The current crop of models bears little resemblance to those of a decade ago. The best are now hybrids which combine local recording with the ability to stream catch-up services from the main broadcasters – a convenient arrangement which gives you access to all the non-subscription services from a single remote control.
For most of us, the default receiving platform these days is Freeview. Everyone can receive it via a normal aerial – although viewers who get their signal from one of the smaller transmitters will see fewer channels – and it’s where the main developments in recording technology have taken place.
The principal one is Freeview Play, an extension of Freeview itself which consists of an electronic programme guide that lets you search backwards as well as forwards, to find programmes you want to watch or have just missed. If you’re buying a new recorder, this is the feature you want to have.
Your smart TV may already have it but it won’t have a hard disc recorder, and it’s the combination of the two that’s so convenient.
Freeview Play recorders work by connecting to your aerial and your wi-fi and mixing content from both sources almost seamlessly. Manhattan and Humax lead the market in the production of these boxes for the UK market and while they’re both good, Manhattan currently has the edge.
Its current flagship model, the T3-R, stands alone in letting you “record” programmes on catch-up services like the iPlayer and have them listed alongside those you have taped in the normal way. It does this by letting you search across BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and other streaming services in a single action, and then flagging anything you want to watch later. There is no need to visit each service separately.
The interface is a model of simplicity. You can stream compatible programmes from YouTube and the iPlayer in ultra-high definition and navigate between live TV and recordings intuitively. And so long as you stick to free programming, you need never use any of your other boxes.
The TR-3 costs £170 with a 500MB hard disc – that’s enough for around 300 hours of programming – and a larger, 1TB model is also available.
The Humax FVP-5000T, at around £10 more is a similar proposition. It lacks the ability to flag catch-up programmes for later viewing but gains an extra tuner, meaning you can record four programmes at once, instead of two. But its interface is noticeably slower and more laggy than the Manhattan – and that’s a drawback that can quickly become tiresome.
Humax also makes the £220 Aura recorder, which has built-in Android TV and Chromecast, as well as Freeview Play – and, unlike its cheaper sibling, it can stream in ultra-high def. The chief benefit here is the companion phone app, which you can use to programme the recorder and stream programmes to and from it.
The drawback with all these machines is that none includes a complete set of subscription apps for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Now TV and the like. So if you use any of these services, you will still need your existing streaming device or the apps built into your TV.
But the point of a Freeview Play recorder is to consolidate all the free-to-air channels and online services in a single place, and if that’s mostly what you watch, one of these boxes should see you comfortably through the next few years.
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