Although hard drive PVRs are growing in popularity, there are still relatively few models that feature dual integrated TV tuners. Sony's SVR-S500 is one of the exceptions that has the benefit of letting you watch one programme while you record another -- although unlike some designs you can't record two programmes at the same time.
The typically attractive design features an 80GB hard drive that stores recordings and allows various time-slip functions, like pausing live TV. There are a few usability issues and it is slightly on the expensive side, but performance is outstanding with both TV broadcasts and recordings.
Sony's sense of style is unmatched. Even with only a standard box blueprint to work with, it has managed to inspire the SVR-S500 with an elegant design that appears more attractive than most PVRs.
The slim unit is the same size and weight of a typical DVD player, but with fewer physical features. The clean front panel only offers basic controls for turning the unit on/off and changing channels, leaving all other functions to the excellent remote.
The metal-cased construction enhances build quality and features a brushed aluminium trim surrounding the dark front display, which gives the unit an inconspicuous appearance that will blend effortlessly with any setup.
Connectivity options are equally unobtrusive. You can only connect the device to your display using an RGB-enabled Scart output, which provides the best possible performance from this standard connection -- although component outputs would have been preferred, especially if you own a flat-screen TV.
There's also a separate RGB-enabled Scart input that allows you to connect a recording device like a VCR or DVD recorder. This is particularly useful if you want to permanently archive your hard drive recordings without suffering a loss in quality.
You can supplement the sound performance using standard stereo outputs connected to an external home cinema amplifier -- but, again, a digital audio output would have been preferred for this use. Otherwise, that's it, except for a pair of standard aerial connections.
Another absent feature is a CI card slot, which means you won't be able to upgrade the device to receive limited subscription channels from services like TopUpTV.
All programme and recording functions are accessed through the stylish remote. The raised central cursor makes it easy to navigate through menus, colour coded keys allow instant operation and you can control basic TV functions if you have a compatible display.
What sets the SVR-S500 apart from your average PVR is that it features dual integrated digital TV tuners. Unlike single tuners this means you can watch one Freeview channel while you simultaneously record another, enhancing recording versatility and (hopefully) putting an end to arguments erupting when competing programmes clash.
Recorded programmes are stored in the 80GB hard drive, which offers around 40 hours of footage using the standard quality mode (SP), 60 hours using long play mode (LP) and up to 80 hours using the lowest quality extended mode (EP). It's not the largest hard drive, but it should be fine for general use and you can always delete or archive copies onto tape or disc to free up space.
There are several ways to make recordings, including simple one-touch recordings and typical timer recordings, but using the accompanying digital EPG is simplest -- all you need do is highlight the desired programme from the list and you're away. Although the EPG is beautifully presented however, there are some annoying limitations.
Accessing the EPG only gives you programme schedules for a single channel at a time, which means you can't quickly scan an overview to find what's on elsewhere. There are also no thumbnailed images to prevent you from missing programmes while you set up recordings.
Equally frustrating is the blank screen delay that appears between changing channels, and the programme title bar always appears out of sight at the top of the screen. The device is also comparatively noisy with a whirring sound that never disappears, even when the unit is in standby mode. These may be minor issues but they can become irritating with everyday use and some less expensive models are not plagued by the same problems.
You can, however, programme recordings up to eight days in advance and copies can be easily found and edited. Recorded programmes are divided into five-minute scenes using thumbnails to help navigation, and you can edit or erase scenes to create playlists.
Finally, the hard drive nature of recording allows for various time-slip functions including pausing and rewinding live TV, chasing playback and simultaneous recording and playback.
If you can ignore the usability issues, the SVR-S500 puts in a highly creditable performance that compares favourably with the best PVRs on the market, such as the Panasonic TUC-TH100.
Digital programmes are densely defined with excellent detail and contrast for a broadcast image. Colours appear natural and well balanced, while only the most challenging scenes, featuring overwhelming information or unpredictable movement, suffer from any alarming instability.
Recordings using the standard (SP) mode are extremely accurate to the original, although the odd digital artefact does occasionally rear its head. Aside from a touch more shimmer around edges, the lower quality (LP) mode shows very little deterioration, too. Detail softens and colours appear slightly muted using the (EP) mode, but there's less decline in image quality than we expected, meaning even the lowest quality mode needn't be ignored as just a last resort.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield