Review: Freeview hard drive recorders

By Pat Pilcher

MyFreeview HD hard drive recorder from Magic TV.
MyFreeview HD hard drive recorder from Magic TV.

There's a lot to like about Freeview HD - stunning video, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, plus an up to the minute electronic programme guide (EPG) and teletext.

The single biggest way to take your Freeview HD experience to the next level is to add a MyFreeview HD hard drive recorder. Thankfully, the elves on the Freeview production line have been slaving away to approve four different hard drive recorders for your viewing pleasure.

As the name suggests, hard drive recorders take the humble VCR and bring it into the 21st century by replacing VHS cassettes with a hard drive, just like those used in PCs. There are many benefits to this, like the ability to record and play TV at the same time and pausing live TV (brain bendingly handy for dealing with TV time interruptions). Even sweeter still, unlike VCR's of old, all the hard drive recorders in this round up use the Freeview EPG, which means scheduling recordings doesn't require you have a PHD in advanced rocketry. Recording all episodes of a particular series is also possible.

All the recorders covered in this test incorporate twin tuners, allowing them to record two channels at the same time (with the added bonus being that you can also watch shows you've already recorded).

Being Freeview certified also means that all four boxes are guaranteed to work with the terrestrial UHF Freeview network and are easier to set up than falling off a log.

About the only real limitation with any of these devises is their lack of Freeview satellite support, limiting their usefulness to areas where terrestrial UHF Freeview HD is available.

Homecast HT9200DTR

Features It might cost you an extra $100, but the extra fundage gets you a 500GB hard drive, which equates to acres of extra recording real-estate for your Freeviewing pleasure. As with the other hard drive recorders here, the Homecast also packs twin TV tuners, so you can record two shows and, should the urge take you, play a third recorded show.

Installation Like most Freeview approved boxes, setting up the Homecast proved such a no-brainer that even yours truly managed to get it right first time round. This said, its bundled manual was next to useless. After connecting the Homecast up to my antenna and connecting it to my telly using the included HDMI cable, I powered it up. Rather than flames, I was greeted with a bunch of super friendly menu prompts which stepped me through the install process, tuning in all available Freeview channels and I was good to go.

Remote While all but one of the recorders sported particularly pedestrian remotes, and the Homecast's remote proved to be at best average. The remotes supplied with MySky and TiVo both make use of large sculptured buttons for frequently used functions and reducing the overall button count has also been a design priority. The Homecast remote however took some getting used to thanks to its multitude of small buttons laid out in a grid like fashion rather than by frequency of use. It was initially confusing, but I did eventually get used to its quirks.

Ease of Use When it came to ease of use, the Homecast definitely held its own. Not only was it responsive, but intuitive on screen banners and sensibly laid out menus made most tasks a manual-free experience. About the only fly in the Homecast's ointment was the use of separate record and playback lists. Whilst having one list for shows to be recorded and another for shows available for playback sounds logical, in practice it simply added confusion where it wasn't needed.

Zinwell ZMT-640PVR

Features Although it only packs a 250GB hard drive for the princely sum of $799, the Zinwell hard drive recorder proved nonetheless to be a solid, if over-priced, performer, despite my initial reservations. Zippy and responsive, it also proved relatively stress-free to setup and use.

InstallationYou'd really have to do something catastrophically wrong to botch the Zinwell's installation. After hooking my antenna, AV connections and the power I was stepped through a series of plain English installation steps that had me up and running in no time flat. On the downside, making use of both the Zinwell's twin tuners required I connect an "antenna out" to a secondary "antenna in" using a bundled cable. Lose the cable and you're stuck with a single tuner solution. Why the twin tuners were not configured to share a single antenna as per the near-identical JC Matthew unit borders on the bizarre and didn't fill me with great confidence in Zinwell's design.

Remote Like the Homecast, the Zinwell's remote was functional, but it won't win any beauty or design prizes. While all required buttons were present and accounted for, Zinwell could've learnt from the Magic TV's remote to introduce a more sensible button layout and to also make use of larger sculptured buttons to aid ease of use. This said, the Zinwell's remote did a perfectly serviceable job, it was just wouldn't have taken much to make it even better.

Ease of Use In the end it turned out my cynicism with the Zinwell's design was largely misplaced. As with the other hard disk recorders in this round up, the Zinwell definitely benefited from Freeview certification. Tasks such as configuring settings through to pausing or scheduling recordings required little guesswork or grief, with everything logically and clearly laid out. On screen menus may not have been as pretty as those on the Magic TV, but the Zinwell's near industrial menu layout meant it was uncluttered and most importantly, intuitive to use.

JC Matthew DVR-320T

Features While packing a slightly bigger hard drive (350GB) and a few cosmetic differences, JC Matthew's effort is identically priced and sports near-identical functionally to its kissing cousin, the Zinwell, all the way down to its remote.

Installation As with the Zinwell hard drive recorder, installation was fairly idiot proof. Hooking up the antenna, AV connections and power I was away in a matter of minutes. Curiously, JC Matthews sensibly chose a single antenna input rather than using a jumper cable and multiple antenna inputs as per the Zinwell box.

Remote Branding aside, The JC Matthew remote was functionally identical to that bundled with the Zinwell to the point where they could both be used interchangeably with no issues. Like the Zinwell, the JC Matthew remote was a functional affair that got the job done and didn't win any beauty prizes.

Ease of Use While cosmetically different, the menu system on the JC Matthew box were functionally identical which made viewing, pausing, rewinding and recording shows a pretty intuitive affair.

Magic TV MTV3600TD

Features At $100 less than the Homecast, Magic TV really managed to bring home the hard drive recorder equivalent of the bacon thanks to its generous 500GB hard drive. Bang per buck value aside, the Magic TV's features and well thought out design allowed it to easily stand out from the rest of the pack. Sporting every video output you're ever likely to need on its rear panel, the Magic TV also packed network connectivity, allowing it to pull live RSS and weather feeds off the net. Last but by no means least, Magic TV was also able to play nice with most AVCHD capable camcorders, making it a great choice for any budding Peter Jacksons.

Installation Being Freeview certified, all of the hard drive recorders in this round up were dead easy to tune in and set up, however the Magic TV took set up to the next level thanks to great documentation that included a getting started card and a slick onscreen menu system, all of which made getting up and running a five minute experience with minimal hand wringing.

Remote Where all the other boxes had functional remotes that all looked like they'd been hit with the ugly stick one time too many, the clicker bundled with the Magic TV was a pleasure to use. Taking cues from the likes of the TiVo and MySky, the Magic TV's remote was sensibly laid out, with large sculpted buttons guiding your fingers to where they need to be. Add four learning buttons into the fray (so the remote can also control your TV and AV gear) and the Magic TVs remote easily sets the bar and eclipses the remotes bundled with the other hard drive recorders tested.

Ease of Use The Magic TV was a joy to use. On screen menus were not only aesthetically pleasing, but also incorporated minimal extraneous information whilst also managing to be sensibly laid out. When combined with its rather excellent remote, the Magic TV stands heads and shoulders above its other Freeview certified counterparts.

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