Pure's first Freeview HD recorder, the Avalon 300R Connect, is designed to go head to head with the YouView platform, which, until recently, was headed up by Sir Alan Sugar. We were rather fond of the first YouView recorder when we reviewed it back in July last year, so the 300R has a tough task ahead of it.
Pure has a strong track record with digital radios having created some cracking products, such as the One Flow. The 300R seems to be well specced with dual Freeview HD tuners, a speedy Intel Atom processor and online features that include support for BBC iPlayer and Pure's own radio and music service.
The recorder is available in two versions: one with a 5000GB hard drive and one with a 1TB hard drive. The former costs £300, while the latter, which is the model we had in for review, is priced at £350.
Electronic programming guide
The EPG on the 300R is very different to the one offered on YouView's box, which is primarily due to the fact that it doesn’t have catch-up TV services integrated into it. As a result, you can't move backwards in time in the EPG to catch up on shows that have already been broadcast -- you can only scroll forwards in the EPG to see what's coming up later.
The layout of the EPG is clean and tidy, though. It shows six channels' worth of data at a time with channels listed down the left-hand side of the screen and upcoming programmes shown on a timeline to the right. Below this there’s a video thumbnail window so you can keep track of the show you’re watching while simultaneously checking out what's coming up on other channels throughout the day. To the right, there's a summary window that displays information on the currently highlighted show in the EPG.
You can skip forwards and backwards in blocks of 24 hours using the blue and yellow buttons on the remote and you can also page up and down through the channels via the red and green buttons. The remote also has a dedicated button for the search feature, and I found the search to be one of the fastest I've used on a set-top box as it provides near instantaneous responses.
As you'd expect, there’s a mini Now and Next overlay bar that you can call up when you're watching TV by hitting the Info button on the remote. This initially shows you what’s currently showing on the channel you're watching and what's coming up after it in the schedules. If you hit the Info button again however, it’ll display a full description of the show you’re tuned to.
Cleverly, if you scroll up to view info on another channel this mini-guide expands to show a live picture-in-picture view of what currently showing on the other channel. There is a pause of around three seconds before this appears though, so it's not instantaneous.
The EPG does look a snazzier than many older Freeview HD PVRs, such as the Humax PVR-9300 series, thanks to crisp graphics and sharper, less jagged text. In terms of functionality, however, it's no different to those models and having used the YouView and Freesat+ HD with free time, I frankly expected a bit more, especially as both of those boxes can be bought for £50 less than the equivalent 300R model.
Aside from a small selection of Internet features which I’ll come to later, the 300R is at its core a basic dual-tuner Freeview HD recorder. The 500GB version of the recorder allows 300 hours of SD video or 125 hours of HD video recording while the 1TB version allows 600 hours of SD and 250 hours of HD recording.
Thankfully, its recording features are very straightforward to use. To line up a recording, you just call up the EPG, highlight a show you want to grab and then hit the record button. If the show is part of a series you'll be asked whether you want to record just the current programme or the whole series. Like the Freesat+ HD with free time recorders, it automatically groups shows in a series together under a single heading to sort them into a kind of virtual box set, which avoids your recording list becoming too messy.
As the 300R has two tuners on board, you can record two shows at the same time on different channels, or watch one channel while you’re recording a show on another. Unlike some PVRs, it also lets you watch an on-demand shows on BBC iPlayer while two recordings are running in the background.
It does fall short when you're recording two channels at the same time though, as it doesn’t let you watch a third channel on the same multiplex -- something that is supported on Humax’s older PVR-9300 boxes. If you try to switch to another channel, it’ll ask you whether you want to stop one of the existing recordings or just switch to the other channel that you're currently recording from.
When you try to record a third programme while two recordings are in progress, it offers to stop one of the two existing recordings. It doesn’t, however, search through the EPG to check whether the programme is being rebroadcast later and reschedule your recording, as the Freesat PVRs do. The 300R also doesn’t support remote scheduling of recordings via a smart phone or tablet -- unlike Sky, for example.
On-demand services, search features and media streaming
There’s isn’t really a polite way of putting it, so let me be blunt: the 300R’s catch-up TV features are entirely rubbish. YouView’s recorder has support for iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand Five content integrated into its EPG. When you open the on-demand menu on the 300R though, all that’s waiting for you are an iPlayer app and a YouTube app. Both of these are the standard versions of these apps that you’ll find on today’s smart TVs -- in other words, they’re nothing special, even if they did largely work without problems. The recorder also lacks support for other paid for services such as Now TV, Netflix and Lovefilm.
