For a potentially lucrative market, it's strange to see so few mainstream companies take to Freeview PVRs. So far, only Panasonic has tried to steal this market away from Humax and Sagem, who are now on their third- or fourth-generation recorders. Sagem though, has been left trailing by Panasonic and Humax's latest boxes, which have both had twin tuners, meaning that they can record two channels at once. So it's with great disappointment that we find this latest model boasting twin tuners, but for some reason it doesn't have the feature to record two channels simultaneously.
Despite this major feature omission, the PVR 7280T is a decent Freeview recorder, with a simple-to-use interface and an adequate 80GB hard drive. The middle of the road specification does result in one good piece of news -- the PVR 7280T is very cheap, but it has a definite air of mediocrity about it.
We're not too keen on the PVR 7280T's looks -- the main unit is intentionally ambiguous and lacks the sophistication of Panasonic's TUCTH100. The only information displayed on the front panel is the current channel, with no LEDs to let you know when you're recording or low on hard-disk space.
Connectivity is standard, with very few flourishes housed on the rear. The box connects to your TV via RGB Scart, and there's a second Scart socket if you want to backup recordings to a DVD recorder. However, the second Scart output isn't RGB compatible, so if you do plan to back up a lot of material to DVD, you're better off using the RGB Scart and running it through your recorder to the TV.
The Scart output carries an audio signal, but if you have a home cinema system you'll want to use the optical audio output to retain digital clarity. True, none of the Freeview stations support 5.1 audio yet, but if you're a digital radio lover, it will be worthwhile making the effort to use the high-quality audio connection. There's also a TopUp TV slot, so you can upgrade your basic package with a subscription to channels like UKTV Gold. The aerial loopthrough lets users of older TVs watch digital TV without a Scart, but this isn't advisable.
We like Sagem's remote -- not only is it small and easy-to-use, but it looks nice as well. It's a simple thing that so many manufacturers get wrong, but it feels right in the hand -- there are grooves so that it fits naturally, and one thumb can reach all the buttons without getting cramp.
The PVR 7280T's box says that you can "watch and record two programmes simultaneously". This is an ambiguous statement that could lead potential buyers to think you can record two channels at the same time. You can only record a maximum of one channel, but you can watch any other channel at the same time. This makes the recorder much better than the single-tuner models of old, but it's nowhere near as good as the Humax PVR-9200T, which lets you record two channels while watching a third.
The recording schedule integrates perfectly with the standard Freeview seven-day electronic programme guide (EPG), so you can zip along by the day and make reservations for the week ahead. It's not as useful as Sky+ or a media centre, both of which will record the entire series of your favourite shows automatically, but once you get used to the integrated approach, there's no turning back. We also like the way that the current channel goes into a window in the top corner when you're navigating the guide, so you can keep an eye on it while you're checking the schedules.
We're not so sure why the main menu is so well hidden in Sagem's box, but it does offer plenty to play around with. You can lock certain channels if you don't want your child to stumble on anything risque. This might be quite useful for the music channels, which turn into sex-text marathons come nine o'clock.
Although Sagem's publicity is misleading for its dual-tuner compatibility, the stated 40-hour recording capacity of the 80GB hard drive is undue modesty. We found that you could nearly fit 50 hours on there. The advantage of having an all-in-one unit as opposed to a Freeview box and separate hard drive is that the box records the Freeview feed directly from source. This means that there's absolutely no drop in quality over the original broadcast when watching it back from the hard drive, plus you can also fit far more on there because Freeview broadcasts are encoded at lower bit rates than standard DVD movies. The Sagem is also very good at catching a decent picture from a poor-strength signal -- our office can stretch weaker Freeview boxes but the Sagem caught all available channels.
The Sagem Freeview PVR is on a similar level to Humax's PVR-9200T when it comes to AV performance (for our money, the Panasonic is still the best). The hard drive is very quiet in general operation, and when you're using a TV at normal volume you definitely won't hear the one small fan whirring away.
On the audio front, the digital output means that all Freeview channels and radio stations are as good as they're ever going to get. What is rather strange is that the stereo audio output is not a set of standard red and white phono sockets, but a headphone output. This is good if you want to listen to the box late at night and not disturb the neighbours, but if you're interconnecting AV equipment the phono-style connectors would have been better, as they are more widely supported.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide