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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

May 08, 2006

Panasonic TUCTH100 PVR

What do the following have in common?

CSI, Grey's Anatomy, ER, House, Without a Trace.

Yes, that's right. They're all shows I'd recorded on my PVR last week, planning to watch them over the weekend. I'd fallen a bit behind with the viewings because of Dr Tanya Byron's occupation of the 8-9pm slot on BBC3. My wife watches The House of Tiny Tearaways, you see, even though each hour of the show includes at least 30 minutes of soul-destroying repetition.

Anyway, my Digifusion PVR (combined hard disk recorder with two Freeview tuners) went horribly wrong. During the week, it started to have trouble generating the little thumbnail "scenes" that allow you to skip through programmes, and then on Saturday morning, it refused to start up. I'm assuming a dead hard disk. Grrr!

So I had to go over to John Lewis and buy a new one - a Panasonic this time. On the plus side, it's got nicer-looking menus than the Digifusion, though it cost £50 more for the same capacity. The remote is similarly shitty and badly thought out, and the user-interface, while more tasteful, is a bit of a nightmare.

For example, you push a button to get into the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG), and then you scroll through the channels to get the one you want. But then you have to push another button to get the programme list for that channel, and then another to add it to your record list. And then another to confirm. That's 4 button pushes, with no opportunity to edit the start/stop times, which you have to go through a separate menu to access. To me, that's pretty bad.

The Digifusion, while ugly, showed you a listing of what was on all channels by time, and you could separately access the complete channel listing, or just tab through the times. So finding what you wanted was quicker and easier. A single button push took you to the Record menu, where you could edit the start/stop time before adding it to the list.

To delete a programme you've already watched, you have to select it, unlock it, then delete, then confirm. Again, too many button pushes - and all over the remote as well, so tricky with one hand.

The other problem is with the idea of favourite channels. The Panasonic goes too far with this, offering you 4 different profiles, so four different people can select favourite channels. But it's nearly impossible to select a profile, so it's not very useful. You have to bring up the Info banner, then hit the blue button four times in a row - at least. But it's not even as simple as that, because the first four pushes take you through options you just don't want to be there (for example, you end up on a radio station). Even worse, once you're in a profile, you can only select channels by going up/down with the channel selector. Punch in the number directly (e.g. 3 for ITV or 70 for CBBC) and the unit bumps you out of the profile and into "all channels." Why? Not very pleased with that feature.

It doesn't automatically add scenes every 5 mins, so if you want them, you have to add them manually, which is time consuming, and so I'm never going to do it. On the other hand, it does remember the last time you stopped a recording, so you can jump straight to it.

The Digifusion had fast forward and rewind speeds of quarter-speed, half-speed, x1, x2, x4, x8 and so on. So you could get it to move very slowly when you wanted to, and I found x8 speed very useful for skipping ad breaks on Sky 3 and E4, dropping it back to x4 just before the end of the break (because it wasn't very smooth at coming off ultra high speeds). The Panasonic has x3 and then jumps to x12 which is too fast to be much use, unless you don't mind missing the beginning of each segment. On the other hand, it comes out of x12 speed quite smoothly and gets straight on with it, instead of stuttering badly as the Digifusion did.

So far so mostly negative, and now for the good bits. Picture and sound quality is excellent (though there's no option to over-compress so as to fit more on), and the programme guide downloads and updates in real time as opposed to doing it overnight. This means you can switch it off at night and save energy. It also has a better display on the hardware itself, showing the channel you're watching, or the title of the recording (e.g. "Doctor Wh").

Great features: picture-in-picture and/or picture-and-picture. Yes! Watch two channels at once, so you can monitor in a smaller window whether something has started or finished yet. Or just keep an eye on the score so you don't have to sit through dull football games. You can switch between the tuners using a Source button, too. And when you set recordings, unlike with the Digifusion, you can ask it to record it daily/weekly at the same time. All good.

All the other PVR features are there: pause/rewind live TV (and you can adjust the length of the buffer); watch a recording whilst making two more; and start watching a recording before it's complete, so you can time-shift by 15 minutes, say, and skip all the ads. It records the subtitles, so you can always access them in times of mumbling ac-tors or high background noise. Oh, and you can dub from this recorder onto something else, like a VCR or DVD recorder, so that's a plus. Another neat feature is the fact that it is very informative about your recording library, telling you which are recordings in progress, and also those you haven't watched yet, which is good when then menu gets crowded.

In summary.

Remote Control: horrible, 2/10
Menus and User Interface: awful, 3/10
Hardware design: not bad, 6/10
Features: mostly good: 7/10

There's a long way to go with these things. I'd say this is marginally better than the Digifusion, but there's still an opportunity for a Sony or an Apple to come in with a user-interface that's properly thought through and easy on the eye.

Recommended? Listen, you either get it or you don't. For me, once you've lived with a PVR (like Tivo, or Sky+, or one of these Freeview things), you can never go back. You just can't. It's too convenient and makes too much of an improvement to your telly viewing life. The hard drive will fail: it's bound to, but don't let that put you off.


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