It does include Pure’s Connect service though, which offers free radio and podcast streaming as well as paid-for music downloads and streams. These are fairly easy to use, as the user interface consists mostly of large icons which are easy to navigate around via the remote. It feels slightly sluggish when it’s loading in different screens however.
Radio and music services also don’t seem as relevant to a Freeview recorder as they are to a digital radio, and certainly not as important as on-demand TV services. I find it hard to imagine someone picking this recorder over a YouView box because it’s got support for online radio stations.
One area where this box does perform well is when it comes to digital media playback and streaming. I had no problems getting it to stream a pretty broad range of different video file formats across a network including HD MKV files as well as Xvid and MP4 videos.
It supports subtitles too, which not all PVRs do when they’re streaming videos. Naturally, you can play videos and other media files from drives or keys attached to either of the recorder’s two USB ports.
The 300R’s menu system is based around a set of 3D floating windows that scroll past as you move forwards and backwards through them. It’s a little bit like the original look of the Xbox 360’s dashboard.
The menus are, on the whole, quite fluid to use, but there can be some long pauses as the recorder works out what to do next. I found it would often pause for jarring lengths of time when I tried to jump from the on-demand services back to the TV EPG via the dedicated buttons on the remote. This is a little strange, as the 300R is built around a reasonably powerful Intel Atom processor, so I wasn't expecting this kind of lag.
Nevertheless, the layout of the menus is very straightforward with everything clearly labelled, so it's easy to find what you’re looking for. The 3D look of the menu system also makes it much more engaging to use than those of many other PVRs on the market.
Design, connections, picture quality and remote
The 300R is fairly handsome by the admittedly bland standards of Freeview PVRs. Its all-black design means it’ll look fairly inconspicuous among the rest of your under-telly inhabitants, but the curved front panels adds a neat little design signature to the device’s look.
The unit lacks a display though, so there’s no way to tell at a glance what channel it’s tuned too. In fact the only visual indicator on the front is the light around the power button. This glows green when the unit is on and red when a recording is running. The recorder is also very quiet to use. Even though it has a fan, you have to put your ear quite close to the box to be able to hear it.
The 300R doesn’t have any analogue connections such as composite, Scart or component connections, so with only HDMI video output, you can’t connect it up to older TVs which lack the appropriate ports.
Interestingly, Pure has integrated a four port HDMI switch into the recorder, so you can connect four external HDMI devices -- such as games consoles, Blu-ray players and other set-top boxes -- to the recorder, and then switch between them via the HDMI button on the recorder’s remote. This is a handy feature to have if your TV doesn’t have many of its own HDMI ports. You can also label each input too, making it a friendlier system to use than a standard HDMI switch.
This model has also got both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs for hooking it up to surround-sound amps whichh don’t have HDMI inputs. As a poke in the eye to the current YouView and Freetime boxes on the market, the 300R also has Wi-Fi on top of an Ethernet port, so you don’t have to rely on wires to hook it up to your broadband connection.
I have no complaints about the 300R’s picture or audio quality. Both were clean and clear with no smudginess or smearing of detail.
The remote control is long and thin with a glossy finish on the front and rubberised buttons. The buttons feel comfortable and feel fairly responsive, but I felt the layout could have been better.
The transport controls for recording and playback are posited right at the bottom of the remote where they’re slightly awkward to get at. I felt it would have been much better if they were near the middle of the remote, as they are on the Sky HD and YouView remotes. In that position they'd be sitting under the area where your thumb tends to glide about when you’re holding the remote in a normal position.
It does have dedicated buttons for the on-demand services, recording menu, media streaming and HDMI switch features, though -- all of which speed up navigation no end.
The Avalon 300R Connect has some admirable features, including on-board Wi-Fi, picture-in-picture support, a pleasing 3D menu system and strong media streaming functionality.
On the down side, it lacks support for catch-up TV services other than iPlayer. Catch-up programming also isn’t integrated into the EPG in the way it is on YouView and Freetime recorders. Overall this means it’s a much less compelling proposition than its main competitors, especially as it’s currently also more expensive.