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Nikkai Barebone Twin-Tuner Freeview PVR

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1 Review

Manufacturer: Nikkai / Remote Included

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    1 Review
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      17.06.2008 17:31
      Very helpful



      Cheap twin tuner Freeview hard disk recorder

      The Nikkai "Barebone" Freeview PVR (Personal Video Recorder) marketed more or less exclusively by Maplin is unique, in the same way that part-baked bread is unique. You know the stuff - baguettes purporting to be made from French dough, which just need popping into the oven, giving a semblance of 'fresh-bakedness' about them.

      Most PVRs work after a fashion more like a cut loaf, i.e. straight out of the box.

      Not so the Nikkai Barebone.

      Yes, it has the requisite twin Freeview tuners to allow it to record one programme whilst you watch another, but no, it has nowhere to store the recordings.....yet.

      It's not called "Barebone" for nothing.

      You, see, it has no hard drive, so calling it a PVR straight from the box is a bit of a misnomer, some might say economical with the truth.

      The Maplin blurb makes a great thing out of how easy it is to stick 'almost any old' disk drive in it, and indeed anyone trying it will be forced to agree. It's even suggested that a disk drive sitting around spare after the upgrade of a PC can be used.

      There are arguments both for and against this approach.

      On the plus side, there's economy and the ability to make yet more use of redundant PC technology before it eventually finds its way to the ti.....errrr.....civic amenity.

      However, if a hard drive is spare, it's probably because it wasn't big enough for the PC user's current needs. Likewise it probably won't be big enough to record much either.

      For example, by rule of thumb, one gigabyte of capacity gets you just over 30 minutes of recording space. It's difficult to be specific, since radio programmes take up bugger-all space and low-rent channels like Community or Price-Drop use less than a mainstream widescreen channel like BBC1.

      Hence a spare 40 gigabyte job, typical of the sort of drive that a PC user may have outgrown, could be good for around 25 hours of TV or a year's worth of the Archers thereby making you the world's leading expert on Common Agricultural Policy, inter-racial marriages and organo-phosphate sheep-dips before one of two things happens.

      1. You're forced to actually start watching/listening to some of it, with a view to erasing it afterwards or
      2. You just stop recording and take up something constructive like making rude anagrams with Heinz Alphabeti Spaghetti ®.
      This will probably lead the buyer down the route of putting a new hard disk inside, say 160 gbytes costing £40.

      Now we're up to the same specification as those low-end PVRs from 'Tescasdaldidl' and unfortunately, around about the same price!

      There are two solutions, if you really want a really cheap PVR.

      a) Go out and BUY one from Tescasdaldidl or

      b) Look for a cheaper source of Nikkai Barebone and use a 2nd hand disk

      Now then, if you DO actually manage NOT to pay Maplin's normal RRP of £60, (I paid £40) and you HAVE got a genuinely spare hard drive this really is quite a good deal, and as I said before, if you've a screwdriver or hands you can make one. Just think - in ten minutes, you'll be able to say in true Blue Peter spirit "....and here's one I built earlier".

      Whether anyone within listening distance gives a toss is another matter.


      For those that want something 'straight out of the box', read no further - I'm about to embark on something that will make you glaze over or sound the "Nerd Raid Warning" alarm.

      Well for a start, there's no real point to operating the Barebone's two Freeview tuners without a hard drive, since at this point, it's just a set-top box and your TV can only be connected to one tuner at a time, so it makes sense to dive straight in and fit that hard drive, assuming that you've not been totally enthralled by making naughty words in pasta by now, thus ensuring that you'll never be asked back as the entertainer at your little niece's birthday party......or gone dipping sheep, a crime only slightly less heinous than muffin the mule.

      The drive can be any full size (not laptop) IDE-type, now also known as PATA (not SATA), up to 500 gbytes.

      This presents a minor problem.

      Most new hard drives intended for a PC now spin a lot faster than they used to with an ensuing increase in noise levels - 7200 rpm compared to 5400 rpm.

      It's important to read around the subject and buy one that's acknowledged to be quieter than the rest. Samsung Spinpoint disks spring to mind from my experience with another brand of PVR, which by some strange quirk of fate is exactly the make of spare drive I used.

      Alternatively, seek out a disk drive that claims to be made for 'Consumer Electronics' i.e. in a PVR. These spin slower and whine less, but thanks to the fact that they don't do such stringent error checking, can still transfer data to and from the disk at a rate higher than is needed, therefore, you won't get any loss of continuity on recording or playback.

      You're not so likely to find a 2nd hand one of these though.

      Fitting the disk is easy. Make sure its little 'jumper' (a plastic tab at the business end) is in the right place to be a 'master drive' - they are usually set like this to begin with. If not refer to the diagram sticker on the drive.

