04.What to look for
eSATA is a fast and easy connection for external hard drives.
USB connections have a slower transfer rate than eSATA, but are an efficient and common way to connect external drives.
Quad recording can record up to four programs at once, provided they are on the same stream, for example, SBS1 and SBS2 as well as 7HD and 7TWO.
Resolution for digital free-to-air TV can be confusing. Standard definition broadcasts are called 576i (the i is for interlaced transmission mode). High definition comes in a number of forms. 1080i is the most detailed over-the-air broadcast. However, in Australia, any broadcast at 576p (progressive transmission mode) and above is called HD. Many devices, including PVRs, can take lower resolution input (for example, a broadcast at 576i) and upscale it to 1080p or 1080i, which is closer to most new TVs’ native resolution.
Remote controls should have buttons that are sized, shaped and spaced so you can easily find and press them individually. They should be grouped so you can quickly go to specific functions, and the most commonly used buttons should be prominent. All should have clear English labels or obvious symbols.
Record from AV input While all PVRs record free-to-air TV, you need an analog input connection if you want to record another video signal, for example from a VCR or Foxtel box. Of the units on test only the Strong, Teac and Panasonic models with optical recording have analog inputs.
Direct recording to an external drive is a particularly handy feature if you wish to store any of the shows you have recorded for future viewing. Effectively, it’s the same as putting an additional hard drive into your PVR. some can record to an external USB device, while other devices only allow you to move content from the hard drive of the PVR to the external drive.
Video connections Your PVR should have connections that match the ones on your TV and any other device you wish to connect. Apart from SCART and HDMI, all connections require separate audio links. Composite is the lowest video quality; S-video is better, with Component being the highest quality analog video option available.
Timer recordings allow you to set your device to record shows past the standard seven days allocated by the EPG, this is handy if you want to record a special event (sport or major occasion) and won’t be around the week before. All except the Bush, Grundig and Fetch TV unit has this feature.
Auto padding is the ability to automatically append extra time before and after a recording, useful in case programs do not run on time.
HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) is an all-digital connection for both video and audio in one cable. All models in this test have an HDMI connection.
TOSLINK and digital coaxial cables deliver digital audio and provide support for audio features such as DTS, Dolby Surround sound and Dolby True HD sound.
An Ethernet or LAN connection is becoming increasingly common on a PVR, allowing you to share video on your home network or stream video from the Internet. All except the Healing model has this feature, although the Sony LAN connection is for maintenance (firmware upgrades) only.
Antenna pass-through allows you to connect another device to the antenna without going through the PVR processor. This is handy if you want to attach an analog device such as a VCR at the same time, but will be less useful when the analog signal is turned off. All except the Tivo has this feature.
HD video recordings can take up anything from 5GB to 15GB per hour, depending on the type of video shown and the quality selected. For example, an hour of action movie footage with lots of changes in scenery and colour will take up much more space than an hour-long interview in a studio setting with little changes in scene. Most PVR companies indicate an average between the two extremes.
Timeshift All models on test incorporate a timeshift feature. This allows you to press the pause button and stop watching the show, and the PVR will continue to record the show while you’re away. Also, you can rewind what you were watching as long as you stay on the same channel.
AVCHD is a video format used by an increasing number of new digital video camcorders. Its very compressed format means you can fit lots of HD video onto a card, but requires quite a bit of processing to decode. All products on test except the Sony can handle AVCHD.
DivX is a file format commonly used for movies and TV shows that you can download from the internet. All recorders on test support DivX.
MKV Otherwise known as Matroska, MKV is an open standard file format for video that is becoming popular on the internet.
Updating your PVR
A PVR is really just a small computer and like most computers can be upgraded. Manufacturers will occasionally produce an upgrade that you can apply yourself by downloading a file from their website to a USB storage device. You then use the USB connection on the PVR and its on-board software to apply the upgrade. This should be a simple process, but you need to pay careful attention to the instructions because applying the upgrade incorrectly could render the device inoperable. In some cases you can return the product to a service agent and have it done for a price. If you’re not comfortable with technology, this will probably be money well spent.
Upgrades often correct errors or improve performance in some area and sometimes add features. However, they don’t always have a positive effect. An improvement in one area may mean a compromise somewhere else. It’s a good idea to read the manufacturers description of what changes are being implemented to make sure they’re things you are likely to want. We’ve seen performance reductions in areas such as standby energy use from one upgrade to another.
The future for PVRs
In recent times we’ve seen a growing number of TVs coming onto the market with USB or storage card connections that can be used to record programs. This is a good feature, particularly if you only record the occasional program and don’t want to store it permanently. It could be seen as the beginning of the end for PVRs.
At present PVR’s have a few real advantages; they have quite large storage capacity (up to 1000GB), can program a number of recording sessions at the same time, can record while playing back a previously recorded program and timeshift so you can rewind or pause live TV. However, as TVs continue to develop it’s possible that all of these functions will become standard and the separate PVR will no longer take up space in our lounge rooms.