The age of the personal video recorder (PVR) dawned long ago, but the folk over at Freeview are only just catching-up. Freeview+ recorders - initially called Freeview Playback - have been around a while, but haven't sold too well. And certainly not as well as the Sky+HD box, which Pace - the manufacturer behind this Philips-branded effort - also makes.
The missing ingredient, it seems, was high definition, because ever since the first Freeview HD recorders began to trickle from the factories in the weeks before the World Cup they've been hot property. None more so that the HDT8520, which received a lukewarm response (to put it mildly) from users after a slew of software issues. But fear not - the company has put a full software update for the USB stick-savvy on its website this week, while it awaits an automatic over-the-air download slot.
Its troubled childhood over, this 500GB-endowed, twin Freeview HD tuner recorder comes of age with a very simple, twin-pronged promise that it delivers in spades; it receives/records HD channels, and any idiot could use it.
Style-wise it’s nothing special, unless you really like the idea of a top-mounted LED strip light to dominate your lounge - we turned that particular feature off. Immediately. The unit itself is almost square, but small enough to fit in even the most conservative AV rack, so easy to house - though it does arrive with an external power pack.
Connecting to a HDTV via HDMI (Scart is provided, as usual, though we’ve no idea why), the HDT8520 tunes-in Freeview HD channels easily and quickly, though it did lose the frequency of some during our review.
The 8-day electronic programme guide was the main bone of contention before the new software update, but we’re pleased to report that the bugs have now been cleared-up. Simple actions, such as choosing a channel to watch from the list, are now possible (yes, the extent of the bugs was pretty serious!), and inspecting schedules up to 8 days in advance is a simple process. Our only issue is that the font used on the EPG is rather large, meaning that some programme titles can appear illegible.
Setting recordings is a simple matter of toggling around the EPG, with a choice given to record single broadcasts or entire series, with potential clashes flagged-up immediately, and intelligently. For instance, the HDT8520 ignores obscure transmission times and tells you plainly that you can’t record Neighbours unless you cancel either Home & Away or Shortland Street, with simply laid-out options to de-schedule each programme.
Away from the EPG, functionality is excellent. Best of all is a 3-hour buffer and fast scanning, so live TV can be paused or rewound a lot further than some recorders, and in speeds of up to 128x. The latter also applies to recordings, which are stored in a rudimentary list that’s easy to call-up from the remote. Recordings - presented in a list of icons and folders (for series links) - can't be edited, though deleting is rather long-winded since all titles are automatically locked.
Best of all, the HDT8520 manages to deliver pin-sharp picture quality from the three HD channels, with plenty of contrast and strong colours. It’s a similar story with SD fare, which is upscaled very well.
What the software update didn't do was allow the HDT8520 to transcode Freeview HD’s HE-AAC into Dolby Digital, so surround sound is not possible.
Quick, functional and sporting good quality SD and HD pictures, Philips HDT8520’s benefits hugely from a new software update to become a good value Freeview HD recorder. There’s few bells and whistles - missing features include Top-Up TV, media playback via USB, or any kind of online dimension - but at its core this is a good value product that’s a joy to use.