It is so convenient now to watch TV programmes that have been and gone, even if you didn’t record them, that many of us had started to wonder whether it was still necessary to have a recorder at all.
The manufacturers of such devices are clearly running scared of the threat from the iPlayer and its equivalents, and have begun to up their game with a slew of new models that bring a degree of flexibility none of us could have imagined in the era when last night’s telly existed on a VHS cassette or not at all.
The hard drive is the recording medium of choice is now, of course, and the best of today’s set-top boxes have discs big enough to accommodate a whole bookcase full of VHS tapes and to fill them up four programmes at a time.
The principle of home video recording remains as it was when Philips produced the first domestic recorders in the 1970s. They took the tuner from a regular TV, combined it with a timer and placed the whole unit between the aerial and the screen. It was thus possible to record what you were watching, record one channel while watching another, or record a programme while you were out, without the need to risk burning the house down by leaving the TV on.
The only difference now, other than those hard discs, is the addition of three extra tuners on boxes like the £190 Humax FVP-5000T. This is the Rolls-Royce of recorders, with half a gigabyte of high-definition recording space and built-in Netflix and YouTube, as well as the catch-up services of the BBC iPlayer and its equivalents.
You can also plug in a USB stick or connect wirelessly to other computers in your home to access video content stored there. And you can control it from an app on your phone, as well as the standard remote. That means you can schedule and watch recordings even when you’re out.
The FVP-5000T is based on the Freeview Play standard, which does a reasonable job of integrating broadcast and internet transmissions seamlessly. It is also to be found on many new TV sets and as such has pretty much replaced the similar YouView platform – although that continues to be used on TV packages provided by BT and others.
BT’s T2110 box is available as a standalone YouView receiver, and at £125 it’s the cheaper option. But if you already have a hard disc recorder and a smart TV, it’s unlikely to offer you anything extra.
Either of these boxes – the Humax especially – will be fine if you have access to the full range of Freeview channels. However, around one in seven of us do not, and because the spread is geographically uneven, the number includes virtually everyone in lower Wharfedale, Scarborough and several other pockets of Yorkshire.
For such viewers, Freesat offers more channels than Freeview. That’s because the signal is radiated from satellites and is unobstructed by inconvenient hills and similar topography. There are fewer channels on Freesat than in the full Freeview package but it does at least include Dave and its stablemates. It no longer includes Channel Four in high definition or the All4 catch-up service, though.
The best Freesat recorder is currently the Humax HDR-1100S, which is similar in price and in most other respects to its Freeview sibling except that it can record only two programmes at once.
If you pay for Sky or Virgin, you shouldn’t need any of these – a recorder is included in your subscription. If not, you can buy a box relatively secure in the knowledge that it may well be the last one you’ll ever need.