Sunday, December 31, 2006

On trying to buy a PVR

For those who've not come across such a device: PVR stands for Personal Video Recorder and is a hard disk (HDD) based recorder of televisual broadcasts. There are way too many acronyms, initialisms and jargon to explain all the other terms I've encountered in my research in to this subject to list as many are region/country/broadcaster (try digital video recorder on wikipedia).

Surprisingly this seems to be a bleeding edge area of technology. Why, I have no idea as the all the component technological parts have been in place for many years, except for the broadcasters are new to the world of digital and are changing their minds and standards they use.

In the UK there appears to be 2 top products (for receiving Freeview broadcasts) from brands that do not readily come to mind as high street names: Topfield and Humax. In comparing the Topfield TF5800PVR, the Humax PVR-9200Tand others I've come to some conclusions:

  • Anyone who has bought a PVR finds it absolutely dreadful or a marvel of modern technology i.e. they work or they don't - no half-way-house, no ambivalent 'it's OK'.

  • No PVR is perfect - they all have strange quirks, bugs and 'missing' features.

  • How passionate the owners of the Toppy and the Hummy are (yep that's what they are called affectionally by the user groups). Also how important these groups are to getting your shiny new device working.

  • Forget the term 'HD Ready' as the broadcasters certainly aren't.

  • Most PVRs are launched as a work in progress requiring regular firmware/software updates. Think computers rather VHS recorders.

  • Surprisingly for a living room device some are noisy, e.g. the Sony SVR-S500 - just read the reviews on Amazon!

  • No one has designed a good looking PVR (the Sony is about the best of a bad bunch). And as for the remotes.....



Finally, I found the differing approaches of Topfield and Humax to the software/hardware combination reminiscent of the PC vs. Mac on-going (often beer driven) debates/arguments/wars. Topfield seem to take the approach of limited functionality in their own software, publishing an API and allowing developers to create add-on applications/applets (called TAPs) to make the machine function in a usable way. This PC/Linux-like approach might be fine for corporate computing environments or programmers but does seem a bit odd in your home video recorder! I'm sure it appeals to those who like tinkering with their PC. Humax prefers to provide the users with regular(ish) updates (and bug fixes :-( ) of more complete software, so out of the box the unit has a good interface with a good user experience, however it does leave users requesting and waiting for wish-lists to be included: a more Apple-like approach (OK, some will argue that my comparison is not accurate to one side or the other). The irony of these approaches is that the Toppy works better with Macs and OS X and Humax don't directly support Mac connectivity at all!

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