What do I want from a PVR?

Over the last few months, I’ve been playing with various Freeview HD recorders; I wrote a piece a little while ago about the work involved in thoroughly testing them, but I thought I’d say something about what I want a PVR to do for me, and how I want it to work.

Some of this is, almost certainly, biased by my long term usage of the Topfield 5800, which is one of the most customisable units around; lots of people reckon that to get the best out of it, you have to use a TAP (that’s an add-on application) called MyStuff; personally, I’ve never tried it, and use a different combination to achieve what are probably pretty similar ends.

None of the units, so far, has made me think “I’ll switch off the Toppy and use this one.” Now, partly that’s because the Toppy is nicely integrated with everything else – programmed into the Harmony remote, for example – but also because, while the gadgets I’ve been playing with will record the Freeview HD channels fine, they don’t do everything it does. And, for the time being, since most stuff isn’t actually in HD, I’m prepared to watch a few things in SD instead, or make ‘appointments to view’ for programmes such as Dr Who, so that I can view them in HD.

What I want from Freeview HD

First, when it comes to Freeview HD recorders, there are some features that are an absolute essential. Top of that list has to be a Dolby Digital output, via optical S/PDIF. For me, this means I will get surround sound, and if a box isn’t offering it (look here for more on the gory details), then it’s off my list right away.

Network media playback would be good, but not essential – my TV will handle that in SD, and will give me iPlayer via Freesat too, when Panasonic issues their update.

I prefer an internal power supply as well; there’s a lot of equipment in my living room, and tons of cables. I don’t want more boxes lying on the floor behind the boxes that actually do the work.

How a PVR should work

In terms of how a PVR should work, there are things that I’m used to, and find essential – some people might not want these, or thing them superfluous, but they’re what I find incredibly useful.

A flexible EPG

I don’t just want a fixed grid; I want to be able to zoom out, so I can see a few hours at a time, if I want, rather than planning an evening in 2 hour blocks. And I like to be able to see a list for a single channel too.

Most of all, it should be responsive; you should be able to skip through the week to see what’s on your favourite channels, without finding it a chore. You should, ideally, be able to hide the channels you never watch, too.

Series recording and persistent searches

A must these days, series recording is great, though I don’t actually use Freeview+ series links. Instead, all my programmes on the Toppy are recorded by searches; I can highlight a programme in the guide, and press a button to create a default search, which is for that show, on that channel and day, with a two hour time window. I can tweak it more, and make things even more clever – if anyone ever starts showing Oz again, my PVR will record it. Any film with the word ‘Almodovar’ in the description will be recorded, whenever and wherever it’s on.

And I can change the priority, so certain things are always set, and others will be set if they don’t clash with the more important ones. I know that, even if I miss trailers and news, the next time Dr Who starts being shown on a Saturday, it will be recorded.

Some of the PVRs I’ve looked at allow you to search the EPG, but only in real time, and you can’t save searches to happen automatically.

Intelligent recording

Freeview+ allows for ‘accurate recording’ which is great, and can cope with late changes to scheduling that searches can’t. But some channels are a bit lacklustre with their signalling, and you miss the first few seconds of a show.

Again, this is a feature I don’t use on my Toppy; instead, all my recordings start a few minutes before the scheduled time, and end a few minutes after. In the vast majority of cases, this is sufficient.

And, no, I don’t have to fast forward to the start of the programme. A bookmark is automatically placed in the recording when the start and end signals are spotted, and the archive program that I use to browse and select a recording to play automatically jumps to the first bookmark, if it’s less than a certain way into the programme.

Jumping and bookmarking

Forward and backward jumps are essential tools for watching via a PVR, as I’ve said before. And so too are bookmarks. I have a recording of last year’s excellent MGM Prom by the John Wilson Orchestra, and plenty of bookmarks, so I can skip to particular songs within it.

There’s more

Those are the things that I would really miss; persistent searches mean I don’t have to spend ages wading through the paper, or the programme guide. Jumping and bookmarks mean I see what I want, and don’t waste my time with vacuous adverts. It’s little touches like this that make me return to the Toppy, and that I find frustrating when I don’t have them on another recorder.

I hate missing a couple of seconds at the start of a show. Watching adverts and juggling fast forward/rewind to get to the bit of a programme I want is tedious.

And interfaces that need lots of button presses to do simple things, or that take ages just to see everything that’s on a single channel in one evening aren’t going to make me run out and buy a new PVR.

Some of the products I’ve looked at strike me as not that much more evolved from the first generation of standard def units; none of them has yet excited me as much as the standard definition Topfield TF5800 did, back in 2005.

Topfield 5800
Topfield's 5800 - only SD, but still not usurped by any FreeviewHD models

6 Replies to “What do I want from a PVR?”

  1. As a fellow Toppy owner (but a MyStuff owner ;), I agree with pretty much all of what you say Nigel.

  2. “all my recordings start a few minutes before the scheduled time, and end a few minutes after.”

    What happens that you hit the maximum 2 channels recorded at the same time limit? I.e. the other channel was also recording a channel from another multplex? Won’t you run out of channels?

    1. When there is an overlap, the scheduling software I use will remove the padding, if it has to. So, sometimes you end up with recordings that have to stop and start dead on schedule, but on the whole, such clashes are relatively rare, in my experience.

  3. Another must for me is that you continue to get audio (and possibly some video) of the programme you are watching when you bring up the EPG.

    It’s very useful for looking at other programmes to watch while kind of following an existing programme.

    — H

  4. Interesting article as it’s the main reason I haven’t upgraded to a freview HD (or freesat HD for that matter) box from my wonderful Toppy – running MyStuff of course.

    Even my wife loves it!

    Without the features you mentioned everything else just seems like a step backwards. What’s the point of an upgrade (to HD) if you have to lose all that functionality?

    Btw Nigel: Do you know if Topfield will release a (Topfield branded & TAP enabled) Freeview or Freesat HD box?

  5. Absolutely. Topfield owner with Mystuff

    Clear readable EPG that allows direct recordings and searches and displays existing timer events. Switchable between grid and list.

    Auto padding.

    Autosearches (and good recovery from power loss and crashes)

    Jump/skip and bookmarks

    Twin tuners (and preferably record 2 watch another on Mux)

    Reliability and clear engagement with users on forums etc posting bugs, timescales and plans. (ignoring free help – doh!)

    HD and Dolby Digital are desireable add-ons to a good PVR NOT a reason to put up with a product that cannot compete with the useability of a five year old product and certainly not a reason to replace a good device with an inferior one. Wrestling with settings and missing parts of a programme should be what a PVR solves not causes.

    High hopes for the Humax shipping next week but really waiting for the Topfield version. Note to suppliers SIMPLICITY CARRIES A PREMIUM PRICE. Simplicity with flexibility – even more so.

    Bells and whistle easy added via one of the many cheap add network boxes, consoles, blu rays, TVs etc. Just make my PVR easy – like improving my TV experience …. its not called the idiot box for nothing.

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