Sky+ may be unsurpassed as the UK's ultimate recording system, but the prohibitive price of the subscription leaves many people cold. Freeview offers less choice, but the service has certainly taken off now, especially with E4 joining earlier this year, and the hard drive recorders that have been released recently come close to Sky+'s level of functionality. We believe a Freeview PVR with dual tuners and an adequate hard drive is the best piece of equipment you can buy for your living room right now.
First, we had Thomson's DHD4000, which hinted at how dual-tuner recording would be an absolute necessity. Recently we reviewed Sagem's take on the hard-drive recorder, which upped the hard-drive capacity to 80GB. Panasonic's model is similar in specification to the Sagem but has the benefit of good looks, a great navigation system and superior editing features. Whether this is worth the premium over Sagem's ample box is up to you.
Freeview boxes are often strange beasts -- refusing to adhere to standard AV design rules and often made from cheap plastic. Not so the Panasonic TUCTH100, which will fit right in next to your DVD player and looks like a premium item. The main body is about the size of an Xbox, but it's nowhere near as heavy. The most important fact is that the hard drive is relatively quiet and is in no danger of interrupting your viewing pleasure with an incessant access noise.
Things are kept very simple on the front. There's a large LCD display that tells you the current channel and whether you're recording -- a feature that can be accessed immediately with a rather large red button. Some boxes, such as those from Sagem, neglect this simple feature, but we bet you've had the experience of wanting to record something urgently, but having to hunt for the remote.
The reverse of Panasonic's attractive-looking recorder provides ample connectivity. There's not much scope for advance in the world of Freeview boxes, although we'd love to see one with component video outputs to help improve picture quality for flat screens. In the meantime, the TUCTH100 includes an RGB Scart for your TV, another Scart (non-RGB) to hook up to your DVD recorder, for instance, plus composite and S-video outputs in case you're a technological laggard with a 7-inch portable black-and-white TV (you would have to be that desperate to use them).
On the audio side, there are standard red and white stereo connections, which are perfectly adequate for Freeview, as programmes are only broadcast in stereo anyway. If you're a purist and want to maintain digital purity, there's an optical output as well, and either of these audio solutions will be fine if you want to loop through to your home cinema amp or all-in-one system.
The remote control is easily the best we've seen with any Freeview recording, although that says more about the competition than it does about Panasonic's engineering. It feels solid, has good square buttons that you'll be able to learn the positions of quickly, and also controls Panasonic's range of DVD players. The nicest touch is that the Delete key isn't raised like every other key -- meaning you're less likely to press it by accident. Why can't every manufacturer be this thoughtful?
Let's not forget the cost of Panasonic's TUCTH100 box in relation to its competitors, so for £240 -- £80 more than Thomson and Sagem's efforts -- we should be expecting something special when it comes to features. For once, we weren't disappointed -- Panasonic's approach to Freeview-box design considers everything that will surround it in your AV setup. For example, it's the first box we've seen that will tell you how much you can fit onto a recordable DVD, even letting you edit out chapters you don't want to keep. Once you've set the length of your DVD and finalised what you want to archive, you simply tell the TUCTH100 to start and hit record on your DVD recorder.