Now that Australia has transitioned to a digital TV service — and we’ve seen an explosion in the total number of channels — having a personal video recorder (PVR) makes more sense than ever.
The likes of Netflix and Stan may be encroaching on the free-to-air market, but there’s a depth and breadth of content on TV that is hard to beat considering it doesn’t cost a cent.
So what makes a good PVR, and how have they changed since they first showed up many years ago?
A PVR is just like the VHS recorder of the 80s and 90s, except it usually records to a computer hard drive. Some can also record to Blu-ray discs, but they’re definitely in the minority. However, thanks to our digital TV transmissions, today’s PVRs come with powerful electronic program guides, or EPGs.
This menu shows all of the upcoming TV shows for the next few weeks, making it easy to select shows for recording. Even better, if you’re a fan of a certain series, a good EPG makes recording the entire series as simple as pressing a couple of buttons, then settling in on the couch to watch the show later.
Most modern PVRs have twin TV tuners, allowing you to watch one channel while recording another, or to record two separate channels. However, some also allow you to use one tuner to record two programs from the same network — for example, a single tuner can sometimes record simultaneously from both ABC1 and ABC2.
This is how a quad-tuner PVR can record up to 10 programs at once. Better PVRs also include Internet TV options, such as the various catch-up apps published by the ABC, Channel 7 and other stations.
One major new feature found on a handful of PVRs is the ability to control them remotely via your phone. When your work colleague tells you all about that amazing new show you must watch, simply fire up the PVR app on your smartphone — you’ll never forget to record a show again.
Some even allow you to remotely stream live and recorded TV back to your phone or computer.
One thing we learnt after testing eight PVRs is the huge gulf in usability found across various products — so read on to see which ones will do the job most effectively for you.
How we tested
Each PVR was connected to a 60-inch Panasonic Plasma TV, Ethernet connection (where possible) and TV antennae. We then ran the setup process, before recording several shows and testing the playback quality.
We also checked to see what extra features were supported, such as Internet TV apps and external streaming, and how well they worked.
Given how important usability is when it comes to PVRs, we paid special attention to how intuitive the interface of each unit was.
You’d be amazed at the gulf in quality of the interface when it comes to competing PVRs, with some requiring a rocket science degree to simply set up a series record.
What to look for
Ease of use
The most important thing is how easy the PVR is to use. If you want to just plug in and play, go for a PVR with an understandable, clean interface.
It makes all the difference between your PVR being used every day, or gathering dust after the novelty wears off.
The larger it is, the more shows you can record and keep. A 500GB will hold between 300 and 500 hours of content, depending on the quality.
How many tuners?
Having multiple allows much more flexibility. If a PVR has two, you can only watch and record two channels; having four means you can watch one while recording three other channels (or even up to 10 for those that support network recording).
Just because a PVR has Wi-Fi or Ethernet doesn’t mean it supports catch-up TV apps. Some only use this to stream videos from other devices on your network.
Type of EPG
The accuracy of the EPG is crucial for recording — the best offer online EPGs or FreeviewPlus EPGs, which are far more accurate than the basic EPG that is transmitted as part of the TV signal.
The physical size of the unit can make the difference between it being tucked away neatly in your AV cabinet, or sticking out on top like an ugly black brick.
Hard drives are getting cheaper all the time, so the ability to swap out the PVR’s hard drive for a larger unit is a nice feature.
External storage support
Some units include a USB port to attach an external drive, making it easier to extend the storage space of the unit.
“You pays for what you gets!” Yes, this PVR might be almost double the cost of competing units, but it does such an outstanding job of, well, everything, that it’s justified for those with a bit more cash to spend.
After spending a day with this PVR, going back to the others was a little sad. Plugging in the unit fires up the setup wizard, which automatically downloads the latest firmware, a simple feature many PVRs lack.
From here, we jumped into the gobsmackingly sexy EPG, which teaches other PVRs a lesson in usability. Eight channels are presented, with 3.5 hours of information for each, and every single line was populated with accurate data instantly. FreeviewPlus EPG support is also included.
