Humax was one of the first companies to take the recording features pioneered by TiVo and Sky+ and then apply them to Freeview. Early models allowed users to simply record Freeview programming to the hard drive, something that was made fairly simple thanks to Freeview's electronic programme guide. But as time changed, so did users' needs -- they wanted to be able to watch a different channel to the one they were watching, and they needed more storage.
Humax's PVR-9200T is the logical extreme of this digital dream -- it's the most feature-packed and spacious recorder yet. With a 160GB hard drive, dual tuners and a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio output, this is the power user's machine of choice, unless you have a particularly argumentative family when it comes to TV viewing. Any issues are minor and not enough to spoil the experience -- in fact, we can't see Freeview getting any better.
We don't know if it's the extra tuner or the increased hard-disk space, but the PVR-9200T is much taller than its predecessor. Strangely, the fascia is split into two sections, with the logo, LCD display and operating buttons all packed on the left, with nothing on the right. It looks almost as if there might be a DVD loader on one side, but instead it folds down to reveal a Common Interface slot (for TopUp TV) and USB (for computer link-up).
Ninety-nine per cent of Freeview boxes connect up to your TV via Scart and the Humax is no different. RGB Scart is intended to give you the best quality picture on a CRT TV, but we've moved on and it doesn't cut the mustard any more. Read any of our TV reviews and we'll tell you to use component video when watching DVDs, and although most TVs will passably handle Freeview through Scart, we wish someone would release a box with component outputs.
If you've got an older TV, you can use the aerial out instead of Scart, but the picture quality is nowhere near as sharp. There's also a composite video output, but again the picture quality is much blurrier and less detailed than that of RGB Scart. The second Scart socket isn't RGB-compatible (so the picture quality is worse), but it's intended to link up to a recorder of some sort. Obviously, its use on a device that already incorporates a recorder is limited, and if you are backing up to a DVD recorder, you should just use the TV Scart into the recorder and the same unit's RGB Scart output to the TV. There's also advanced functionality thanks to the digital audio output and RS-232 socket, but more on these later.
The remote control looks like it's a joint effort between Humax and Fisher-Price. It's plasticky and a little too big. It doesn't look atrocious, but it doesn't feel like a premium item, which is what buyers of the Humax should expect. The company has the right idea hiding the advanced options underneath a pull-down flap, but it makes the whole unit too big. Channel up/down and the four-way navigational keys are easy to access, but the recording features are too high on the remote and spaced tightly.
The 160GB hard drive is good for around 80-90 hours of programming -- more than enough for even the power user. The integrated approach allows for much more storage than a separate Freeview box and hard-drive recorder -- the Freeview box transcodes an MPEG stream only for the recorder to re-encode it again. The Humax records the stream directly, so it's not only indistinguishable from the original broadcast, but it takes up less space on the hard drive than it would on a separate recorder.
With a single digital tuner, Freeview recorders are useful little devices, but with dual tuners they have the power to revolutionise the way you watch TV. The Humax is able to let you record one or two channels simultaneously while you watch another, which means that arguments over what you're going to watch of an evening should be a thing of the past.
The hard drive also acts as a scratch disc, so the two channels you last tuned into are buffered onto the hard drive. This means you can rewind something that you've missed (a great goal in football for example), pause live TV while you go and make a cup of tea, or if you're 'timeslipping' (watching a programme from the beginning while it's still recording), fast-forward through the ad breaks. Recording has been fully integrated into the 7-day EPG, so all you need to do is press OK on a selected programme in the future and the box will automatically record it. The weakness of the system means that it won't record every episode of the same series, unlike Sky+, but it's still easy to work.
So, that mysterious USB socket on the front -- what's Humax up to? Well, it can be used to connect the box up to your PC for image transfer, so you can watch your holiday snaps on the TV. Unless you've got a laptop it probably won't be much use, though -- the Freeview box and computer are likely to be at opposite ends of the house and USB cabling is realistically restricted to 5m long. The RS-232 socket lets you plug the box into a home-cinema control centre (a feature for the high-end users only). The Common Interface slot can be used for TopUp TV, and it's the first time we've seen this integrated on a recorder. This effectively opens up the possibility of recording premium-channel content. Finally, the optical audio output offers a high-quality audio connection to your home-cinema system. Freeview broadcasts feature 2.0 audio, but if a 5.1 upgrade is ever made, the Humax will support it.
Freeview performance is more dependent on your TV than the box itself, especially if you've got a flat screen. On our test Panasonic LCD, which we found to have excellent picture quality through RGB Scart, the Humax was slightly weaker than the Sagem PVR 7280T. Background detail wasn't as high and colours were slightly more washed out, but there's nothing that would make you yearn for Sagem's lesser-specified model. We still think that the Panasonic TUCTH100 edges out all the competition on AV performance.
The box is very good at picking up signals, even from a small portable aerial. In fact, it picked up every single channel from the get-go with such an aerial, even in an office with a very weak signal. Audio performance is good, with defined vocals and power at the low end. As always, if you can use the digital audio output then you'll get crystal-clear sound from a decent speaker system, although the improvement for TV is less worthwhile than it is with DVD movies.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide