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.
Panasonic's recorder is one of the more advanced on the market when it comes to Freeview, because it has two tuners. This means it is constantly buffering two channels onto the hard drive, just in case you want to rewind either of them. The system designates these two channels Live 1 and Live 2, and you have to flick between them using the remote. It is slightly confusing at first, but once you get used to switching, it begins to make sense. You can also adjust the length of the live TV buffer from 15 to 60 minutes.
The electronic programme guide is impressive, surpassing everything else designed for Freeview with the exception of Microsoft's Windows Media Center interface. Apart from looking great and loading very quickly, the system allows you to set up to four favourites lists (or Profiles as Panasonic calls them) so you and three other members of the family can cut out the redundant channels. A great touch is that you can sort programmes by category, including Entertainment, News, Movies and Sport. It's great to have context-sensitive programme sorting available on the fly, as opposed to the age-old method of channel surfing.
Considering the cost of the unit, you could reasonably expect more storage than an 80GB hard drive. At retail, such a drive would cost no more than £40, so Panasonic will be buying them wholesale for much less. Such complaints aside, this disk will offer a maximum of 46 hours storage -- something that the TUCTH100 helpfully informed us in its menu system.
If you're a regular recorder, the Direct Navigator button on the remote control will likely become your new best friend. With it, you can call up an impressive amount of detail about the contents of the hard drive. It gives you a small thumbnail from the programme, and if this doesn't help jog your memory, it also stores the original broadcast information, including synopsis.
The real attraction of the TUCTH100 are its features -- Freeview boxes hit a cut-off point in terms of performance a while ago. The picture was always stable from the off -- Panasonic's box tuned in to the channels within 2 minutes and didn't falter from then on. The box itself can display the strength of your signal, but even with the 70 per cent quality provided by our portable aerial, we saw no artefacting during testing.
Picture quality was also very good. We've no doubt that Panasonic is utilising decent components inside the box, but there's very little perceivable difference from box to box these days. With dual tuners, the box is able to offer Picture in Picture, so you can check the football scores while you're watching a film, for example. If you're using a flat screen, then performance will be down to the individual display's picture-processing quality. Audio was good, but no better than Sagem's similarly specified box.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide