Top 5 Personal Video Recorders of 2012

I Don't Want to Miss a Thing? Mark Hodgkinson rounds up the best 5 PVRs.

by hodg100 Dec 26, 2012 at 4:54 PM

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    Top 5 Personal Video Recorders of 2012
    With so much programming on the TV this Christmas and much of it running simultaneously or overlapping, the Personal Video Recorder (PVR) really comes in to its own at this time of year.
    We’ve never had it so good in terms of convenience and flexibility when it comes to planning and catching up with our favourite shows and, truly, the amount of on-demand video services is becoming mind-boggling with the means by which we can access them bountiful. You don’t even have to pay a subscription to get in on the act with a wide array of boxes supporting Freeview and Freesat services to go alongside the offerings from Sky, Virgin, BT et al, each offering a selection of High Definition channels to make your TVs shine. So with so many to choose from, what to pick? Here’s our run down on some of the most popular PVRs on the market.
    BT Vision.

    BT Vision launched in December 2006 and is both a Digital Terrestrial Television and IPTV service; delivering Freeview HD channels through an aerial and on-demand content through a hybrid set-top box, known as the Vision+. As such it requires customers to sign up to the BT Broadband internet and phone service in order to use it. The current Vision + box is slowly being phased out as BT look to replace it with the YouView unit (see below) but there’s still a large number of the Pace built recorders out there.

    Recent aggressive channel acquisition strategies should ensure BT subscribers have plenty of programming to choose from whilst the appointment of the BBC’s head of production for the London Olympics, Jamie Hindhaugh, is a statement of intent for their soon to launch sports channel. Just prior to Hindhaugh’s involvement, BT announced a £152 million, four-year deal to show exclusive live coverage of the AVIA Premiership Rugby, starting in the 2013/14 season and in June 2012, they paid £246 million for the rights to show 38 live games of premiership football a season, effectively taking over the coverage ESPN currently have rights to. On demand services are wide and varied, including free access to catch up services from BBC, ITV, C4 and Channel 5, whilst subscribers also have the chance to add premium subscription channels from the likes of Sky and ESPN. BT Vision's two main packages are TV Essential and TV Unlimited. Both packages will come with a Vision+ box which will have all Freeview television & radio channels, and Vision Replay (Catch Up TV).

    As well as being offered through BT, the YouView box manufactured by Korean veterans of the market, Humax, is also available ‘free of charge’ through Talk Talk subscription packages and on a non-paid-for basis for a one off charge of around £300 via retailers. So what is YouView and why do you need it? On the face of it, one could easily mistake YouView as being a replica of the UK’s digital terrestrial, free to air platform, Freeview, as it largely carries the same TV channels and Radio services but YouView is different and is in fact an Internet Protocol television (IPTV) offering, meaning it can receive content via the internet as well as through an aerial, which should make it a far more future proof proposition.

    The first ever YouView box is styled in typical Humax fashion with its large circular standby button sitting right in the middle of the fascia although the lack of WiFi is also a disappointment, especially as much of YouView’s worth is so heavily reliant on content delivered via the internet. We were greatly impressed with the appearance and usability of the menu system, although we feel the Settings area could use a little streamlining. The Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) is similarly impressive, easy to navigate and read, making the PVR functions that much more of a pleasure to use. Since we reviewed the unit back in August 2012, YouView has issued a software update to improve the usability of the box but there’s still a lack of padding options which will inevitably mean a lot of users will suffer by missing the ends of some programmes – particularly with live events.

    The integration of the on-demand services is nothing short of class leading for a non-subscription based PVR, with the undoubted highlight being the ScrollBack TV function, allowing users to view most of the good programming, retrospectively, via the EPG. Think of it as noticing something you missed whilst browsing the Radio Times but now you get a second chance and it works very nicely indeed. Users aren’t limited to using the EPG to access on-demand content either and the YouView software allows access to all the players independently as well as filtered content searches based on type of content. Where the DTR-T1000 scores heavily is in the integration of the on-demand content, which is simply unrivalled for a non-subscription box.
    Samsung STB-E7500M.

