Product Type: Topfield DVD recorders
Newest Review: ... 9300T PVR (see my separate review of this). And it was then that i realised the Topfield was far superior and am now considering buying one... more
The Topfield Is Top Of Its Field, IMHO
Member Name: Nibelung
Advantages: Twin tuners. USB port adds new dimension. Can run other add-on programmes and act as mp3 jukebox
Disadvantages: Like other PVRs, perhaps still not quite ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public
I’ve owned a PVR – that’s a personal video recorder (a generic term for a device that can record digital TV programmes to a hard disk) for several months now, and it has proved a boon. I’m not one to make claims like ‘it’s changed my life’ or even that ‘it’s changed the way I watch TV’, but it comes close to the latter. The machine in question was the excellent Humax 8000PVRT, designed solely for Freeview digital terrestrial TV, but since buying it, two things have happened. (I hope to write about the Humax one as soon as the category gets added)
a)I got fed up with paying £19.50/month to Sky, just for a load of dross intermingled with the free channels I can get elsewhere and
b)My TV’s started to become very troublesome, and any replacement I buy now is likely to be a flat screen monitor requiring ‘outboard’ tuners – something like mattygroves10’s 32” Sony perhaps. The Humax’s single tuner for Freeview would then be a limitation, especially as I’m now Sky-less, since I’ve either got to be not watching TV when I’m recording, OR watching the same channel.
To put the icing on the cake, I was using my Humax box to demonstrate Freeview at a friend’s house, and she was so enthralled not only with the extra gains over the ‘analogue big 5’, but with the Humax’s extra features that she started making noises along the lines of ‘let me know if you’re selling it’.
Therefore, with the safe backing of a market for the old gear, I set about looking for something a bit more flexible.
This next PVR was going to need two tuners, one for recording, and one for watching.
There are actually a few of these around; Pace, Thomson and Digifusion being a few names that spring to mind. However, anyone like me, with at least one ear to the various nerdy forums will have picked up that these are proving quite ‘buggy’, and the subject of frequent firmware updates.
One machine, which comes through all this with shining or perhaps just less-tarnished colours, having some bugs of its own, is the Topfield 5800PVR. Not a common household brand, but, like Humax, a name well known in Satellite Set-Top box circles (just not SKY set-top box circles though).
Doesn’t look very space age, does it; being built in a typical 70’s style silver box with a black acrylic front panel? For the best part of 300 smackers, I was expecting something a bit less ‘generic’ looking.
It’s about the same width as my old Sky box, so at least it’s not ‘full hi-fi size’.
However, it’s a far cry from the slim mirror-finished Humax, but I have to keep telling myself that it’s all for the best really.
Incidentally, there’s also a new ‘Black Panther’ version, for those that like their A/V equipment a little on the ‘dark side’ at the same price.
CONNECTING IT UP
Initially, this is much like a VCR. You run your aerial cable into it, and back out to the TV – there’s a slight complication that you also have add a (supplied) patch lead in to connect both tuners into the ‘daisy-chain’; not very tidy, but heh, it’s round the back!
At first I thought that maybe they could have embodied this patch connection within the body of the thing instead of this ‘amateurish’ lash-up, but there is a method in their untidy madness. Having a dedicated input to each tuner allows those living in a poor signal strength area to apply an amplifier and splitter to their aerial feed, and then supply each tuner with its own cable of equal signal strength. If you’re in a strong area, then the slightly degraded signal reaching the 2nd tuner is of no consequence.
The rear panel has a daunting array of other connections. There are two SCART sockets, one for the TV and one for a VCR. The VCR socket can also ‘pass-through’ a signal, say from a Sky box, which is a boon if your TV’s only got one SCART socket.
For TVs without any SCART lead, the Topfield can recreate a TV frequency signal (RF output), to which you then tune the TVs next spare channel. Fortunately, such TVs are becoming a dying breed, as you lose out heavily on picture quality let alone the stereo sound if this is the only link you have.
There’s also an s-video socket, most likely used by those that channel everything through an A/V amplifier, or home cinema set-up.
Sound is taken care of in one of three ways. Firstly, the SCART sockets carry it in stereo, then you’ve got two conventional ‘phono’ plugs also for analogue stereo, and finally, there’s a digital optical output for connection to a home cinema amplifier. If Dolby Digital 5.1 ever comes to terrestrial TV, this box is ready for it – it’s just that I doubt it’ll ever happen.