It’s also got a built-in Blu-ray recorder, for when the huge 2TB hard drive gets overly full. Panasonic claims it’ll also do 4K playback, but we didn’t have any source material to test these claims.
The included remote is clearly laid out, and even includes a Netflix button. All of the catch-up and streaming TV apps worked beautifully, with no need to download cryptically named files to get them to install.
The included Wi-Fi and Ethernet options mean you can stream most everything from this box to a remotely connected device, as well as control it remotely.
Did we mention how sexy the exterior looks? If you’ve got the dosh and a severe hunger for recorded TV, you can’t go wrong with this beast.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
Humax 2Tune HDR-3000T
It’s also one of the most unique-looking units we’ve seen, with the faux leather top sitting on a relatively small box, making it easy to hide away in even the most cramped AV units.
The 500GB hard drive and twin tuners are pretty standard at this price point, though it can record up to four programmes, provided they’re not spread over more than two networks. Setup was a total cinch, with a beautiful wizard walking us through the process.
Firing up the EPG revealed an attractive if a little large menu; thanks to the large font, it only showed the next two hours for five channels.
However, it’s an Internet EPG, which means it fetches info from online, making it more reliable than EPGs populated by the TV transmission, and it also supports FreeviewPlus.
Making a series recording couldn’t be easier, and thanks to the online EPG, it’s also easy to fire up the various catch-up TV services that are available.
Surprisingly at this price point, this PVR supports more advanced streaming services, such as being able to stream video to an external device via the Net. It’s also possible to set recordings remotely, thanks to the iOS and Android apps.
Given the advanced online features of this device, yet how darn easy it is to use, we think it’s one of the best PVRs around.
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
There is a caveat to this, though — the ten programmes must be spread across four networks, such as ABC, SBS, 7 and 9. Still, it’s mighty impressive stuff.
We also loved the brilliant setup guide and installation wizard. This is perfect for novices who don’t want to spend hours reading the manual, as it’s all spelt out clearly and concisely.
This same ease of use extends to the EPG, which we reckon is one of the best on offer. It showed eight channels in three-hour snapshots, and each one was instantly populated with accurate channel info.
The ease of use extends to the remote, which lacks the cryptic icons found on several of the cheaper units, and setting up a series record couldn’t have been easier.
Padding options of up to 120 minutes mean you won’t miss the start or end of a show, no matter how little disregard the TV stations show for the EPG.
While it doesn’t have Wi-Fi, the ability to record to a network drive over Ethernet is a very nice touch. However, we found the support for catch-up and streaming TV apps to be this unit’s biggest downfall.
They’re hard to find, and out of the box only supports SBS and ABC catch-up TV, with no support for Netflix or the commercial stations.
It’s a real shame that this one feature lets the T4 down so much — if it came set up with the usual TV apps ready to rock, we’d make it one of the most recommended.
As it is, only techies will be able to make the most of the IPTV features.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
The 500GB hard drive mightn’t be exceptional, but the ability to whack in a blank Blu-ray disc to record more is a noteworthy feature indeed.
Setup proved to be simple enough, and the main interface is attractive if a little over cluttered. Thankfully, the EPG worked first time, but it does take quite a while to load — around 20 seconds by our reckoning.
Unfortunately, browsing the EPG and then figuring out how to do a series record are two very different things — even after reading the immense 77-page manual, we had to head online to decipher how to do so.
And that’s arguably this unit’s biggest problem — even the simplest of tasks seem needlessly complex. A huge portion of the main menu screen is taken up by a movies tab on the Smart Hub, which is apparently where you can rent and download movies from Samsung.
The only problem is it doesn’t work. Even after we did a full firmware update, after waiting 20 minutes for the movie page to load, we were left staring at a bunch of blank icons.
Not good when it’s the biggest section on the main menu. Thankfully, loading up catch-up TV apps proved to be a lot easier.
While the hardware is very respectable for this price, Samsung needs to streamline the user experience to make this unit accessible by the average couch potato.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
This is one of the very few PVRs on the market to wear the FreeviewPlus logo. This is a service provided by the free-to-air channels that distributes an EPG via broadband, and promises to deliver a “state-of-the-art Electronic Program Guide”.
