With Freeview now available in over 80% of UK homes, the free-to-air service can really claim to have hit the mass market. Offering all of the benefits of digital television (clear picture, extra channels) along with some of its drawbacks (namely shopping channels), the small investment and ease of setup mean that this is one new service worth upgrading to.
With the PVR-8000T, Humax is trying to add a USP over the wealth of boxes that currently line the shelves of Richer Sounds. By combining a Freeview receiver and a hard drive recorder in one box, it offers much more control over digital viewing. While you're watching a channel, the box is busy archiving everything to the hard drive. This means you can do anything from pause the programme at any time, fast forward through the ad breaks and schedule recordings for the future.
It's an ideal system for people who know that they won't be upgrading to a cable or satellite service in the future, and those who don't want to archive a lot of material to DVD. However, with only one tuner you can't watch a different programme to the one you're recording. This relatively small omission results in a product that is brilliant in concept, but one that has definite room for improvement in terms of practicality.
The Humax PVR-8000T boasts an interesting design, mainly because it will confuse the uninitiated over what it actually is. It's certainly closest in looks to a DVD player in terms of size, colour and weight, but it has an LCD channel display where the disc tray would usually be. Only the DVB symbol gives the game away, but with no indications of how big the hard drive is, let alone that it's even a recording device, this is a box full of mystery.
The physical size of the unit is therefore pretty big when compared to other FreeView boxes, especially considering what's actually inside. Humax has certainly not been economical on engineering -- the hard drive takes up only a third of the actual chassis, and the rest is simply an elongated motherboard. It certainly gives the box plenty of air to circulate inside, but a little bit more effort could probably have shrunk the device considerably.
On the rear there are two Scart sockets -- one for outputting an RGB signal to your TV and one labelled 'VCR', which is an option if you want to archive straight to DVD. However, this output isn't wired for an RGB signal, so any recordings will suffer from a definite loss in image quality. You can also output via S-video or composite, although again we'd suggest this as a last resort.
The box also includes an optical audio output -- very rare for a Freeview receiver. It's rare only because its use is actually minimal, as all broadcasters currently transmit their programmes in stereo. You might as well use the stereo audio output if you're connecting to a receiver or home cinema system, but it's nice to see some future-proofing from Humax just in case Freeview ever does go into Dolby Digital (don't hold your breath). You might choose to use it if you're listening to a lot of digital radio, however, as the services available through Freeview are much better than those on DAB radio.
Rather amazingly, considering this is a £180 product, there's an RS-232 input as well. This allows it to be controlled centrally by an automated system, using those touchscreen displays that are the sole preserve of footballers and inordinately smug stockbrokers. A nice touch though, in case you ever win the lottery.
The 80GB hard drive is large in terms of recording time (40 hours), but if you're feeling adventurous and have a few hours and a screwdriver, you could upgrade the hard drive. A 200GB IDE drive costs around £65 and will give you a massive 100 hours of recording potential -- you can simply drop it in and get the system to reset to factory settings.
The process of recording programmes and watching them back again is probably the easiest we've ever encountered on a PVR. This is mainly down to Freeview's in-built electronic programme guide (EPG), which has been integrated seamlessly into the menu system. To record a programme, you simply call up the EPG and select the one you want. Thanks to the seven-day EPG, it's possible to see what's on for the whole week ahead, although we found that you need a very strong signal for this to work properly. We had trouble seeing more than a few hours ahead from the centre of London, which is worrying for anyone living far away from their transmitter.
During testing, we also encountered a couple of occasions where the box would miss the start of the programme by a minute or two -- you can select a whole programme, but it sticks rigidly to its scheduled timing so you may need to prolong it slightly. You also can't edit recordings once they've been made, which would be perhaps more important on a DVD recorder, but this device is meant as a scratchdisc for your programmes as opposed to a permanent storage. If this kind of functionality is important to you, it's a shame you can't network programmes across to your computer and convert them to DivX files -- this would be an extremely cool feature if you had a portable PVR and wanted to watch last night's news on the journey to work.
The remote control is a little bit cluttered, but it can be used to control your TV as well. This can be a little confusing at first, as you end up changing channels on your TV when you really want to do it on the PVR. Otherwise, it's very easy to navigate the various Freeview features -- digital text services are very quick to load, plus you can access the EPG while a recording is being made to hard drive. Thankfully, you can also call up detailed programme information on-screen, allowing you to see if you've seen that particular episode of The Simpsons already.
This particular Freeview box is one of the best we've seen at picking up channels, even from a weak signal. A lot of Freeview broadcasts are actually made at a low bit rate, and when you output via RGB Scart there can be a hell of a lot of artefacting on an LCD or plasma screen. When watching swimming, the result was actually unwatchable, as were any children's programmes with fast camera pans. Use a regular CRT, however, and the picture quality is fantastic. Colours are extremely vivid and the detail is the best we've seen from any set top box.
The recordings are also made directly from the MPEG2 broadcast, meaning picture and sound quality are flawless. You simply cannot tell the difference, and the fact that you can store 40 hours of footage on the hard drive means you could fit a whole series of 24 or Desperate Housewives on there.
What a shame, then, that there's no feature to automatically record every episode of the same series like Sky+ and Windows Media Centre offers. The dual tuner issue might sound slightly snobbish, but when you've used the box for a week you'll realise the frustration that such a limitation can cause. The Sky+ system allows you to watch one programme while recording another, or even record two programmes at once. If this is important to you, you might want to hold off for the Panasonic TU-CTH100, a dual tuner 80GB recorder that will launch in the spring for £280. The PVR-8000T meanwhile, is a superb idea that has been well implemented, but one that needs an upgrade to realise its potential.
Edited by: Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by: Nick Hide and Tom Espiner