More interestingly, there’s also a USB 2.0 and 9-pin serial port, “affording”, as Gerald Hoffnung once said, “delightful prospects”, more of which later.
It’s difficult for me to be specific about the set-up method, since it depends largely to what you connect it. However, once you’ve got some kind of picture emanating from the Topfield, you’re ready to set it up via its menus. First up comes tuning – naturally. Suffice it to say that scanning for channels works like a charm, especially if you are confident that the digital TV signal strength was already up to standard. Do check your postcode on the Freeview web-site before embarking from scratch, or at least check if your neighbours are receiving it OK (or get a mug to bring their kit round, feigning interest in buying it from them!).
During installation, you get the chance to set the output of the TV SCART to either ‘Composite, ‘S-Video’ or ‘RGB’, the latter being a split of the three colours (red, green and blue), which is a sizeable improvement using six wires compared to ‘Composite’s’ mere two, and S-Video’s four wires. Basically, you find out what’s the best picture standard that your TV will stand and set it to that.
Sadly, the output to the VCR SCART is limited to Composite, since not many VCRs can accept anything better, which is a shame because my Panasonic DVD recorder, which serves as a VCR-replacement can!.
WHAT CAN IT DO?
Well, for a start, there are those twin tuners, which can be used to record two programmes simultaneously, or record one and watch another, or watch two as a ‘picture-in-picture’ arrangement. Under rarer circumstances, it can even record two programmes and STILL let you watch another.
Sounds impossible? Well, consider that one of the main reasons for launching digital terrestrial television was to multiplex several TV stations down one radio frequency, unlike the one-to-one arrangements for analogue. It therefore follows, for example that stations like BBC1 and BBC2 are part of the same multiplex using the same radio frequency.
Let’s say you set a timer to record BBC1 from 8.00 pm to 9.00 pm, and BBC2 from 8.30 pm to 9.30 pm, whilst watching ITV. Under normal timer-setting rules, you’d be warned of a clash, but the ‘Toppy’ spots the fact that it really only needs to record the BBC’s main multiplex from 8.00 pm to 9.30 pm and gets on with it, using only one tuner. This leaves you free to watch any other channel at the same time, but it’s a bonus – don’t expect a third option every time you’re making two simultaneous recordings.
On playback, the recorded programmes are still shown listed separately.
Something else the Toppy can do which many other ‘Freeview’ PVRs can’t, is to receive TopUpTV; the added-on pay channels. Ever the pessimist, I assumed that each tuner would need its own subscription card, but no.
Having lost E4 to Freeview, I wasn’t sure whether there’s really anything I’d want on TopUpTV, but as an experiment, I’ve taken it on; the advantage it has over Sky is that you’re only tied into a month-by-month contract, with no minimum period, other than a month of course. Anyway, I quite like having access to Discovery Channel* and the likes of UKGold. Oh yes, and it’s £12/month cheaper!
The subscription card only gets used either when you are
a) actually watching a TUTV channel live, or
b) when playing back a recording of a TUTV programme
Since you’re not likely to try playing back two TUTV recordings at once, you only need the one smart card installed. Therefore, there’s nothing to stop you recording two TUTV channels at once despite only having paid the one subscription. – it’s how many you’re watching that counts.
*(Yes, why is it that every time I’ve tuned into cable in a US motel room Discovery Channel is having ‘Shark Week’?
LEARNING CURVES, AND ALL THAT
Compared to the single tuner Humax, which merely ‘did what it said on the tin’, the twin tuners add a new dimension, not only in flexibility, but also in how much you need to get to grips with. To be honest, the manual is not of the best, despite its 69 pages, all in English (well, sort of!), and to a certain extent, I’m glad I already knew what a PVR was.
At least then I knew there were channels to be tuned and hard drives to format. The other problem with the manual, is that it was not sufficiently up to date to embody the latest features from the last firmware upgrade, like the sleep timer, hence the need to find a web forum and read it. View it more like a draft discussion document rather than a bible.