    The STB-E7500M is a Freeview only offering and is fairly unremarkable in the looks department for a Samsung product. Connectivity options are routine fare although most will welcome the built-in Wi-Fi to take advantage of the connected features. Menus are necessarily replete with plenty of options but easy enough to navigate. There’s so much on offer from Samsung’s Smart products that we wrote an entire review dedicated to the subject and the E7500M doesn’t disappoint in its range and variety of apps, Video on Demand services and media streaming capabilities.

    Samsung’s PVR software has come on leaps and bounds this year and it’s good to be able to talk about what they can do, rather than the opposite. As well as all the routine, pause, rewind and dual record functionalities, the E7500M also provides some welcome frills with series recording and recommendations. Reliability is also a key area where the Samsung isn’t found wanting. There’s room for improvement, of course, and there’s quite a list of suggestions we’d like to see implemented; chief amongst which are the aforementioned inclusion of a dedicated button to access recordings and the ability to access the EPG whilst chasing play or dual recording. It would also be nice to see Samsung implement an auto padding option in the set up menus. Quibbles aside, the E7500M is a very capable high definition Freeview PVR that just needs an extra lick of polish.

    Virgin’s TiVo box is currently manufactured for them by Cisco Systems and, in essence, it outperforms any of the competition in terms of the flexibility of recording options available and the near seamless integration of Virgin’s, market leading, catch-up services means you have virtually countless hours of content just a few button presses away. Add in the recommendation engine, with its ability to make suggestions of content your viewing habits would indicate you’ll enjoy, and it really is like no other Digital PVR available in the UK. Quite simply, if you like the sound of all that’s on offer, TiVo is the only show in town.

    Build quality of the unit is excellent and TiVo looks like the serious piece of kit that it is and hopefully the passing of the baton to Samsung, who will start producing the hardware for Virgin soon, won’t see any diminishment in that. Menus and the GUI are, for the most part, well planned but there are instances of sluggishness and the on-demand content is tortuous to navigate. We’d certainly like to see Virgin further streamlining the interface(s) but the newer software versions do show they listen to user feedback. The recent release of an app for iDevices that allows streaming of content to your iPhone and iPad is certainly a most welcome addition from Virgin and they promise Android support is coming in the new year (2013).

    TiVo wont be for everyone; Sky customers might well point to their platform’s larger channel portfolio – particularly with HD content – and that’s certainly a consideration when deciding between the two. Some may say that TiVo’s interface can be a little busy and slightly sluggish and we’d find it hard to disagree with that, also. To get the most out of it, you’re required to put a little effort in and we’d perfectly understand some may prefer the simplicity of other PVRs but once you’ve been TiVo’d, it’s hard to go back.
    Sky+ HD.

    It was the Sky+HD Box that was responsible for raising public awareness of the PVR in the UK. In fact to ‘Sky+ it’ became the vernacular for setting a programme to record and features like series record quickly became favourites with the user base. Sky has since gone on to dominate the subscription TV market in the UK and now reaches over 10 million Britons. Fortunately Sky hasn’t rested on its laurels and continues to push the boundaries, both with their broadcast content and apps for PC’s and mobile devices opening up the second screen experience like no others. Sky also leads the way in providing 3D programming and has more HD channels than the opposition so becoming a favourite amongst AV fans.

    Not only does Sky lead in the way in delivery and technology – with the possible exception of the BBC – but it has more content to offer than the rest and some exclusive channels and programming that have subscribers to rival platforms looking on with envy; we’re looking at you, Sky Atlantic.

    Since its first iteration the Sky+ Box has grown massively in its capacity for storing programmes. With hard drives as large as 2TB installed in the latest Sky+ HD boxes, users can hoard around 350 hours of HD programming, although 2TB is a touch misleading as 500GB of that is reserved for the expanded on-demand services. The new box is priced at £49 as an upgrade option for those with a HD subscription or £149 for new customers taking a HD subscription and is undoubtedly the option for those that can’t bear the thought they’re missing out on something. Sky’s broadcast offering is undoubtedly the most comprehensive of the major players and they’re showing no signs of abandoning their aggressive but pioneering strategies.

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