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Freeview PVRs are a great way of getting the most out of digital TV. It's never been easier to schedule a recording and build up a library of programmes without the need for piles of DVDs or, heaven forbid, VHS tapes.
Prices are also coming down, too -- equipment that would have cost £200 a few years ago is now pretty much half that price. Indeed, the Thomson DTI 6300-16 has been reduced to £99, with a Top Up TV starter pack, which increases the amount of TV you can receive. So, is this the ideal system for people who don't want to pay for Sky but fancy some extra TV choice?
There isn't a great deal to report in terms of styling with the DTI 6300-16. It's a black box with pretty much nothing to break up the design. It's neither horrifically ugly nor stunningly beautiful.
To the front, there are some basic controls that allow you to enter the menus and control the channel you're viewing. There's a flap that conceals the Top Up TV card -- this is virtually invisible though, which is good, because you'll never usually need to access it.
The remote control is something of a tribute to the Sky remote. It looks incredibly similar, but that's not really a criticism -- it's both comfortable to hold and easy to use. There's a dedicated button at the top to access the Top Up TV content, and pressing this will take you to a graphical menu that has logos for all of the channels that provide content. This makes finding shows pretty easy.
At the back, the usual assortment of inputs and outputs are waiting to be utilised. There's a pair of Scart sockets, a coaxial digital audio out, analogue audio out and of course inputs and outputs for the aerial.
Top Up TV adds some extra channels and a little confusion to Freeview. Top Up TV works by charging you £9.99 a month for some extra content. It's not really accurate to term these as channels, because programmes are cherry-picked from a number of sources. This takes place overnight, with the box recording individual programmes. When you check the programme library after a few days, you will notice it has recorded a variety of shows. You don't have control over the individual programmes that are recorded, but you can de-select channels if you aren't interested in what they show. This will also save hard disk space on the PVR.
The Top Up content is stored accessed via a dedicated menu, and there's a button on the remote control that will take you to a list of the shows that have been recorded. You can scroll through the 'channels' and select a programme to watch. Until you have left the box plugged in for a few days, nothing will be listed here. It's only once the box has gone through a few overnight recording cycles that you can watch content.
The Freeview PVR functionality works in a similar way to all of the other digital video recorders on the market. You can select programmes to record from the electronic programme guide. The Thomson makes use of a slightly enhanced guide that has programme information up to 14 days ahead. The downside to this is that if programmes are moved around these changes are less likely to be reflected on the guide. In practice this rarely happens though, and the extra week of guide data is handy if you're going on holiday.
Picture quality from the DTI 6300-16 is good. The machine allows you to output an RGB signal over the Scart lead. This means you get the best possible colour reproduction on your TV. If you're a flat-panel user, you might lament the lack of HDMI output, but in practice if you invest in a good Scart lead, the picture looks decent.
Sound was strong too, there are both analogue and digital audio outputs on the 6300-16, so you can hook it up to your hi-fi, or go to town connecting it to your AV receiver. Don't expect any Dolby Digital over Freeview though, the best you can hope for is a smattering of Dolby Pro Logic.
We set our DTI 6300-16 to record everything it could from Top Up TV via the customise menu, and within a few days we had a bunch of programmes from channels such as UK Gold and Living. There were also some films from the movie channel Picture Box. We should mention that Setanta Sports (which offers some Premier League football) and Picture Box both cost extra, on top of the £9.99 basic package. Both are available without Top Up TV -- Setanta is £9.99 a month, while Picture Box is £7 without a Top Up subscription and £5 with one.
We were impressed by the series linking ability of this box. While this functionality is promised as part of the new Freeview Playback standard, we've yet to see many boxes that support it. The Thomson does, however -- even though it isn't Freeview Playback certified -- and it works like a dream. We selected Home and Away and Friends on series link, and the box faithfully recorded three episodes of Home and Away and all three million episodes -- okay, it was only seven -- of Friends that were shown on E4 during our three-day test.
The only gripe we can think of is that the menu system is a little slow to respond at times. This is especially true if you're in the library, where it makes a moving thumbnail that shows you the programme you have highlighted.
The Thomson DTI 6300-16 is a great Freeview PVR. We think the 160GB hard drive is a little small, especially when you take into account how much content is provided by Top Up TV. With the addition of series link, you may well find yourself with a full hard drive in no time at all.
In terms of picture quality and functionality it's hard to beat the Thomson -- the only player that offers more is the similar 160GB Humax PVR-9200. The Humax has the slight edge on ease of use, but the Thomson does manage to turn Top Up TV into a pretty well-rounded service.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide