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It's clear from the design of the Terratec Cinergy T2 that portability was the order of the day. We've seen some very small Freeview boxes, but this really takes the biscuit -- its footprint is about 50 per cent bigger than a box of matches and it's about as thick as a pack of cards. It plugs into the USB port of your computer and receives a signal from the included miniature aerial, processing the MPEG2 stream while the software displays it on-screen. From here, the functionality really becomes interesting, because your PC lets you watch, pause and record both digital television and radio.
On paper it's revolutionary stuff, and it certainly would be in reality if it weren't for the rather limited Freeview coverage. It serves about 80 per cent of the population, but the same can't be said for geographical area, and this is the key when you're moving about. The Cinergy T2's practical applications are therefore limited to static locations -- and ones that are in built-up areas at that. The only people that might still be interested in a USB device, as opposed to installing a PCI card, are those who only own a laptop, or conversely those who have many machines around the house and would like to hot swap between them. That's a fairly limited market, but the Cinergy T2 is still a well-featured package that comprehensively covers the receiving, capturing and archiving of Freeview content.
When we received the Terratec Cinergy T2, it was 'guess the new gadget' time for passers-by. Its tiny size and USB connection mark it out as some sort of PC device, but we've simply never seen a Freeview adaptor so small before -- if only set-top boxes were built like this. Its two solitary connections are USB 2.0, for linking up to a PC for data and power, and an aerial input, for receiving a signal from the miniature aerial included in the pack, or from any other external source.
The included aerial is pretty good at picking up a signal, plus its magnetic base enables you to stick it to a nearby desk or monitor -- just don't attach it anywhere near your hard drive. Thankfully, all the cables you need to get started are included, with the aerial and main unit offering a combined length of about 1m, so you can move them around to find a better signal. If you're at home and can connect to a rooftop or booster aerial, we'd recommend this as a matter of course. There's also a remote control included in the pack.
While the Terratec Cinergy T2 won't set the world alight in terms of design, it's still very functional. The buttons are well spaced and just the right size, and the computer processes requests in under a second. However, it uses infrared so the receiver has to be within line-of-sight of the remote.
Everything you need to use the Cinergy T2 is included in the box. The software rather unhelpfully installed itself in German from the CD, with no options to change to English in the setup or program menus. We upgraded the drivers and software from the Terratec Web site and everything sorted itself out. We'd always recommend downloading the latest drivers anyway, but for anyone without access to the Internet, it's not a good starting point. There are no printed manuals included in the box, just on the CD. Ours, however, only had instructions on how to set up the remote as opposed to the main program itself.
The main software program, called simply Cinergy Digital 2, is pretty basic. Its main purpose is to let you watch and record TV. It features all the same buttons as the remote, so it's a matter of preference as to which you use in everyday situations.
By contrast the setup menu is very comprehensive. You can choose which format you want to record television and radio in -- we recommend choosing the MPEG option if you plan to archive to DVD. DVD Movie Factory 3, a cut-down version of the full suite, is the most comprehensive program of the bunch. It will take your video recordings, add menus, and burn them to DVD -- all from one simple interface. The final program of the bundle is PowerDVD 5, one of the best PC-based players on the market, which lets you then watch your recordings back from your newly-created discs.
The Electronic Programme Guide is fairly basic in comparison to ones from Humax, but you can scroll over the listings with the mouse and one click will reserve anything that takes your fancy. Bear in mind that this is a single-tuner device, meaning that you can't watch anything other than the program that is currently being recorded. However, if you're using a PC with a large hard drive, you can pause TV for as long as you want -- just set how much of the disk you want to use as a temporary buffer. Experienced timeslippers sometimes prefer to pause the beginning of a programme and then start watching it 15 minutes afterwards, so that they can jump in and skip the ad breaks as they happen. You can easily see your recordings (which are stored in a dedicated folder in My Documents) before editing, and once you've made your perfect compilation, the software will set it all up, ready to be burnt in a format readable by a standard DVD player.
The main advantage of recording from a computer is that you retain the full quality of the original broadcast with absolutely no loss, but the recordings take up very little room. We recorded a 2-hour movie from BBC2 and it came to just 2.4GB. Therefore, you could feasibly fit up to around 3.5 hours of content on a standard DVD, which is much longer than if you used a standard DVD recorder, and with no loss of quality either. This makes it one of the most effective ways of recording and archiving en masse. If your experience of video editing stretches even further, you can download programs such as VirtualDub and Gordian Knot. These will let you cut out the advert breaks, tidy up any video/audio synch issues that might occur, and then archive them in a compressed form like DivX or Xvid.
In terms of picture quality, Freeview receivers can be difficult to tell apart, but some are certainly better than others at producing channels from weaker signals. In this respect, the Cinergy T2 was a mixed bag. The receiver and its tiny aerial could pick up Channel 4 from our office in London, something that not even the excellent Humax PVR-8000T and a rooftop aerial could manage in the same location. But in a remote Yorkshire town, where the Freeview Web site informed us there wasn't a signal, it couldn't find any channels at all -- despite the fact that a standard rooftop aerial and the DigiFusion FRT101 box had no trouble with the same task. Our advice: check the Web site and connect to a decent aerial where possible.
The general AV performance is only as good as your PC setup. Using a modern computer with a DVI output and a flatscreen display, the results are superb -- a world away from plugging a standard Freeview box into the same display. On the other hand, if you're using a laptop with a fairly average display, the results are less impressive, and lack contrast depth. The really attractive way to use the Cinergy software is as a display in a window, in a way that lets you keep an eye on the football or listen to radio while typing up that report. If you have a decent set of Logitech or Creative Labs speakers, then you can really appreciate the detail of Freeview's digital radio broadcasts.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Tom Espiner