IceTV sells the Topfield TF5000PVRt for AU$999, which includes a 12-month subscription to an electronic program guide (EPG) called ICEguide. Current TFPVR5000t owners can subscribe to the service for $3 per week, but must pay one year in advance upfront (AU$156).
Digital television in Australia has entered its infancy with a new-breed of personal video recorders (PVRs) hitting the market. Like Foxtel iQ, the ICE-powered Topfield TF5000PVRt allows you to scroll through an on-screen television program guide to see what's on and schedule recordings up to a week in advance. However, the Topfield recorder only supports free-to-air channels (ABC, ABC2, SBS, 7, 9 and 10) and the ICEguide is currently only available in the Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney metropolitan areas. From the guide, all it takes is a click of a button to schedule a recording. Once you start selecting multiple shows to record, you can build up a library of your favourite shows to watch at a time that suits you. Hence the moniker, PVR.
Unlike the first-generation Microsoft Windows XP Media Center PCs -- which are fundamentally flawed at the moment as they do not have the element crucial to a fully functional PVR, an EPG -- the Topfield TF5000PVRt looks like a device that belongs in your living room home entertainment cabinet.
Measuring 340 x 60 x 265mm, the TF5000PVRt's is about the size of a DVD recorder. The 4.2-kilogram unit is predominantly silver with a green front panel display and a minimal number of controls to become familiar with. In fact, we didn't once use the buttons on the unit during this review as all functions are duplicated on the remote control. While the assortment of buttons on the 46-key remote control seems overwhelming initially, Topfield helps by colour coding some functions and making the frequently used controls for volume and channels much larger.
On the rear panel of the TF5000PVRt are four RF connections (two antenna inputs and two loop outputs) that pass the signal through to both built-in digital tuners then out to a TV, VCR or another set top box.
A notable omission is a component video output however there are composite AV, S-Video and S/PDIF connections. There are two SCART connectors but these are included mainly for European markets, where the standard is more popular. An inclusion that sets the Topfield unit apart from others is a USB 2.0 port at the rear for speedy PC transfers. It is through this port that the TF5000PVRt is able to download EPG information. MP3s can also be copied to the Topfield and played back via an on-screen file menu.
Our set up involved connecting an aerial cable to the Antenna 1 jack at the rear of the TF5000PVRt, hooking up a very short RF cable from the RF Loop Out 1 jack back into the Antenna 2 jack and then connecting the unit to a television with composite video and stereo audio cables. It is a simple process that is assisted with diagrams in the 61-page user manual.
The Topfield TF5000PVRt uses the DVB-T (Digital Video Broadcasting - Terrestrial) standard, which can be received through a standard rooftop aerial -- generally no additional installation is required. The benefits of digital television include DVD-equivalent picture quality and crystal clear sound (including Dolby Digital, when broadcast). The TF5000PVRt's two tuners support standard definition (SD) widescreen output resolution of 720x576.
Having dual tuners allows the Topfield PVR to record two digital channels simultaneously or record one channel while still being able to surf through all of the others. With its 120GB hard disk, which can store up to 60 hours of digital television, the PVR can even playback a previously recorded show while recording two stations at the same time. To ease the confusion of all this, pressing Info on the remote control brings up a visual guide in the top right corner of the screen as to what is recording on which tuner (signified in red with numbers 1 and 2) and what is being played (in green with the playback symbol). Pressing stop when two programs are recording brings up a menu asking which program to stop recording.
With all this recording capability and capacity, it would be a daunting task to sit on the couch punching in dates, times and channels to schedule recordings. Even finding out what is currently showing would take a while with the extra channels digital television provides. This is where the ICEguide comes into play. The service populates the Topfield with a seven-day ahead television guide that you can browse through in two formats: single station, or multi-view. From here you can see at a glance what's on, the rating, and extended program information. Pressing the OK button twice on the remote sets the recording timer, and if a clash exists (more than two shows set to record at the same time), the Topfield pops-up a question asking if you'd like to overwrite one of the timers.
