Despite a degree of what we’d loosely called "innovation" in the PVR market, none has bettered the convenience and usability of Sky+. So straightforward is the Sky control system it’s difficult to imagine a more effective way to view, record and browse programmes.
It’s nice to see Thomson’s TopUpTV Digital recorder get off to a good start then, by aping Sky’s remote and offering dual tuners so you can record two programmes at once, or record one and use time-shifting on the other.
There’s a pretty straightforward setup that picks up all the channels in range and kicks you off with a simple interface to browse programming over a 14-day period. As well as taking inspiration from Sky’s model the remote also doubles as a TV controller with a list of setup codes provided in the box.
While much of the other functionality is very similar, there are a few small differences that take a while to get your head round. If you record a programme, nothing is flagged on the programme’s information bar when you browse to that channel. Although it is indicated on the programme guide, it’s a little awkward to find out exactly what’s recording at any one time. Another difference which we think works quite well is that if you’re time-shifting a channel and switch to another, then back, the original channel carries on from the point where you switched, rather than reverting back to real-time.
To do this you need to press a "Live TV" button, which skips you immediately to the current point in the programme. It’s a little confusing at first but in a real world environment we can see it being pretty useful.
Of course the main appeal of Thomson’s PVR is the TopUpTV Anytime feature, which you’ll find a month’s free trial of when you buy the box. This is an optional addition over the basic PVR functionality and involves a monthly fee that varies according to the channels you wish to include.
The bulk of the package is available for £9.99 per month and includes 19 additional channels, selected programmes from which are downloaded automatically to your PVR overnight. In addition you can subscribe to Picture Box for £5 per month and Setanta Sports (which includes 46 exclusive English Premiership matches) for £10.99. It's an interesting addition to the standard Freeview range, but it's important to remember that you don't have any control over which programmes are downloaded, rather they are "handpicked" for you and stored on your PVR for you to watch at your leisure.
Programmes are downloaded each night, you can expect around 12 hours worth per day to appear and they'll sit on your PVR for 7 days before new content replaces the old.
It's a little awkward to find out exactly what's on each channel each day, so you'll probably end up just downloading everything and then deleting what you don't want to watch once it's already there. You can view a monthly listing of TopUpTV content through the official site (www.topuptv.com) and select exactly which channels you want to include through the PVR's menus.
Due to the lack of control of exactly what's recorded your decision on whether or not to subscribe to the service will be based on how much of the content throughout the month appeals. The process does work fairly well though, and combined with the Thomson box's capabilities as a PVR results in a solid overall product.
With an effective interface, twin digital tuners and a pretty generous 160GB hard drive, Thomson makes a good case for itself as a standalone PVR.
The TopUpTV service works fairly well and provided you have enough interest in the programmes being recorded you'll find a nice range of additional content available each month.