An update of last year’s HD500, the Z500HD from South Wales-based TVonics is a serious attempt at a uniquely talented Freeview HD recorder - and a successful one, to boot. With two tuners and a 500GB recorder, the Z500HD represents the start of the second wave of Freeview+ HD recorders after last year’s pre- and post-World Cup gluts of first-gen models.
Design-wise the Z500HD improves upon its rather laid-back and hard to house forbear. The aluminium casing around a much more traditional “black box” look may be a tad conservative, but it’s a lot easier to store and enjoys a better build quality than the DTR-HD500.
On the rear alongside typical slots like HDMI and Scart are two HDMI outputs that together make the Z500HD capable of switching two high-def sources in 1080p quality. That means one thing; hang your TV on a wall and you’ll only have to trail one cable; everything else in your set-up (Blu-ray, Xbox 360 or PS3, etc), can be plugged into these extra HDMI slots.
No other manufacturer offers that feature to our knowledge, though there is a counterpoint. Despite the fact that the Z500HD can be networked (there’s an Ethernet LAN slot on the back, as there is on every Freeview HD box), there’s no media streaming features or DLNA functionality. That’s a real shame, as is the limited talent of the front panel’s USB slot; it merely plays photos, not digital music or video files. It’s not, however, unexpected - most Freeview HD products (the Humax HDR-Fox T2 is an exception) don't use their networking capabilities at all.
In keeping with TVonics’ mission to make a Freeview HD product that's a tad more giving than your standard standalone black box, there’s also an optical audio output that can carry Dolby Digital created by the Z500HD - and therefore 5.1 sound when it’s broadcast. It also puts normal stereo sound into Dolby so the Pro Logic mode on your AV amplifier can easily create wraparound 5.1 sound itself.
The user interface, which can be styled in green, blue, sapphire or emerald according to taste, is devilishly simple. The start page is bereft of anything except raw settings, with virtually all of the features emanating from the electronic programme guide. Styled in white and yellow lettering over a black though transparent, background, it’s sharp and nicely designed with a red Freeview logo and easy to read fonts. As you inspect the 7-day EPG the channel you're watching plays underneath, complete with sound. Schedules for the next 2 hours are shown for nine channels on each page, with Fastext buttons to jump forward or back either in 24 hour or 4 hour chunks. There’s also a nice search option, complete with virtual on-screen keyboard.
During our tests recordings were made from the EPG without issues; one-off recordings and series links are easy to set (series-linked programmes on the EPG are thereafter highlighted in a red font), and if a recording clash occurs, a message pops-up immediately and it’s a cinch to choose which one to cancel. The timer button presents a list of forthcoming programmes, including series links due to be recorded. There’s no sign of the “recommendation” feature though; the press release suggested that this box would recommend programmes associated with pre-set recordings.
The library page, accessed exclusively through the remote (something of a trend on this box - don't lose that remote!), tells you how much capacity remains, and the title, date and duration of all of your recordings. It’s also possible to play a recording from the start, the end, resume from where you left off, or from a designated minute count. However, stop a recording and instead of going back to the recordings library the box takes 3 or 4 seconds before returning to the last live channel.
Recordings are identical to their source; detail and expansive from Freeview HD channels, regular SD fare also looks fairly crisp and clean, though not noticeably upscaled. There are also no options to record in different qualities - something that might stretch that 500GB hard drive.
Cheaper and better than TVonics’ last effort, this rugged Freeview+ HD recorder concentrates on its core duties. That does mean no home networking or digital file playback, but it’s a small price to pay for fast, effective Freeview and good-looking high-def channels. Add a no messing user interface, unique clutter-busting HDMI switching, and a tight, tough design and TVonics’ latest is one of the best Freeview+ HD recorders yet - and seriously challenges market leader Humax.