Freeview recorders are pretty common these days. The price has fallen in some cases, and they offer a really terrific way of getting Sky+ functionality for a fraction of the price.
TVonics, a small British company based in Wales, has offered all sorts of Freeview equipment for some time now. It generally offers high-quality, energy-efficient hardware that works incredibly well. The TVonics DTR-Z500 is a £200 recorder that features a 500GB hard drive and many other Freeview+ features, making it an attractive machine. Here, we discover its good points, and also find out what's less impressive about it.
The DTR-Z500 is certainly unique in terms of design. It's partly constructed from a single, solid oval of metal. Into this the electronics are inserted on a sort of tray, which also holds the rear and front panels. This two-part construction makes for a very sturdy device.
The front panel is fairly basic, with just a couple of lights to indicate power and whether the digital television recorder is recording or not.
At the rear of the machine, there are two aerial sockets. One is an input, while the other is a loopthrough to feed another device. The TVonics can't, sadly, send a digital signal via the aerial socket -- something that would suit older TVs rather well.
You also get a pair of Scart sockets and an optical digital audio output. Sadly, the optical output uses a proprietary connector. TVonics tells us that these are cheap and easy to buy, but we just don't see the point. Why not simply fit the industry-standard digital connections? There's also a small fan, which is visible from the rear panel. Happily, this cooling device doesn't engage unless it's absolutely essential. This means you shouldn't generally be plagued by loud fan noise, unless you happen to live in an oven.
Freeview+ boxes are all quite similarly specified, mainly because the logo certification demands certain features.
The TVonics has a good selection of features, though. It will obey accurate start times, which are flags sent by broadcasters to notify capable receivers of a change to the schedule. This is great if the sport pushes back your favourite soap opera. The only downside is that not all broadcasters support accurate recordings, which means that, if you rely on this feature, you might be disappointed.
The TVonics doesn't support audio description either, which might be a barrier for people with vision problems. If you don't know what audio description is, it's quite likely this won't matter to you.
The electronic programme guide looks eight days into the future, so, as long as you're not going on holiday for ages, you should be able to schedule recordings of your favourite shows. Of course, via 'series link', you can remove the need to individually pick shows to record -- great news if you're a Neighbours addict.
The TVonics, like most digital recorders, will allow you to pause and rewind live TV. We also love the 'chase play' feature, which allows you to start recording a programme, wait 15 minutes and then start watching. That means you get to fast-forward through all the adverts.
The picture performance on the DTR-Z500 is actually very good. At least, it's very good for a device that uses Scart as its only communication method with your TV. And it's the lack of HDMI that really bothers us in this day and age, not simply because it's better quality, but because we despise Scart with every fibre of our being.
That said, when it comes to analogue picture quality, the DTR-Z500 does a really good job. We hooked our review unit up to a 720p Panasonic plasma. It's fair to say that the set-top box held up well in comparison to the TV's built-in tuner.
In terms of using the machine, you couldn't really hope for a more simple or well-designed interface. Unlike Freeview boxes of old, this one can skip around channels with gazelle-like deftness. There's no lag between pressing a button on the remote, and the box springing into life.
The on-screen menus are very simple to navigate, although we wouldn't have chosen the electric green colour if it was up to us. That said, using the menus provides a pleasant overall experience. Recording a programme is no more difficult than pressing a button when you've found something in the EPG that you want to watch. You can also simply press the record button when you're watching TV, and the box will start recording whatever you're watching.
The dual tuners mean that you're also able to record one channel while watching another. Of course, it also means that you can record two channels at once. With most modern TVs having built-in Freeview tuners, we think it's fair to say that most people aren't limited by what they want to record any more.
If you've still got a standard-definition TV, we think you'll love the TVonics DTR-Z500. The picture quality via Scart is superb, and will look great on an older CRT. Sadly, the lack of HDMI makes it a less attractive proposition for flat-panel TVs.
Overall, this sturdy Freeview Playback machine does what it says on the tin and will suit people looking for a simple but comprehensive digital recorder. We used a good-quality Profigold Scart cable for our testing. Spending a few extra quid on analogue cables can really help with picture quality -- don't go mad though.
Alternatives include the excellent Humax PVR-9300T, which is available for around the same price. Given the choice, we'd probably go for the PVR-9300T, given the more flexible output options and HDMI.
Edited by Charles Kloet