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Hands-on with BT Vision: Feature-packed cheapness

BT has a Vision -- a dual-tuner PVR that lets you access on-demand video over the Internet, all for £30 plus installation. Too good to be true? We got our hands on one...

BT sent a lovely chap called Dave to my flat last week to install its Vision PVR/on-demand box. Apparently we can't be trusted to plug them in ourselves, so customers have to pay a £60 installation charge -- but considering the 160GB PVR box only costs £30, this isn't such a bad deal.

The box itself, built by Philips but not badged as such, is horrid. There's no getting around it: this is a cheap, tacky, ugly piece of consumer electronics. It's a boring, untrendy grey for a start. Don't they know everything's black these days? The buttons aren't flush with their sockets and the front panel doesn't quite match the rest -- a sure sign of contract manufacturing.

The remote control is not so bad -- it looks like it cost more than the box. Its wide, tapered design is reminiscent of a halibut, but the sturdy white plastic and trustworthy buttons are very classy.

The bargain-basement chassis belies a very elegant menu system, however -- BT has clearly put some effort into making the programme guide and recording functionality simple to use and easy on the eye. The one clear downside of the EPG is that it's piped over the Internet -- the Vision has to be wired to a BT Home Hub, which means you must purchase your broadband from BT. It also means your Hub has to be next to your TV, which might not be convenient.

The upside to this symbiosis is that on-demand video is integrated into the menu system. There's a fairly wide selection of content, from peculiar old movies to the latest DVD releases -- Children of Men is on there, for instance -- and you pay up to £2.99 to download them and keep them for 24 hours. They aren't in high definition, but the box's HDMI output means they could be, in theory at least. It all worked fine for me, with the movie playing as it downloaded, but I admit I haven't tested it extensively.

The picture quality of Freeview channels is not as good as that through the integrated tuner in my Samsung LCD, but the recording doesn't lose any quality at all. There's no option to downgrade quality to save on space, but 160GB should be more than enough. The two tuners mean you can watch one channel and record another, and there's the usual handy 'pause live TV' function, which is a revelation if you've never had it before.

My first impression is that BT Vision is not without its downsides, but if you already have BT broadband, then £90 for a Freeview PVR with the option of easily accessing on-demand video is a bargain. We'll bring you a full review very soon. -Nick Hide

Update: A previous version of this story stated the cost of the box and installation were £20 and £70 respectively, when they're £30 and £60. We regret the error.

Update 2: A full review of BT Vision is now live.

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