Sagem first made a name for itself in the digital TV receiver market for boxes that included multimedia card reader. But as more and more people warm to the idea of hard drive recording, the willingness to buy into a Sky+-style recording system has resulted in Sagem's PVR6280T. With dual tuners and an 80GB hard drive, a neat idea is turned into something you soon won't be able to live without.
While the box has dual tuners, it can't record two channels at the same time like the Thomson DHD4000. Other than that, the Sagem features some impressive specifications (and double Thomson's hard drive space), plus Sagem's cause is helped by an electronic programme guide (EPG) that's the most intuitive that we've used, and recording that's a simple touch of a button or a reservation in the seven-day EPG. This makes one of the most useful and complete systems we've had the pleasure of using.
The box itself is a strange shape, like a large doorstop. Its slanted body limits its practicality, and we'd suggest that you don't stack anything on top of it. The remote control is also strangely formed, a case of too many buttons crammed into too small a space. It's confusing that it features a redundant Photo button -- it's only the next model up that boasts this feature. The manual is a fold-out sheet of paper as opposed to a proper book, and it's more like one of those massive guides that you get with a DIY coffee table rather than a digibox.
Connectivity from Sagem's box is good, but like a DVD player, it's very simple. The link between the box and the display should be made via RGB Scart, and if you want to connect to a DVD recorder, there's a second, non-RGB Scart output. If you use this (it's called VCR Scart on the box), then fidelity and colours aren't as good as they are through RGB. It's not really an issue though, as most DVD recorders now come with an RGB Scart input and output, with which you can loopthrough to the TV.
On the audio side, there's an optical output which will provide a digital signal through to your amplifier or home cinema system. From there, audio quality is decided by your sound system, and it's just a shame that Freeview broadcasts are only made in stereo. It's possible that we may get a 5.1 upgrade in the future, but we suspect any extra bandwidth will be handed over to another shopping channel.
While the EPG is excellent, the system menus follow their own rulebook. The main settings are tucked away under Installation, which sounds scarily like the setting you'd choose to boot the system back to factory defaults. When we plucked up the courage to choose it, we had to then go through a security code (to prevent a five year old changing the menus to Italian, presumably) before you can change essential settings such as your TV format (4:3/16:9) and favourites lists.
Sagem's EPG is a class act. In the top corner of the screen you can see a preview of the current channel, along with its name, the programme title and its duration. Underneath that, you have a long list of channels, and the last window displays a schedule of the next nine programmes to be shown. This makes it easy to see most of the day's viewing in one go, and if anything catches your eye you can record it by highlighting it and pressing record. It's good that the box will automatically record 5 minutes before and 15 minutes after the programme as a margin of error, but we wish Freeview could implement a system that triggers boxes to record whenever programmes start. This is supposed to be the digital age, after all.
The box is fully supportive of the seven-day EPG, so if you press the Red button in this menu you can record all the programmes you want over the coming week. The only annoying part is that you can only rewind and fast-forward through a recording by using the appropriate buttons -- it would be useful if there was a time bar that you could move quickly along. In this respect, Humax's PVR-8000T has the best post-recording navigation.
The on-screen information is also well designed, giving you everything you need to know at a glance. Whenever you change channel, you can see the current programme name, the time and, most usefully, how far through the current programme is. It's a good way to see how far through a film you are when channel-surfing, so you can make an educated guess on whether you can catch up on the plot. And of course, you can also hit the 'i' button to see a quick synopsis of the current programme.
The main menu is a pain to find, but it offers several useful features. It's good that you can lock certain channels in this menu so that a child can't access predesignated channels. We can't think of anything that's shown during the day that would be particularly offensive, but the music channels run some particularly risque text services in the evening. At least you can use it to block out the home shopping channels, if only to protect your own sanity as much as your children's.
We tested the box in our office, which is a good test for any digibox. Despite being in central London, our building seems to act as one giant signal deflector. Sagem's digibox had no trouble picking up every last channel from the Freeview roster, even from a tiny bedroom aerial. This might be useful if you live in a weak signal area, because most earlier boxes required the investment of a wideband television aerial. The only other thing we could wish for is a TopUp TV card slot (which isn't as big a deal now that E4 is on Freeview), and like Sagem's other boxes, a multiformat media card slot. If you want to copy digital photos to the hard drive, you'll have to pay around £200 for the upgraded PVR6680T.
The PVR6380T's picture quality across RGB Scart is excellent. What's most impressive is that there's no breakup in picture -- most of the other boxes we've tested are subject to the odd digital artefact when the signal drops. The box records MPEG-2 Freeview streams directly, so not only can you fit more on the hard drive in comparison to a separate recorder, but all material stored on the hard drive is undistinguishable from the original broadcast. The hard drive access time is quicker than Humax's recorder, and rewinding through recordings is smoother too. Most importantly, the hard drive itself is quiet during everyday use.
Sagem has made the strange choice of making the stereo audio output a headphone connector, whereas most other boxes use standard Red/White phono connectors. That means that you might need to buy a converter to connect up to standard AV amplifiers. Audio quality was good, but to be honest not perceptably different to any other Freeview box we've tested. The main attraction of this box is its ability to process a weak signal as well as record multiple channels, rather than any AV superiority.
Edited by Nick Hide