WHAT ELSE CAN IT DO? AH, YES, THAT USB CONNECTION
As well as recording directly from Freeview (and TUTV), (oh yes, and don’t forget digital radio) it can be used as an MP3 music ‘jukebox’. That’s one of the reasons for the USB connection. From various sites, including my supplier, www.turbosat.com, you can download a transfer utility called Altair which looks like a twin version of Windows Explorer, from whence you can drag’n’drop files, into the Toppy’s own hard drive.
With 160 gigabytes of disk space to play with, nominally giving 80 hours TV, I’m sure I could spare some disk space to put ‘ripped’ versions of my compilation CDs on there, thereby freeing up yet more lounge space. You navigate your mp3 music files using the same ‘archive’ screen as you do for your recorded TV programmes – you just shift to another directory first.
At this stage, the Toppy is starting to feel more like a highly specialised PC than a TV tuner, especially since it’s unique amongst PVRs in being able to run ‘TAPs’, which are ‘third party applications’ designed for the Topfield.
What this really means is that, if you’re tired of the existing Electronic Programme Guide* and its format, a jolly nice German lad called Jag has written a new one, with the additional feature of adding in 5 minutes at start and finish of programmes, so you don’t miss anything if the news puts everything back a few minutes.
*(EPG – the 7-day table of coming events that you use to set up the timer)
If you think that’s a bit extreme, then someone else has written a timer extender that works with the Topfield’s original EPG, and I’ve plumped for this since it’s all I wanted to add to the existing features.
There’s a whole army of nerds out there, tweaking and improving on the basic software, and the fruits of their labour are mostly free.
Another use for the USB port is to transfer TV recordings to a PC, from where they can be edited (deleting commercials etc) before converting to a DVD for archive purposes. That of course presupposes that you can find anything you want to keep!
ISN’T IT NOISY?
No, since they moved over to using Samsung Spinpoint hard-drives, recognised as exceptionally quiet, it is VERY quiet, and there’s no PC-style fan either. In any case, you can even opt to turn the hard-drive off unless it’s recording or playing back, but then you lose the ability to pause live TV.
PAUSE LIVE TV?
Yes, honest. By running the hard disk full time, the machine builds up a buffer of what you’ve been watching for up to an hour on any one channel. Not only can you pause live TV (whilst you fend off yet wrong number) but you can also rewind live TV back to when you switched on, subject to the one hour maximum. Having ‘rewound’ back to the beginning of your programme, you can even make it into a permanent recording by hitting the record button. I find the pause facility really convenient especially when watching commercial channels. I let them run on ahead whilst I pause the machine for about 15 minutes, giving me time to do other ‘stuff’. Then I play it back, zapping the ads at 6x normal speed as I go. Sorry ITV.
This machine will also do a fast-reverse AND several speeds of ‘SLO-MO’.
WATCHING LIVE TV – Change channels in the normal way. Like all freeview boxes, a useful ‘i’ button gives extended information on what you’re watching and to what’s on next. You can run a Picture-In-Picture of your last and current channels, moving the minor picture around the screen. You can then swap the status of major and minor pictures.
MAKING A TIMED RECORDING – Select ‘Guide’ on the remote control. Scroll down the on-screen display and click on the desired programme with the ‘record’ button. You can alter the attributes of the recording later, to make it ‘Daily’, ‘Weekly’, ‘Every Weekday’, or ‘Weekends Only’. This ensures that programmes ahead of the 7-day schedule are captured. Ideal for when you’re on holiday for 2 weeks. You have to remember to cancel this later, especially if recording an entire 3-part mini-series, as it will continue after the series is over, making recordings of something you’ve never heard of, confusing you in the process. The only thing missing from this process that Sky does better is the ability to add a ‘serial link’ which dies along with the last timer episode, thereby obviating the need to cancel anything. The other problem is that we set up most of the recent modern versions of Shakespeare to record on a weekly basis, only to have them all labelled “Macbeth, Macbeth1, Macbeth2 etc ” just because that’s the first one we set up, but that wouldn’t happen often.
WATCHING RECORDINGS – Easy-peasy. Press the ‘Archive’ button and choose your programme from the list. Then use the ‘transport’ keys in much the same way you would for a VCR on playback. Playback quality is identical to live, thanks to the fact that it merely records the digital format off the air. Playback can also continue whilst recordings are currently being made, in fact you can even start playing back a recording that’s not yet finished – how’s that for impatient?
