Preparing for the digital handover: the best of the set-top boxes

It all started off with a trial in the small Welsh communities of Ferryside and Llansteffan. 500 properties switched over to digital television in 2005, way before anyone else did, as part of a Government trial. Next was the Copeland area in the Borders in 2007. And now in 2010, BBC One and Two, ITV, Channel Four and five are systematically being dumped from the analogue airwaves as the Digital Switchover really starts to take a grip across the UK.

There’s a whole host of digital television set-top boxes out there to buy if you’ve never made the digital TV leap yet – but if you fancy something a little different, there’s also a load of other digital avenues to investigate.

Boxee-Box

There’s a host of HTPCs around – Home Theatre PCs – or integrated digital TVs too, but are these about to sound a death knell for the more traditional set-top box? LatestGadgets decided to look at some set-top boxes on the market and ponders if they’re about to become obsolete in the face of more upmarket and deviant forms of digital television.

1. Philips DTR220 Freeview Set-Top Box – With a guide price of £35, this set-top box is digital television at a modest price and perfect for those on analogue television needing to make the transition to digital.

2. Alba ALDTR160 Freeview+ recorder (guide price £70) – Taking the next step up, Freeview+ draws inspiration from Tivo and Sky+ and allows you to record digital televison. It’s got a 160GB hard drive, equating to 80 hours of material, so recording your episodes of Coronation St. hasn’t quite been so easy.

3. Sky+ HD – You can now pick up Sky+ boxes relatively cheaply if you’re about to join Sky – or if you’re an existing customer – so there hasn’t really been a better time to delve into satellite television. And with HD functionality too, super-sharp image quality is one of this box’s more redeeming features.

4. Sony Bravia KDL46EX503U (£996.55 on Amazon) – Splash out with the 46-inch Sony Bravia TV with built in Freeview HD. It’s got all the mod-cons – like WiFi and Internet Video capabilities – and of course, integrated Freeview HD. Freeview has never quite been so luxurious.

5. Boxee Box – Boxee is a novel concept – a free computer program allowing you to collate videos from your computer and the Internet, pulling content from a number of outside sources too, such as YouTube and Last.fm. D-Link have made the soon-to-be-released Boxee Box, a sleek looking box which removed the PC from the Boxee equation, allowing you to watch content from the Internet or your hard drive. It’s similar to Home Theater PCs, but is designed for the living room.

Panasonic high definition DVD recorder for Freeview+HD: ideal for the World Cup

Them at Panasonic have pre-empted Freeview HD being rolled out across the country by releasing an absolutely marvellous bit of kit in the DMR-XW380. Seemingly a cross between Sky Plus and a DVD player, this brand new gizmo will enable you to record programs from Freeview HD channels onto its hard drive and then, if you wish, transfer that onto a DVD with the quality of picture not being compromised. Reviews of the clarity of the picture once it’s transferred have been unanimously positive, with the grandly named High Definition Chroma Processer seemingly ensuring lines stay crisp and edges sharp.

Panasonic-Freeview-HD-recorders

Often the problem with these kind of digital TV recording facilities is that if you are recording something you cannot watch another channel (which, to these eyes, seems to slightly negate the point of the whole thing, but lets not get bogged down in that eh?). Thankfully the DMR-XW380 has swerved this whole problem marvellously by not just allowing you to watch another digital channel, but allowing you to record another digital channel. Oh, praise be to God in the Highest! What a stunning development this is. For football fans already salivating at the prospect of a month of ignoring their other half and garnering another excuse to drink beer during the World Cup, this means the whole experience can be lengthened. Two games on at the same time? Not a problem mon frère! Watch one (record if its England), watch the other straight after. If you think about it logically, taking into account half-time and pre/post match reflection this would enable you to avoid any kind of meaningful, non-football related conversation for at least four and a half hours. That’s more or less an evening for most people, which enables them to skip all that mucky, soulless hows-your-day smalltalk, and get right down to the good stuff before the bliss of boozy slumber.

Of course, the plus points don’t just finish here. Any Sky Plus fan worth their salt will rhapsodise at length about the innocent joy of being able to pause live TV. If they don’t they’re probably lying about having it in some cock-eyed attempt to be ‘cool’ and in fact run away screaming to Mummys breast any time ‘people start coming out of that little black box. ’ Well, the DMR-XW380 has this capability in the form of its cryptically named Rewind Live TV function, which will enable you to rewind over two hours back to the scene of your choosing (no jumpy Body Of Evidence shots for the next generation of UK teenagers).

It’s all delivered in Dolby Digital/Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 channel surround sound and users can, if they wish, use subtitles on all recordings. There’s also a bevy of extra features- you can upload images and movies from your digital camera, you can use it to watch videos on sites like Youtube. One particularly snazzy snippet is its DLNA server functionality which enables you to connect it to compatible devices in other rooms, so even the most unfriendly of house-sharers can bear the fruits of their work at Panasonic HQ.

It would seem the only sticking point is the price- £550. It seems an awful lot especially when you know it’ll be half that in a couple years. Of course that’s not really the point-the sort of person that really desires these functions now won’t give two bananas about the price. And for them, it seems, the DMR-XW380 will be nothing but a Godsend.

The DMR-BW880EBK and BW780EBK Freeview+HD Blu-ray Disc™ Recorders are also available and feature in the lovely picture above.