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My relatives got one of these hard disk recorders a while ago and having seen theirs it seemed like a good idea - it lets you record and store recordings from the TV to watch at your convenience. As it's also effectively a Freeview receiver box, as well as terrestrial TV, you can record any of the Freeview channels that you can pick up on it.
So we got our in January 2009, from Curry's electrical store. Apart from knowing we wanted to spend under £150 on it (preferably less) we weren't sure what to look for or expect from this kind of gadget, but the salesperson assured us that he 'had one just like at home and it's brilliant' (yes, well, of course he does). We were mainly concerned at this time with recording capacity and quality - it has a 160GB hard disc whatever that means - but in practice that's been more than adequate. At well over 100 TV hours recorded, it's pretty good in fact. The recording quality is excellent, with picture and sound quality just as good as we expect to get on our TV and as it all saves to hard drive, there is no deterioration in quality - as for example you'd get reusing VHS video tapes for recording repeatedly.
You get all your usual Freeview channels coming in via this box - so this replaces the old set-top box. It's a bit of a leap of faith trying to tune it in initially - especially as ours failed to find any channels the first time round - but this is an automatic process which we set to start again, with much greater success. The handset that comes with it - though which you change channel as well as do all your recording set ups, etc, is pretty straightforward to operate. Recordings are easy to delete once you've viewed them, or alternatively can be kept indefinitely - there is apparently a 'library' function on the machine where you squirrel away episodes of your favourite TV show in a separate folder for posterity etc. (though we've not yet managed to work out how to access this function).
You can quickly and easily amass a vast library of recordings on the HDD - these can be sorted by date or alphabetically, but it's a slightly tiresome list to sort through either way, if there's something on there you recorded early on that you want to keep. Ours for example has 'Shreks' 1 &2, the first Ice Age movie and Disney's 'Hunchback of Notredame' all on there as permanent 'keepers' for the sprog - so that's saved us a bit in DVD purchases already.
On the whole we're happy with our purchase, but it does have a few annoying idiosyncrasies that we've noticed. Firstly, the speed of operation. As the hard disc fills up (this is handily indicated by a bar at the bottom of the menu, which shows the amount of free disc space in green, vs. in red, the amount tied up with previous recordings), the system seems to operate more and more slowly - although to be honest, it was fairly slow to begin with. Sorting through the TV Guide function - which lets you see what's on on different channels throughout the day, and notionally later on in the week, works so incredibly slowly that in practice we never use it to find out TV schedules more than a few hours in advance of where we already are. Setting the timers to record a whole series is also quite a slow process but worthwhile; the system 'remembers' to record programmes irrespective of any daily or weekly changes in the TV schedule (I suppose for this to work some sort of signal must be broadcast whenever the programme of interest begins / ends). This is probably old hat for people who had programmable video recorders before the switch to DVD, but it's very handy nonetheless.
The slow operation of this recorder is also a pain when you try to 'instantaneously' record a programme that's already started, as it takes so long for the system to recognise that it should begin recording, that invariably you think something's gone wrong, press the 'record' button again and of course as that works as a command to 'delete' the original request to record, you then have to begin trying to record all over again. Other problems we've had are that quite often if one channel has been on for a while without being changed, the whole system seizes up entirely so you can't change channel at all - this usually happens to us about once a day. The same thing also often occurs when you attempt to record two programmes simultaneously - though you can't change channels when two are being recorded at once, the two-channel-record facility is actually a rather good feature of this system. If the HDD seizes up it has to be rebooted but switching it off and on again at the mains, and this can be surprisingly time consuming.
In addition, the Freeview signal is also distorted by engine vibrations from passing motorbikes in the street (a recognised problem with Freeview, this), and also something bizarre happens whenever we try to record a Freeview channel that has a 'plus one' option - such as Channel 4. If you're recording something on Channel 4, when one hour later the same programme starts on Channel 4 Plus 1, the recorder occasionally (though infuriatingly, for some reason not always) stops the original Channel 4 recording and starts recording the Plus 1 option - and this wouldn't be such a problem, but more often than not it doesn't then record the WHOLE programme on Plus 1 - I assume because, when the signal that the original programme has finished is broadcast (there is a bit of leeway in the system so often this doesn't happen till perhaps 4 or 5 minute after the actual end of the programme), the Plus 1 recording recognises that as a signal that it should stop too. We tried to get round this by only ever recording on Plus 1 channels, but in that case, the signal that tells the recorder to stop recording the one hour previous version still works to stop the recording on Plus 1, so that if, say, you've set up a one-hour programme such as 'Shameless,' airing from 10-11pm, to record on Channel 4 Plus 1, it starts up at 10 all right, but then stops about 4 minutes later, when the signal that the earlier Channel 4 version of the show showing from 9-10pm has finished its broadcast.
This is infuriating, but not something to which I can see an easy solution.
I'm not sure how long this type of gadget has been about, but it seems from what I've seen as if the technology is still in quite an early stage - at least for the lower end versions such as we've bought. I've no doubt the slowness and glitches in operation of the HDD, which are the main problems we've had with the machine will soon be sorted out and won't affect later models. Despite it's undoubtedly annoying idiosyncrasies I wouldn't be without the HDD now we've got it, but if I knew what to look for when we were buying it, I'd have asked the right questions and picked a slightly better one, even if it cost a bit more than we paid for it.