Advantages Straightforward operation
Disadvantages Lacking in features once you've sampled a Topfield
|Ease of Use|
|Ease of Installation|
|Range of Features|
|Value for Money|
Now here's a funny thing - I'm writing about something I didn't intend buying and didn't really want. Whooooops!It's equally infrequently that I'm forced to 'fess-up' and admit that despite extensive research, I've "bought the Betamax", the dodo in question this time being a Topfield 5810 Freeview PVR (hard disk recorder). Even with the best efforts of retailer Peter Tyson, I just could not get one of these to stand up for more than a month at a time, and after even the second factory-fresh replacement went faulty, I threw in the towel and asked for a credit note, with which I've bought the nearest-specified Humax machine, the 9300T. My Topfield review now sports a ‘few’ less stars!
I say 'nearest' because nothing comes close to the tweakability of a Topfield, having the delightful prospect of being able to run extra or alternative programmes called Topfield Applications or 'TAPs' to the basic built-in menus. Thus, if particular channels are not too hot in keeping their data up to date or even accurate in the first place, you can set timers by searching for the text within the titles, which is a lot less likely to be changed - well you can once you've added an extra application called 'MyStuff'.The Humax does none of this, being stuck with its embedded menus and nothing more and is therefore much more dependant (the fools) on the accuracy of the data given out by the channels for its programme guide. The Channel 5 group is particularly bad at maintaining its programme schedule details, and when pushed on the subject, describes the data as being ‘experimental at the moment’. Too bloody right it is! As I said, I don't really want the Humax - what I really wanted was a Topfield 5810 that works!
It's somewhat dinkier than I was expecting, being quite slim and not very wide. Whilst the main case is less impressive, being a bit piano-black gloss and plasticky, the remote control feels likes it's up to the job, being made of a much more rigid and smooth material. Buttons feel like they're good for several thousand presses. The Topfield had a quality metal feel to its case, but the remote was rubbery and insubstantial.There are no visible controls on the 9300T - such as there are, are to be found under a press-once-to-open discrete flap on the left. Here you'll find the basic functions, in fact enough to control programming and transport whilst you wait for Poundland to open so you can put some new batteries in the remote!
The right-hand flap covers the slot for the smartcard reader or CAM (conditional access module), which would allow for the watching and recording of pay-TV channels like G.O.L.D., ESPN (formerly Setanta Sport) and Television X. Since TopUp TV made it practically useless to have anything other than 'their' recorder, pay TV on a Humax is pretty limited; nostalgia for old comedies, sport or porn now being the main uses for a CAM.I'm not sure where 'vintage topless darts' feature in there!
A back-lit LCD display shows the clock (dimly) when on standby, the channel name when fired up, and reminders of playback progress where relevant. Lettering is a bit coarse (ooh, picky, picky!). Curiously, timer recording whilst on stand-by only shows a discrete ‘REC’, otherwise it looks just like it’s still on stand-by.
The aerial (antenna) connection is as you'd expect from VCR days; i.e. you run your aerial lead into it, and add a shorter patch cable to keep the through-connection to the TV intact.There's an HDMI connector for use with HD-ready TVs - note this is NOT HiDef television, it just up-scales the picture to 720p standards, and maintains the 'digital chain' one stage nearer to your eyeballs before converting it to analogue – of course, if you’re that guy on Star Trek with the slipped hair-band over his eyes, you’ve probably got digital eyes too!
HD Freeview does now exist, at time of writing in the Liverpool, London and Manchester transmitter areas with more coverage to come in time for the World Cup 2010. However, you'll need new kit with HD tuners, and of now, it's pretty thin on the ground. I can feel another opinion coming on soon, especially if I can find someone to sell this machine on to!Two SCART leads are labelled separately for TV and 'VCR' – a VCR? How quaint. The TV output is capable of a higher quality signal (Red-Green-Blue) than that for the VCR, the premise being that no VCRs can receive such a high quality input. As I'll be using the HDMI lead for the TV connection, I can use the TV SCART for my Panasonic HDD-DVD Recorder, as this will accept an RGB input, thereby maximising the quality of anything I try to archive……………..something worth archiving would be nice!
