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I've lived with this for close to a year, and I've developed a love/hate relationship with it -- when it works it's one of those devices that makes you wonder how you survived without it, but a few quirks and some serious reliability problems stop it from being an unqualified success.
The general idea of the device -- whether you want to call it a Personal Video Recorder, Digital TV Recorder, or Magical Box of Wonderment -- is both simple and beautiful. Take the well-established idea of a video recorder, throw away the tapes, combine it with an electronic TV guide, and you've changed TV in the same way digital cameras changed photography: immediacy, elimination of "resource management", and almost childlike simplicity and transparency.
In operation the device is simple and behaves just like a perfectly normal Freeview box, with one key difference -- "time-shifting", the ability to pause, rewind, and simultaneously play and record TV means no more rushing to make a cup of tea during the adverts, no more missing a crucial piece of dialogue and spending the rest of the film wondering what's going on, no more being distracted at that crucial moment in the match. It's often a difficult thing to explain, but once you've spent a few minutes playing with it you'll be hooked!
Not only that, it also does everything your old VCR did, but with a lot more simplicity and elegance. No more rooting about trying to find a tape with enough blank space, no more fumbling about trying to read labels that have been scribbled on and crossed out a dozen times, and no more fiddling with inscrutable menus to schedule a recording. Everything you've recorded is neatly catalogued, easily discarded when you've watched it, and scheduled simply by picking it right from the TV guide.
So far, so clever, but there are many similar devices to choose from, and they all work in a broadly similar way, so how does this model shape up?
Initial setup is fairly simple -- plug it in, answer a couple of questions about your TV, and it does the rest for you. For some strange reason it can take 24 hours for the device to get hold of the TV schedules at first, but once it has them things settle down to normal. By default some space is set aside for "TopUp TV", a paid-for addition to the regular channels; if you decide not to subscribe you can re-allocate this to give you more space for regular recordings, but it would be nice if it was a bit "smarter" about this.
Once you're up and running you should feel fairly comfortable with the usual operations; the remote bears a striking resemblance to a Sky remote, and as a result is fairly well laid out and sits well in the hand, and as with the Sky remote you can also program it to operate some of the functions of your TV.
"Trick play" (pausing and rewinding live TV) is straightforward to do, but you may find yourself getting lost at first -- for instance it's easy to pause something for a few minutes, forget you've done it, and then miss the beginning of something else -- but the device itself handles the job with aplomb and can hardly be blamed for the failings of the human brain!
Scheduling a recording is easy; highlight the desired program on the TV guide, press Record, and you're done, and if the selected program is part of a series you're given the option to record the selected episode or the whole series. The box can record two channels at once, but be aware that if you do so you won't be able to watch a third channel during the period of overlap. (This doesn't sound like a problem, but if you allow a small amount of additional time on a recording, and a second recording is scheduled to start when the first ends, you may find the channel unceremoniously being changed from under you.)
Watching recordings is also easy, but this is where things get messy -- you're presented with a list of recordings, along with time, date, program details, and a small preview of the selected recording, and have the option of resuming watching from where you left off, or start from the beginning. Whilst watching a recording you have the usual fast forward, rewind, and pause options, but here we hit one of the glaring problems: sometimes, without rhyme or reason, when fast forwarding or rewinding you will suddenly be taken to a random point in the recording, leaving you with the task of finding your place again (which, you may have guessed, requires fast forwarding or rewinding, at which time it may again choose to dump you at a random point).
Other infuriating glitches plague the playback process; occasionally a recording will fail for a mysterious reason, which in itself is annoying enough. The problem is further compounded by the fact that this failed recording may cause the box to lock up and reset itself when scrolling through the list of recordings. There are various workarounds, but it can become incredibly frustrating. (The problems multiply the more you record and delete, and I've found that the odd "reset to factory defaults" helps when things get really bad.)
From time to time a new version of the software is delivered to the box overnight, each version attempting to address some of the problems with varying degrees of success. It's certainly more reliable now than when first released, but it fails more often than a device of this type should.
If the price were higher then I wouldn't recommend it -- a device for recording TV that doesn't always record properly and is occasionally determined to make it difficult to play things back can hardly be considered ideal -- but as it can be picked up for a heavily discounted price these days (my local Asda was selling them for £50) it justifies itself as a handy addition to a second TV. It's a more than adequate Freeview box, and if you can put up with the occasional bout of sulkiness then getting the extra features few a few more quid is worth it. If you're going to rely on it heavily, look elsewhere.
A very good review. I thought at first your review might be under the wrong category as the title Thomson seems to imply it's about the company as a whole rather than a specific product, however having looked at some of the other reviews under this title they're about specific products from Thomson too, so gladly updated my rating to a VH.