As shoddy as it can be sometimes, there is a vast amount of worthwhile TV on Freeview. If we could just get rid of channels trying to sell you lumps of fake diamond glued on to cheap metal and ladders to clean the cockles off the bottom of a boat it would be even better.
There's still a wealth of movies, drama, comedy and documentaries to record though, and if you need flexibility, you'll want to grab a DVD recorder and PVR with plenty of storage space, and can record cable or satellite from a number of inputs -- especially important if you don't yet have Sky+ or a similar service. The Sony RDR-HXD995 fits the bill with 1080p upscaling and a 250GB hard drive, and it'll set you back around £260 online.
The 995 is fairly attractive, although it does have a slightly strange lip on the front panel, on which some buttons rest. It's not the sort of thing we're used to seeing, but it's not especially hideous.
On the front you'll find some simple playback controls, a display that tells you what the PVR is up to at any given time, and what channel you're tuned to. This display is easy to read when you're close, but it becomes more of a challenge when you're a few metres away.
There's also a flap that conceals some more controls and inputs. It's here you'll find the DV input and PictBridge connector alongside composite and S-Video inputs -- all designed mainly for camcorder enthusiasts.
At the back of the unit there are two sets of aerial inputs. One takes care of digital signals, and the other is in charge of analogue. We can't help but think this is a pretty clunky way of going about things, and it's not something we're used to seeing. Still, if you live in an area with a decent digital signal, you're more than likely going to avoid analogue altogether.
You also get HDMI and component out, and a pair of multi-function Scart sockets -- you can record from them, as well as play via them. There's even a coaxial digital audio output, for hooking up an AV receiver -- handy if you're not planning on using the HDMI, or don't have an HDMI-capable surround-sound system.
The Sony doesn't miss a trick when it comes to features. Alongside the single Freeview tuner is an additional analogue receiver, which will be of use if you live outside the Freeview broadcast areas. The HXD995 can also record from a Scart input and from DV camcorders using a dedicated DV port on the front of the machine.
DVD playback is fully featured too, offering DivX support, which we've come to expect now, even though it must upset the bods over at Sony Pictures. You also get MP3 and JPEG playback and you can even hook up a PictBridge printer, if the desire so took you.
You also get comprehensive playback from a variety of blank disc formats. Even DVD RAM is supported, although the 995 can't record to this type of media.
In terms of supported disc types for recording, you can put both DVD+R and DVD-R in the Sony -- including dual-layer discs. It will also write to the rewritable variants of both + and - discs.
As much as we love that Sony has crammed in a bunch of cool features, we really wish it provided a dual digital tuner. It can make such a difference, especially if you don't have another digital tuner or a TV with built-in Freeview.
Sony doesn't include an HDMI cable in the pack either, which we think is really cheap of it. Seriously, if you're spending over £250 on something, it really would be polite to help you connect it to your TV with the best possible quality.
Initial setup is easy, although not especially fast. Immediately though, we ran into an issue. The RDR-HXD995 refused to tune many channels and claimed that the signal strength was far too weak, but we have a Sony TV and a Humax PVR hooked up to the same aerial and they both provide a full selection of channels. The only conclusion we could reach was that the Sony doesn't have a particularly sensitive tuner, and as such, it wouldn't be much use if you live a long way from your local transmitter. We even tested different cables, and the Sony TV was connected via the aerial loop-through from the HXD995, which ruled out any cable issues or problems with our aerial.
On the channels that were strong enough for the Sony to receive, the picture was excellent -- in fact, we felt it beat the internal receiver on the Sony TV we were watching. Colours were bright and there wasn't any noticeable degradation using this external box over the TV's built-in receiver.
For the most part, we consider 1080p upscaling to be something of a red herring. Sure, if your TV doesn't have very good internal scaling and processing, it can make a massive difference, but these days TV manufacturers are generally doing a great job with the digital signal coming in to most flat-panel TVs.
Even so, we liked the DVD playback on the Sony and we thought the detail was well preserved. We used our regular test disc, X-Men, and were very impressed by some delightfully natural colour and truly amazing detail on the faces of the characters. Wolverine's stubble was a particular source of joy. So once again we're reminded that as good as Blu-ray is, DVD can still hold it's own, and shouldn't be binned just yet.
Programme guide data on the Sony is provided by Guide Plus+. (Is it pronounced Guide Plus Plus, or is the + symbol purely decorative? We'd love to know.) We also find the system a bit of pain. For one thing, there are adverts all over it, which is a cheek. It also needs 24 hours to update itself, and needs access to ITV1 to do so. This could be a problem if the Sony throws a fit with your aerial and refuses to tune into that particular channel. Of course, because the HXD995 can record from non-Freeview channels, an EPG not tied to Freeview is essential, which is where Guide Plus+ comes into its own.
Happily, if you don't want to record from external sources, you can switch back to the less complicated Freeview EPG, which allows you to record anything on in the next eight days. More than enough for most people most of the time. Setting a timer is as simple as selecting the show you want to watch, and hitting the record button.
It's nicely styled, the picture performance is great and we got on okay with the menu systems, but the Sony RDR-HXD995 isn't perfect. If you don't live in a strong signal area, you're going to be in for a big disappointment. That said, the price is sensible for a well-built, smartly designed piece of equipment with sturdy picture and sound quality.
For alternatives, check out the Panasonic DMR-EX88 for Freeview and DVD burning, and the Humax 9200T and the soon-to-arrive Humax 9300T, which adds 720p upscaling for the Freeview programmes you've recorded to the hard disk.
Edited by Nick Hide