DIGITAL TV recorders are almost universal now, and represent a huge step change from those old VHS boxes we put up with in the Eighties and Nineties.
Fiddly timers have been replaced with neat on-screen menus, and there’s no need to spool through yards of tape to find the programme you want to watch.
Yet most of today’s boxes barely scratch the surface of what’s possible. They connect to just a single TV, making it difficult or impossible to watch your library of recorded programmes in another room. And most offer little or no connectivity to your computer to back up your recording schedules.
Even Sky, which sells multi-room packages for watching live channels on different sets, doesn’t facilitate sharing your recordings - and watching them on an iPad is completely out of the question. Virgin’s TiVo recorder is more connected than most, but also more expensive.
It has taken not a set-top box manufacturer but a group of users to show what can really be done. They have created their own software which installs on the box itself and makes it visible to other devices on your home network. This means it can stream recordings to an iPad, phone, PC or another suitably-equipped set-top box without affecting what is being watched on your main TV. It also means you can schedule new recordings from a PC, browse your existing library and move programmes around as if they were files on a computer - which, for practical purposes, they are.
What’s more, the software can check periodically for new programmes not yet in the schedule and email you when they appear.
All of this is made possible by the network socket on the back on the box. Manufacturers put it there “for future use” or, if you’re lucky, to access the BBC iPlayer on your TV. But your network is really your window to a wired world, and your TV recorder will serve you better if it’s on the inside looking out.
To see if your box can be customised in this way, check first that it has a network socket. If it does, search online for “customised firmware” for your make and model and see if you get lucky. If your box is one of the popular Humax models for either Freeview or Freesat, there’s every chance that you will.
Installing the replacement software is simply a matter of downloading it from the web, transferring it to a USB drive and plugging that into your set-top box. Afterwards, you won’t notice any difference on screen but you’ll be able to access your box on your other devices by typing its address into your browser. You’ll then see a home screen from which you can customize settings to your liking. Once done, you’ll see your library of recordings magically appear in Windows Media Player or on iPad apps like GPlayer.
If you already have a suitable set-top box, this extra functionality won’t cost you a penny - and you’ll have the best-connected premises this side of Television Centre.