Like Foxtel iQ, time shifting features such as pausing live TV and skipping ads from recordings are possible with the TF5000PVRt. When browsing channels, the unit automatically starts buffering the on-screen channel, which allows you to rewind back up to an hour or pause the station you are viewing to resume playback later. If you are watching a previously recorded show, you can hit the yellow button on the remote control to skip 30 seconds forward. Pressing it four or five times skips entire ad breaks. There is also a bookmarking feature (green button) that allows you to jump straight to designated spots in recorded shows, but when a bookmark is placed, the 30 second skip feature is overridden by a jump to bookmark feature.
Another notable feature of the Topfield is the support for TAPs (Topfield Application Programs). These pieces of software can be transferred over USB to add more functionality to the PVR, with available TAPs including screen capture, a screensaver inspired by The Matrix, and even a Doom clone for the TF5000PVRt. On a local front, there are over 4,000 community members in Topfield Australia's online forum, which comprehensively covers issues relating to PC connections, TAPs, bugs and firmware releases for the Topfield range of PVRs.
Three basic games are included on the TF5000PVRt: PacMan, Bomb Hexa and ExBlock. Perhaps it was our inexperience playing games using a remote control, but none of them managed to hold our attention for longer than a couple of minutes.
The biggest gripe we have with the ICEguide is the convoluted method used to get information onto the TF5000PVRt, as the data must first be delivered over the Internet to a PC or notebook. You need the ICEguide4Topfield software to take care of the downloading process. After installing this, you then must connect the Topfield via USB to the PC or notebook with ICEguide4Topfield installed. This is not too difficult a task if you have a wireless notebook handy or a Media Center PC already in your living room, but if not, you'll need to physically transport the PVR to wherever your PC resides -- as the USB standard specifies a maximum length of 5 metres for cables.
Alternatively, if your house has been cabled for Ethernet, a USB extender (AU$147) can be used to link the Topfield PVR to your PC. See IceTV's Web site for installation diagrams and professional installation options.
As the EPG only contains a one-week in advance guide, it must be updated manually every day to ensure you have a full week's listing. There is another caveat that applies here: television broadcasters don't always follow published schedules to the minute. For example during our review period, live shows such as Big Brother often ran overtime, up to 20 minutes in one case. So a scheduled recording in the timeslot straight after will start 20 minutes late and cease recording 20 minutes early. To combat this, we found ourselves recording the following show.
However, once downloaded, the EPG is an invaluable tool. Within minutes you can scan through the upcoming week's TV guide and choose what shows to record. After a couple of days it completely overhauled the way we watched television. Instead of mindlessly flicking through channels to see what's on, pressing the Library button presents a list of recordings that you can watch at your leisure -- without ads. Unfortunately, the Topfield doesn't have a Series Link function found on Foxtel iQ, where the PVR will record all episodes of a show that you have pre-selected.
Other niggling issues we have are with the remote control and the TF5000PVRt's reaction time. While browsing the EPG, we often found ourselves having to press the arrow keys multiple times before the unit would highlight the next field. Also, when using the yellow button to skip forward 30 seconds, inevitably you'll go a bit too far past the ads and into the program. The manual states that pressing the blue button alleviates this by jumping back 10 seconds, however this did not work on our review model. Finally, fast forwarding and rewinding speeds aren't quick as they claim to be. There are three speeds for fast forwarding (x2, x4 and x6) and rewinding (x1, x2, x3), yet even on the fastest settings, these seem sluggish.
On the upside, the remote does contain useful shortcuts that save you navigating through menus. For example, pressing "0" swaps the aspect ratio from 4:3 to 16:9. Compared to other set top boxes, the TF5000PVRt is very quick to change channels.
Overall, we are impressed with the IceTV's first attempt at integrating an EPG with Topfield's excellent TF5000PVRt. We also look forward to future developments from the Australian-based company, which aims to add functionality to automatically reduce the volume during commercial breaks, skip ads completely when watching recorded programs, and provide over-the-air live schedule that will eliminating the current drawn-out updating process and the issue with overruns.
Home entertainment enthusiasts looking for a PVR should also check out the D1 Media Centre. While it currently only supports a single SD digital tuner, it comes with a 160GB hard disk, a DVD player that can be used to rip CDs into MP3s, a picture viewer, on-screen weather information, support for Internet radio and access to D1's own EPG (with no subscription fee).