Having got the video connections sorted, you have some audio matters to attend to. Of course, if using a SCART or HDMI connection, stereo sound will already come from the TV, but if you've an alternative means of amplifying the sound, then the two audio/phono connectors will be of use, as will the digital-optical SPDIF output if you have a 'home cinema' set-up although it'll still be only stereo, not 5.1 surround soundThis really leaves the puzzling 9-pin RS232 socket looking a bit old fashioned - wot, no USB port, Mr. Humax? Curiously, for something that is their current top Freeview model, Humax have stepped back from supplying a USB port on this one despite the older 9200T’s ability to transfer recordings to a PC. This serial port only really serves one purpose, to update the machine's software if you missed out on the automatic Over-The-Air (OTA) update; say for instance you just bought the machine and found it had been in stock a long time at the shop. Updating is not difficult if you follow the process through, although getting what is known as a 'null modem' cable is necessary, and life gets yet more complex, if your PC doesn't even have an RS232 output (previously used for dial-up modems).
By far the easiest method to set timers is using the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG). From here it's easy enough to 'cherry-pick' the programmes you want up to 8 days ahead. Once chosen, and if the information is available, you'll be asked if you want to record the series. The set up can also spot split-timings, like when a movie continues after the news; you'll be asked if you want both halves. In the case of creating a clash with existing timers, the machine will make a limited attempt to find alternatives. Incidentally, you can also record radio programmes but these rarely if ever carry series data.
If interrupted, you can also 'bookmark' a recording for ease of resumption later. You can find your list of recordings in two ways. One is to go into MENU>Recording>Recorded Programmes, and the other is to press an Archive button, which is under the sliding flap revealing extra buttons on the remote. If I have one criticism of the latter, it's that these buttons are so useful (also includes the 'skip' buttons and those for PiP), that I'm thinking of disposing of the flap, rather than having to keep on moving it to use these.
However, not only can you make two overlapping recordings at the same time, you can also watch a (limited) selection of other channels live too. For example, let's say you're recording BBC1 and ITV1 at the same time which would involve the use of both tuners. Because of the way Freeview is transmitted with up to say 8 channels on one frequency, you can watch the other channels associated with these frequencies.Further to what I said previously, you can not only pause live TV, but you can start recording it instead with a press of the record button. If you've been watching the programme in question from the beginning without channel-surfing, you may even be able to rewind and record it all. Very useful for one of those 'you might have told me it had started!' moments.
If you are in a poor signal area and need what's known as a mast-head amplifier, the Humax can supply 5 volts via its antenna output to power it. However, this does mean that it can't be set to power down into its economy mode using only 0.9 watts of standby power, since it will stop powering your aerial for other tuners such as the one in your telly. This will also switch off the 'pass-through' amplifier, starving your TV of a good signal when used alone.Since there are really only two major players* in the field of Freeview twin-tuner hard-disk recorders, let's do a quick tot-up based on my experience of both Topfield and Humax.
*(There are other, Digifusion, Sagem etc. but reading around the subject, they get lousy ratings)
The Humax's remote feels nicer, being more substantial with less rubbery buttons. However, it deceptive neatness is somewhat spoiled by constantly having to open a slider to see some extra and frequently needed buttons.On balance, the Topfield looks more prestigious and well built, notwithstanding what I said about its remote control and its display is more 'tasteful'.
The Humax is less quirky, but this of course also means it's less flexible. More suited to those who don't want to dabble, like a Mac user compared to a PC geek.Genre searches are built-in on the Humax, so listing all movies in the next eight days is easy. The Topfield needs a MyStuff search timer to be set up although this is a once-only chore.
