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Measuring 430 x 60 x 265mm, the Topfield slots into regular home entertainment units without any trouble. Its black panelling and symmetrical design gives it a low-key and somewhat stylish look. On the front is a vacuum fluorescent display that shows channel information, playback or recording status and sound configuration. Five slimline silver buttons under the display control power, volume and channels.
We must say that the remote control for the TF5000PVRt is very well designed. It has a kind of silky-feeling matte black finish and the most commonly used buttons are large and well laid out in the centre of the remote.
All connections are housed at the rear of the Masterpiece but the options are sparse for a AU$1,199 piece of home entertainment equipment. They include composite video, S-Video and two SCART ports. The only digital connection is optical audio -- sorry, no HDMI or DVI here. Unlike the Humax PVR Smart, which only requires a single antenna cable for its two tuners, you need to hook up a short loop through cord for the Topfield's second tuner. There is also a USB 2.0 port out the back of the unit to hook up to your PC or laptop. It can be tricky getting around the back of anything designed to sit in a living room cabinet; for ad-hoc connections, we would have prefered to see the USB port at the front of the PVR.
With a 160GB hard disk built-in, the Masterpiece allows you to record up to 80 hours worth of digital television in standard definition resolution (DVD-like quality). With SD devices like this, you can plug the box into any television with an A/V input to get crystal clear pictures, crisp sound and a couple of extra free-to-air tv channels -- provided there is a strong enough signal in your area. The twin tuners inside the PVR work separately so you can simultaneously record two different channels, or watch one channel while recording another.
Dual-tuners also mean that Picture-in-Picture functionality is enhanced, as they can decode two different channels simultaneously for viewing (eg. Ten and SBS). Single tuner boxes with PiP generally only let you view channels broadcast within the same network (eg. ABC and ABC2).
USB file transfer and an extensive library of third-party applications called TAPs (Topfield application programs) put the Masterpiece in a class of its own. These add-on applications allow a great deal of expansion. For example, the IceTV TAP gives you a 7-day on-screen tv guide while this TAP lets you schedule recordings via a Web interface. TAPs that let you connect to the Topfield via USB are available for PC and Mac.
Topfield has done very well in making the Masterpiece a straight-forward, easy-to-use PVR. The on-screen menus are attractive and intuitive, even for newbies to digital recording, and timer recordings (with or without the electronic program guide from IceTV) are simple to set up. The Masterpiece also lets you choose whether scheduled recordings are one-off, weekly, weekdays only, weekends or every day, so you can easily set it up to record every episode of a television series.
When browsing your library of recorded shows, it's good to see the Topfield remembers the program information so there's no guess work involved when deciding what to watch. Menu operations and playback are quick, even when deleting content.
A minor flaw we found during playback was that the Masterpiece tended to be a bit jerky and uneven when we pressed rewind. The easiest workaround we found was to use the horizontal time bar at the top of the screen to go back to a specific point in the recording. Fast-forwarding at 6x wasn't as fast as we'd hoped -- the Humax PVR Smart performs better in this regard -- but we love the fact that pressing the yellow button in the middle of the remote control skips ahead 30 seconds. It's great for skipping ads.
Those who value the sound of absolute silence when the television is switched off might get frustrated by the constant scratching noise of the Topfield, continuously buffering live tv on its hard disk. It's not terribly loud, but we did find ourselves powering down the unit a couple of times for some peace and quiet.
While we found picture quality acceptable, no doubt the Masterpiece would have benefited with DVI, HDMI or even component connections.
Topfield Australia has an very active forum where users can post questions and discuss the range of PVRs and TAPs available.
Topfield also sells a 120GB, 60-hour TF5000PVRt, which doesn't look as smart as the Masterpiece, but shaves a couple of hundred dollars off the asking price.