RADIO – At last, you get something with which to schedule radio recordings, in the same way, using the EPG. Needless to say, playback quality is superb, and if I read it right, higher quality than actual DAB. Unfortunately, you only get what’s available from your fixed position, unlike DAB portable radios.
THOSE BUGS? – Personally, I’ve not come across them. It was reputed that the Toppy would make the odd silent recording, or no recording at all, but it’s not happened to me in several week’s extensive use of the timer. Maybe having glitch-free reception is the key, plus making sure that it was delivered with the latest firmware upgrade, which it was.
Like its predecessor, the Humax, Topfield is not a High Street name; well known in satellite hardware circles but not in Dixons. The Humax is now available in John Lewis and some Dixons but Topfield remains staunchly a specialist product. They have one official importer in Britain, www.turbosat.com, although other web-based retailers like Unbeatable also sell it, as a perusal of Kelkoo will show.
I can’t help feeling that with such a fistful of features, and with other twin-tuner PVRs getting such bad press, that it’s only a matter of time before it starts to sell in larger quantities.
Turbosat gave practically return-of-post service, and they remain the best place to find the latest software upgrades.
You may find the odd reduction here and there, but prepare to part with nearly £300 including carriage. Of course, if you feel that your next move will be into LCD/Plasma flat screen monitors, then the Topfield could be the kiddie to satisfy all your digital terrestrial TV tuner needs.
You do need a good signal strength, preferably one that doesn’t fluctuate – it wasn’t for nothing that the now-defunct OnDigital was offering £40 aerial upgrades to those who had fallen for the ‘digital TV through an aerial’ routine, although you’ll note they never said ‘through YOUR aerial’. Mine had been upgraded during this era, so I can reliably get 75% signal strength and 100% picture quality (both of these are shown in the information box that flashes up whenever you change channels). Personally I’d be more worried about the lack of 100% picture quality, as the tuners display some forbearance with the signal strength. You may get lucky, and have no problems, but don’t just assume that because the Freeview postcode checker says it will all be OK, that it’ll work flawlessly straight out of the box.
There again, don’t just give up either. My old machine, now happily installed at my friends house wasn’t too promising on day one (isn’t that always the case when you’re trying to sell something?). However, I remade all her aerial connections for her, one of which was decidedly loose, and jacked up the signal strength by about 10% in the process. It’s very easy to neglect decent aerial connections, both when making them, and probably when dusting too.
To get full advantage from the Toppy and its USB port, you need to bring it to a PC, or, if a laptop is available, the PC to the Toppy. This enables you to update not only its software in advance of any ‘over-the-air’ updates which are timetabled along with those for every other set-top-box maker, but to add ‘TAPs’, and download MP3 music files.
I’ve found, after a rush of euphoria to load every TAP in sight, that the ‘Timer Extender’, ‘QuickJump’ and ‘Power’ TAPs were all I want. Timer Extender has enabled me to set a one minute ‘underlap’ and a five minute overlap to all my timer recordings. QuickJump allows me to specify the length of forward jumps on playback, which is very useful for vaulting over the commercials in one go, rather than using any fast-forward function, and the Power TAP lets me turn off the machine at 2.00 am even if I forget, or use it manually during an automated recording that’s going to continue long after I’ve gone to bed.
TAPs are easy to enable or disable via your laptop, by moving them to and from the Toppy’s ‘Autostart’ directory just as you might in Windows Explorer.
Basically, anything but the official manual, which is truly awful.
Try the forum at www.toppy.org.uk – this is a great source of ‘newbie’ Q&A, plus links to downloading TAPs, you’ll even see the progress of one Chris Green there, although modesty prevents me from saying who that really is.
When the time comes to actually buy one, I found www.turbosat.com second to none both in speed of delivery and for the comprehensive manner of their web-site. They may not be the absolute in cheapness, but there’s not a lot in it.
Glad I bought it? Yes, unreservedly. In addition to all its little tricks thanks to the twin tuners, it has enabled me to rethink my hi-fi rack. Combined with the ousting of the Sky box, I’m now down to a 5-channel amplifier, the Toppy and my DVD recorder, which also doubles as my DVD and CD players. The VCR got given the boot last year.
Picture quality is excellent, the features are too many to shake a stick at and it’s whisper-quiet.
Top notch, Topfield.
Summary: Twin tuners and TopUpTV ready. Large hard disk. Fairly easy to use.
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