all the boxes” <- the reason I'm still with the Toppy 5800 from 2005! Been waiting for a decent Freeview HD recorder for ages…

  4. Very insightful article Nigel – I’ve been ‘away’ for three months, with no access to news/tv/newspapers, and am now catching up – this has saved me hours of research.

    Many thanks

    Fred F.

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