Unfortunately, we initially had major issues with the EPG on this unit. While it’s a relatively clean and simple program guide, it didn’t populate any of the channels with program data beyond an hour.
Eventually, it came good, though, and we were impressed with its ability to detect when a show was running over time — most other PVRs must be set to manually “pad” the beginning and ending of a recording instead.
Another nice feature is the ability to go back in time on the EPG to watch prior shows via the catch-up TV apps of each major network, albeit in all of their low-resolution glory.
The 1TB hard drive is very generous for a PVR of this price, and it also includes built-in Wi-Fi.
It’s probably better aimed at those who like to dig around with their tech, as the included user manual was almost as bad as the generally ugly and clumsy interface.
While the included hardware is nice, the overall user experience wasn’t up to snuff, but the ability to keep track of programme timing makes this a unique proposition.
It’s got a great price too, but we’d suggest aerialBox really needs to spend time refining the interface if this thing is going to compete.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Strong SRT 6500
The fact it’s also been around for over two years means it’s getting on a little bit compared to some of the new contenders. As expected, what we found was a rather simple, no-nonsense kind of PVR.
The rather lacklustre documentation that comes with this PVR isn’t helped by the fact that the official website link to download the user manual doesn’t actually work.
Thankfully, it’s a very simple unit, so setting it up and using it turned out to be easy enough.
The interface isn’t anything Apple would be proud of, but it does the job — even the EPG was fully populated, a nice touch that more expensive PVRs didn’t always manage. However, it appears to rely on the data transmitted with the TV signal, so won’t be as accurate as an online EPG.
The included Blu-ray player is a nice touch, especially as it’s region-free, making it one of the few available in Australia. Despite having both Ethernet and Wi-Fi, we couldn’t find any support for IPTV applications, which is a huge letdown, but points to this unit’s age.
If it does support them, perhaps the manufacturer might want to make mention of them in the flimsy manual or woeful website.
While this unit covers the basics well, the fact is… there are far better, more modern options around for a similar cost.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Topfield TRF 5310
At close to $500 for a twin tuner, 500GB PVR, the 5310 isn’t quite as good value as it used to be, especially when compared to the likes of the Humax 2Tune which does so much more for a whole lot less.
Before we dig into its IPTV features, we should give the EPG some praise. It’s one of the fastest to load, though it doesn’t support the FreeviewPlus guide, which means it could be prone to inaccuracies.
We also found that a couple of key channels weren’t populated with data, such as Channel Nine. At least it’s very easy to use, and figuring out series recording and how to pad each recording is very simple.
Despite including Wi-Fi and Ethernet, the online options of the TRF 5310 are extremely limited. There’s absolutely no support for catch-up TV or streaming TV options; heading into the Web Apps section simply reveals YouTube, Facebook and a bunch of other sites that are tedious to browse on your TV.
As a result, when compared against the likes of the Humax 2Tune, the 5310 simply fails to stack up.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Topfield TRF 2200
As previously stated, Topfield is one of the biggest names in PVRs in Australia, so we were very keen to see just how much — or little — they’d deliver on a budget.
To be brutally honest, all this thing can do is record two channels thanks to its twin tuners (not multiple programmes over the same network though), and we wouldn’t rely on its EPG to do a very good job of it.
There’s absolutely no Internet connectivity on this thing, so you’ll be relying on the accuracy of the transmitted program data, which any PVR veteran will warn you is not something to be trusted.
The flimsy six-page manual does a horrid job of explaining the cryptically labelled remote control, though we did eventually figure out how to do a series record after much trial and error.
Thanks to the lack of Ethernet or Wi-Fi, updating the firmware is a pain in the posterior, and there’s no way to stream recordings to other devices in the house. There’s also obviously no IPTV services.
There’s no denying just how damned cheap this thing is, and yet we can’t recommend saving a few bucks to get such a limited device that probably won’t even do a good job at recording.