We don't review that many Freeview personal video recorders these days. They all have much the same features now and people seem to know what to look for. That's not to say there aren't Freeview recievers out there that are better than others. TVonics is responsible for some very good Freeview hardware, and we're hoping it can create something special with this Freeview HD box -- the TVonics DTR-HD500.
A unique-looking device
There's nothing more boring than a rectangular box. It's widely known that a rectangle is the most boring shape in the world. Even a square is more interesting, because at least squares have a beauty in their symmetry. So when we clamped our sight-spheres on the TVonics DTR-HD500, we couldn't help but feel a warm glow.
This box isn't even slightly boring. It's also incredibly hard to describe in words, but that's what we're paid for, so we should at least have a go. Imagine a sort of rounded-off rectangle that sits atop an angled pedestal, and you're almost there.
On top of the machine is a display that shows the current channel, with some LEDs that indicate its recording state. There is also a faint, but massive, TVonics logo inscribed on the top.
At a sensible price
Usually, TVonics hardware is a little more expensive than competing products. That's almost understandable since the company is British, and its products are made to a very high standard. We've always been impressed by the picture quality, too, especially on the standard-definition Freeview boxes, where producing decent picture is much more important, and tricky.
This time, TVonics has created a box that costs less than Humax's competing product. Both have a similar spec, but the TVonics is £280, where the Humax goes for £300. What's more, buy the TVonics direct from its website and you'll get a two-year warranty, instead of the standard one-year. Pretty sweet.
Add to this some of the pleasing features of the TVonics PVR, and we think it's a real bargain. In our opinion, however, Freeview HD hardware is still vastly overpriced.
HDMI switch mixes things up
TVonics first introduced an HDMI switch on its standard-definition Freeview recorders. It did this because it was late in the game to sell a PVR, and wanted something that would set it apart from other machines on the market. It's a good idea, too, because running out of HDMI sockets is something that will annoy even the most patient of people.
On this machine, you get two HDMI inputs and one output. In normal mode, the box sends its Freeview signal out over the HDMI socket. However, two buttons on the top of the remote control allow you to switch to HDMI inputs, to which you can connect any other device, like a Blu-ray player or games console.
We really appreciate this feature, and for people with too few HDMI sockets, it's a winner. The problems arise when you consider its main limitation. The HDMI switch only functions when the PVR is switched on, so you're essentially using electricity for nothing. Unless you have a TV with only one HDMI input -- as is the case with many older HD Ready TVs -- we don't think it's worthwhile. It might help some people, though, and it doesn't add to the cost of the machine significantly.
Auto set-up and menu system
The HD500 sets itself up as soon as you plug it in and press a single confirmation button. Wait just a few minutes and you'll have Freeview and Freeview HD channels tuned in and ready to record. The first time we tuned our box in, it didn't find any of the HD channels. We aren't sure why this was, but a retune fixed the problem without any further action required -- this is certainly nothing to worry about.
Although its style is a little unusual, the TVonics menu system works for us, and it's really easy to use. Crucially, the menus are responsive and a breeze to navigate. We love the way things fade in and out. The company has clearly spent a considerable amount of time making this look and feel like a premium device, and it works.
Recording a TV show is no more complicated than selecting a show from the electronic programme guide. When you select a show to record, you'll also be offered the opportunity to book the series, thus recording every episode. It's very easy to use, and a truly useful function.
This box also offers you the chance to book recordings from a trailer. So, if you see something advertised that you like the look of, this device can offer you a button-press to record the advertised show -- very funky, and another idea we've seen executed well on Sky.
TVonics endeared itself to us in the past with magnificent attention to detail in its picture quality. This device is no different. Recorded and live TV shows look superb. We were impressed by the quality of standard-definition shows, too, with the HD500 presenting a colourful, detailed and sharp image with no unusual quality problems.
If picture quality is your primary concern, this is a great choice of hardware because it delivers consistently great results.
Although this box has one of the more generous storage capacities we've seen, we still don't think 500GB is quite enough for storing HD material. That said, most people don't store programmes for longer than two weeks anyway, so excessive hoarding of shows may not be a requirement.
HD channels on Freeview often don't use AC3 audio for their Dolby Digital soundtracks. This can confuse AV receivers, which don't understand the AAC audio format many channels use. An update for the HD500 will be made available that allows it to transcode AAC audio to AC3, thus reducing compatibility problems. We're pleased to hear this, and glad manufacturers are starting to address the problem of not offering transcoding.
Aside from the hefty Freeview HD tax, we think the TVonics DTR-HD500 is a superb machine at a good price. It looks interesting, and we rather like its unique style, but it might cause some problems in the average TV stand, where space is at a premium. In terms of performance, we think this machine is a real winner, and commend it for a job well done.
Edited by Emma Bayly