The PVR (Personal Video Recorder) situation in Australia has rapidly improving. By PVR, I restrict to the primary requirement of recording to harddisk only. Currently there are three main styles of options: an off the shelf PVR, a TiVo, or a computer. Of the lot, the category that is improving most rapidly is the first one, and where a few years ago there was only a couple models with price tags around $1500-$2000, there are now at least many different models starting in price from under $200, although expect to pay at least $500. At that kind of price, it is definitely the time to jump in to the market - even if the device needs replacing in a couple years you’ll easily get the value out of it.
Taking my own advice, I initially purchased a Strong SRT 5390 from AdFreeTV (formally DVRsDirect) for $500 and it served me well, before I upgraded to a dual tuner Topfield TF5000PVRt Masterpiece. I'll give a more indepth review of the Strong 5390 and Topfield TF5000PVRt below but the short summary is go out and buy one now.
Off the shelf PVRs are now moving rapidly to main stream availability, showing up in Harvey Norman, DSE, and other electronics outlets. Even woolworths have occasionally sold sub-$200 PVRs. We have found the following specialist online stores that sell PVRs:
Keep in mind that perhaps the most important “feature” to consider when choosing a PVR is the user interface, and this can be very difficult to ascertain in advance.
For value for money, the Strong SRT 5390 appears to be the current front runner. The price is around $520.
Interfaces include just standard consumer audio and video:
The good things about the 5390 include:
The bad things include:
Generally the user interface is pretty reasonable, and with firmware updates there is some hope that the Cons will be addressed. Rumor has it that there will be a version with a second tuner. Rumor also has it that it is possible to upgrade the harddisk, although this would void the warranty and the choice of harddisk would have to be carefully considered (based on speed and noise level) - mind you the PVRs ability to let you delete programs once you have watched them and to trim unwanted sections means that the 30 hours goes a lot further than you might expect.
The Topfield TF5000PVRt is around twice as expensive as the cheaper end of the market, weighing in at around $900, although the price appears to be falling now. But after using a demo model supplied by AdFreeTV for a few weeks, I can safely say that if your budget stretches to this device, you wont be sorry about spending the extra money.
The important features you get above and beyond the norm expected of a Standard Definition Digital Terrestrial PVR include two tuners, USB file transfer, Picture In Picture, and the ability to extend the device with third party “TAP” applications.
Setting up the device is relatively easy. It can automatically scan for available channels, and then you can delete any duplicates or unwanted ones, and then copy from one tuner to the other (each tuner can actually have independent channels, although I doubt many people will use this).
The user interface is crisp and clean, using a relatively high resolution, although this sometimes makes the smaller text hard to read on the TV screen. The user interface is well thought out. One of the few oddities is that there is no button to go directly to the timer recording, and that timer recording is in the Settings menu rather than the Recording menu.
As with all video recorders, the device takes a bit of learning to get used to the features, but clever touches abound. You can pretty much forget about the fact that the device has two tuners, because everything “just works”, the device seamless uses whichever tuner is available while you’re watching TV. It also automatically stores whatever you are watching, so you can always pause and rewind, even for live television, as long as you have been watching that channel. You can view the Electronic Program Guide (EPG) provided by the digital televisions, and if there is something listed you want to record, you simply select it and press a button and the program will be recorded.
As usual with playback, there are a number of trick modes to allow rapid skipping of commercials, which is just as well as the fast forward only offers 2, 4, and 6 times speed. In this case, pressing the “Go to bookmark” button skips forward 30 seconds if there is no bookmark, then press backwards a few times to get to the start of the show. A downside of this approach is that if you actually do make a bookmark, then 30 second skip feature no longer works as it always goes to the bookmark instead.
The list of recorded shows is easy to access and manipulate, although the duration of each show does not appear in the list, so it is hard to see which shows are really two or three shows recorded in one session. The amount of free space could be more clearly identified as it becomes very important when your harddisk starts filling up.
The timer recording setup is easy to do and well thought out. You name each recording slot as your create it which is nice, but not as nice as the Strong SRT 5390 which gets the name from the EPG (and gets it right even when you start the recording before the show actually starts). The name also does not show up in the list so it is not as clear as it could be which entry records which show.
Using a combination of MacTF, MPEG Streamclip 1.1, QuickTime Pro and the QuickTime MPEG 2 Playback Component I was able to download TV shows from the Topfield to my Mac and watch them in MPEG Streamclip or convert them to QuickTime format for playback.
If all that was not enough, the device can be extended by any third party using the gcc compiler to write their own “TAP” applications, which can then be uploaded to the PVR and run from the program listing page. This is really quite an amazing feature as it means most of the cons listed can in fact be corrected by installing a piece of software to adjust the behaviour (for instance, at tonyspage.abock.de you can have the free space show as a much clearer percentage bar graph). This is really an amazing facility for a consumer electronics product.
The Samsung DVD-H40A has not been updated in quite a while, its 40GB harddisk is starting to look small, and even though the price has dropped to $700, the inclusion of a DVD player does not seem a sufficient reason to purchase this over a digital TV receiver PVR.
Interfaces include just standard consumer audio and video:
Unfortunately, we have little experience with this model. The user interface looks pretty primitive (especially in comparison to the Star Trek-like Strong). Obvious Cons include:
The TiVo is the more or less undisputed king in the USA market, but has not been as dominent in the Australian market.
An alternative to buying a PVR is to but a computer and install multiple tuners. Since tuner cards are cheap, you can often install6 or more tuners in a single PC, combined with a couple TB of cheap harddisk and it can make a device that is far more impressive than any off the shelf PVR. The problems tend to come in that computers in general are not as reliable as purpose built devices (and having a crash that takes out your recordings for a night can be very frustrating!) and the user interfaces tend to be less than ideal.
Another option is to use a Mac mini (recently a new version was released with an HDMI output).
If you are willing to put in the effort and have strong computer hardware and software skills, this does however give the most flexibility with what you do since you can custom design the device for your purposes. One friend of mine uses the EyeTV and claims very good results, and my brother has a very nice setup with many tuners and lots of storage, but there has been quite a lot of pain getting it all working properly.
The Build Your Own PVR web site covers all sorts of things related to turning your PC into a PVR.
In Australia, we do not currently have a reasonable infrastructure for online TV guides. Although several Internet systems are available, in my experience they do not have the necessary accuracy to be useful in automatically programing your video recorder (at least not in Western Australia, they may be more accurate in other locations). While generally correct, they often miss last minute changes that the TV stations seem to love to do. On top of that, the TV programs rarely follow the timings specified in the guides with any accuracy (especially late at night where times can be off my half an hour or more).
None of the solutions currently available really fit the desired specifications for a truly "personal" video recorder. Such a device should have features like:
Nothing comes close to this in Australia (or anywhere).
Thanks to Sean Reith, Ashley Aitken, Sean Cleary, Stephen Lewis, Charlie Franklin, Shay Telfer for their assistance in compiling this summary.