Freeview might be a fairly limited service, with a mix of terrestrial channels, spin-offs that show repeats and imports and a gamut of shopping/music/minor interest offerings that fill the rest. But it's a free and easy way of getting digital TV, and for that we should be thankful, especially due to the high cost of Sky and cable TV.
If you do have a preference for the Freview model and fancy something over and above the standard service, you can choose one with an integrated hard drive. Humax has been a major supporter of this idea, but has so far only made models with one tuner. This means that if you want to record something, you can't watch something else on another channel. The Thomson DHD4000, on the other hand, has dual tuners, so you can set recordings independent of whatever it is you're currently watching. Even better, the unit constantly buffers two channels on to the hard drive, so you can change between them without losing your place in either. It's these little features, and the ability to record radio, that make the Thomson DHD4000 not only a fantastically designed piece of consumer electronics, but also one that fundamentally changes the way you watch TV.
Although it looks more like a network router than any other Freeview adaptor, the DHD4000 is very classy -- a world away from the majority of cheap boxes that line the shelves of Richer Sounds. It's also relatively small considering the innards it houses, much more slimline than the Humax PVRs anyway. The fascia has some flashy lights to display when it's recording, plus all the buttons you need to operate the machine if you lose the remote.
The remote control is similarly stylish, completing a package that gives off an upmarket flavour. Although some buttons may be too small, notably the ones to access menus and the guide, it's easy to navigate the menus. While the on-screen interface allows you to change everything you would need to, some things are a little too fiddly to navigate, hidden behind quite a few sub-menus. A FirmWare upgrade has given the box a slightly more transparent menu system, but it's still sometimes difficult to find your way around.
The EPG and menu system, on the other hand, is pure bliss. The extra information that the Freeview EPG transmits is fully supported and loads quickly. You can see what programme you're watching, plus skip through to what's coming on next, and if you want to see more detailed schedules (up to seven days ahead, although the box has enough memory to support 14 days if this is ever offered) you press the Guide button. In a very nice move that's reminiscent of the Media Centres we've seen, the current channel can be seen in the top right hand corner while you're browsing. Whenever you hit record, a small menu pops up to let you edit the exact length of recording, and let you name it on the fly. It's a beautifully realised system.
The connectivity on Freeview boxes tends to be very samey, and the DHD4000 is no different. The only notable flourish is the digital audio output, which allows you to send a clean audio feed to your home cinema system or receiver. Elsewhere, an RGB Scart output provides a strong saturated image through to a standard socket, while another Scart output is provided for outputting to video, although it isn't RGB. If you want to archive to DVD in the best possible quality, you can still use the standard TV output, but if you're doing this regularly you might want to invest in a Scart splitter. If your TV is antiquated or already stacked with Scart connections, you can use the S-video output, and if your receiver is analogue only, there are standard phono stereo outputs.
Where do we start on such a feature-packed box? Probably the most impressive function is the fact that the box buffers two channels to the hard drive simultaneously. This is very cool. If you go into the EPG, you can see your last two watched channels will have a green dot beside them. If you stay between these channels, you can rewind to the point where you first started watching. This should finally put an end to the plaintive cry of "What's on the other channel?" from other members of the household. The buffer lasts an ample 30 mins. A firmware update issued by Thomson allows you to record from the beginning of the buffer, so if you think halfway through it might be interesting, you can catch the whole programme. You can keep that hard drive unbelievably busy by recording two channels at once, while watching a previously archived programme. Very cool.
The recording possibilities don't just end with television. The box can also buffer and record digital radio too, something of a rarity for these recorders. As well as the EPG being incredibly easy to use, so is the caretaking of hard drive recordings. When you're watching a recording and break off to watch live TV, the box will remember where you were and continue from that exact same point. If you want to archive a number of episodes of a TV series to DVD, you have to do it in real-time, but there's an option to select in which order your recordings are outputted, so you can leave it to do its thing.
The hard drive is one limitation of the box, in that it can only hold around 25 hours of recordings (depending on bit rate). This is a lot more than you'd get at full quality on a separate HDD recorder, but it's still not enough to archive a full series of 24 or The Sopranos, and you can't drop the quality to fit more on. If you find the hard drive size isn't adequate, you can always whip it out and drop in a larger capacity one in - a 120GB one will triple the storage capacity and will only cost around £50. However, as it involves opening the box we wouldn't advise it unless you have some technical confidence. We hope that Thomson itself will increase this limited size in time, only without charging the £280 price tag that Panasonic is demanding for its 80GB TU-CTH100 PVR.
This feature-packed box also performs very well. It's the best out of any of the FreeView boxes we've had at picking up a signal -- grabbing absolutely everything first time even with a small portable area. Recordings are also indistinguishable from the original broadcast. If you're watching on a digital screen (LCD, plasma, or projector-based) the artefacting can be quite severe but this is a Freeview resolution issue, rather than the box itself. Regular CRT owners will be treated to a picture that's detailed and artefact-free.
Audio performance is particularly good though, thanks to the options offered by digital outputs. When you connect through to your receiver or home cinema system in this way, most will process a Dolby Pro Logic II soundtrack, which processes the audio to create surround effects. Although you won't confuse it for a Dolby Digital soundtrack, it works rather well with most systems, and if Freeview ever starts to broadcast in the latter, the box will at least be able to support it.
Additional editing by Tom Espiner