The Humax only has a limited ability to resolve recording clashes based on the Freeview+ data, whilst a Topfield running MyStuff can come up with a dazzling array of alternatives, using the 'plus one' channels, or alternative channels like Fiver is to C5.Copying programmes for archive purposes can only be done in real time via the SCART lead on the Humax, whereas the Topfield allows for file transfer to a PC via its USB port.
Both only emit hard drive noise most of the time, although the Humax does have a fan which cuts in when needed, making it measurably noisier. Having no fan, the Topfield never gets any noisier making it more suitable for bedroom use.Once you've accepted the Humax's ability to record a series using the Freeview+ broadcast data, it becomes a slave to it. The Topfield however, can still 'pad' a recording, even of a series 'just in case'. BBC programmes in particular come out with a few vital first seconds missing - I suppose ITV offerings have their own padding called 'adverts'!
On the Humax, there's a tedious wait whilst the Programme Guide repopulates every time the machine boots up. The Topfield running MyStuff write the data to disk, so it's there at a split second's notice.Admittedly you can overcome this by setting the Humax's 'Wake Timer' to bring the machine back to life just before you habitually start watching it, say as you come through the door in the evening.
Despite what the hopelessly out-of-date manual says, there is NO means of transferring mp3 or jpeg files to this machine, whereas on the Topfield, you could use it like a juke box and photo album if you really wanted to tie up your disk space. I only got a 'Quick Start Guide' on paper, and strangely a CD-ROM with the same thing all over again on it and the 80-page full manual.Both machines came with both a SCART and HDMI lead, which is one (or is it two?) up on computer printer manufacturers.
Reading the hundreds of mostly positive reviews on Amazon.co.uk you would gain the impression from the still noticeable minority that the machine is noisy as hell and keeps freezing. Either that or since the recent wholesale re-tune of Freeview, it keeps giving annoying messages that it has found new channels, when in fact there aren't any. Many of the Humax recorders thus afflicted end up as customer returns, if e-bay is anything to go by! The actual solution, as with most set-top boxes is to make sure you are running the latest software version and if you aren't to do something about it.a) First port of call would be the
http://www.dtg.org.uk/industry/download_schedule. php,web-site, which will list any OTA (over the air) software updates due for your machine. Then all you do is write yourself a 'Post-It', stick it on the fridge and make sure that the machine is set to BBC1 and put on standby on the dates quoted, usually overnight.
b) Secondly, and especially if you've just missed an OTA session, check the manufacturer's web-site, in this casehttp://www.humaxdigital.com/uk/
to see what the latest software version should be, as opposed to what your machine has, which is easy to establish in the main menu. If there's a difference, the site can talk you through how to upgrade the software via your PC.Mine had version 15 installed, when version 19 was available, so as you can imagine, it took me a couple of minutes to unplug it all again, connect it to my PC and to install the latest version, dated January 2010. I'd already established that I'd missed the latest OTA update by a matter of days.
The 80-page manual ought to be enough for most people, but I found it had an annoying habit of merely showing how to do things, without explaining why you'd want to. For example, as I mentioned earlier, you can set the box to turn off into an extra economical standby mode using a tiny amount of current. Great, you'd think, why not?It's only when using the troubleshooting pages to find out why it is that the TV can't get a signal on its own, that you find you shouldn't have switched on the economy standby as this turns off the pass-through amplifier for your TV aerial cable.
I do however object in this day and age to feeling like I'm a beta-test engineer, having to haunt the dark corridors of gee....errr....enthusiast forums to get it as bug-free as possible. Goodness knows how Humax gets so many plaudits, but then how many magazine reviewers keep the thing for any length of time? The Topfield 5810 got some pretty good press too, but I bet they never ran one for a month!Set-top box manufacturers seem to think it's OK to launch something, bugs 'n' all - they don't seem to have moved on from the Sinclair mentality despite the fact that DTT (digital terrestrial TV) has now been around for years.
Ho hum, let's see what the next development, HD Freeview brings.Buggy boxes, I'll be bound - oh bugger!
Through all of this, my older Topfield 5800 bats on, as if you say "See, told ya!"
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