      There are two variants of the Barebone machine. The older has a metal plate underneath to which you screw the drive and then refit the plate with screws. The latter has a bay for the drive on top of which you press home the plastic lid and slide it to lock it

      Connect an aerial to it, a SCART lead from it to your TV, plug in and turn on.

      Now the fun begins. Every time the Barebone spots a drive that isn't already in the correct format, it's easy to format it.

      Just let it - ah g'waan, g'waan, ya know ya want to!

      It would appear that in my case at least, the disk must have been the requisite format in the first place as the Nikkai 'adopted' it without comment.

      To connect the two tuners together, Nikkai have opted for a rather 'Heath Robinson' short jumper cable at the back. There's a method in their madness though. If you live in a marginal reception area, it may be that the second tuner will find its signal partially degraded by tuner one getting first 'dibs'. To alleviate this, you can remove the jumper cable and feed each tuner with its own amplified aerial lead. In a strong reception area, this doesn't matter and any slight loss of signal strength at the second tuner goes unnoticed

      Rear connections are limited to two SCART sockets, one to feed a TV with either a Composite or RGB quality signal, and the other is for connecting to a VCR or for allowing another device, let's say a DVD player to 'pass through' on its way to the TV. This is jolly useful if your TV only has one SCART socket.

      The only sound outlet is a single digital 'co-ax' for use with a Dolby Digital Home Cinema set-up.

      I've now set up the same Barebone PVR in the London area and in Swanage, and on both occasions all available channels were pulled in loud and clear, and picture quality was excellent - well, once you've set the SCART lead to 'RGB' it is. RGB (Red Green Blue) uses a superior six wire set-up to transmit the picture to the TV, not two as in the alternative 'Composite' setting. Only use the latter if your TV can't handle RGB via its SCART input.

      If your TV is so old it doesn't have a SCART socket, then the digital switch over is going to cause you more problems than buying this set top box will solve.

      USING IT

      Well, it was never going to be as good as a market leader like the Humax 9200T or Topfield 5800, but as long as you keep repeating the "It's only 40 quid" mantra, you'll feel better.

      One of the supposed attractions of a PVR, be it a Sky+ box or a Freeview equivalent is its ability to allow rapid programming of timers, using an Electronic Programme Guide or EPG. Basically you scroll down and along a list of up to 7 day's worth of programmes and 'cherry pick' them for recording.

      That's the theory - in practice, the Barebone's EPG seems to take an age to 'populate' before you can start choosing what to record.

      There are two ways round this:-

      1. Wait until you can, or
      2. Make a manual timer, which is easy enough, but a bit of a return to VCR 'pre-VideoPlus' days.

      You'll quite often find when assessing a new bit of kit that it at least does ONE function better than everyone else's offering, but the Barebone is at least consistent in that it does everything to specification but no further.

      For example, it's strictly a 'one tuner for watching, one for recording' job. There's to be no recording of two programmes simultaneously unlike my Topfield, which even lets me play something else back at the same time, or even watch a third channel from a somewhat truncated list.

      The list of timers does actually name the programme names, so there's no trying to remember what the hell 'Channel 4, 15/05/08, 21:00' was supposed to be.

      However, this fit of helpfulness isn't carried over into the list of recordings already made, leaving you with a lucky dip of viewing pleasure, usually just after the recyclers have taken last week's Radio Times away! (It fair makes you nostalgic for a VCR, doesn't it?)

      Time to chant that '40 quid' mantra again!

      The instruction manual, all 11 pages of it was poor, with only the means to change the various options listed, and no explanation of why you'd want to.

      For example, it tells you how to toggle the 'Time Shift facility' on and off without telling you what it is, or the pros and cons of turning it off. As it happens, turning it off means that you can't 'pause live TV' any more, so you may wonder why you'd want if turned off.

      Well turning it off means that the hard drive isn't required full-time and the whole box falls silent and runs cooler, that's why, but I only knew that because my brace of Topfield boxes have the same facility.


      On the whole, the Nikkai Barebone does do what it says it does, but that's mainly because it doesn't say that it does much.

      Yes, it'll get you Freeview, and yes, it'll let you record one thing whilst watching another, so the facility afforded by a VCR and an analogue TV is maintained (a lot of people forget that merely buying a digital set-top box only allows you to WATCH a digital channel).

      If you can get it for forty smackers (or even less - see e-Bay) and you've a spare disk knocking around, it's worth the money.

      Initially, I offered to build one for a friend as I'd got a couple of 40-gig drives lying around, and now I find myself getting a second one as a 'knock-about' machine that we'll take to the various cottage rents which are forming a greater proportion of our holidays these days. Even if the Freeview reception is non-existent when we get there, at least I can pre-load it with movies from Film Four whilst at home and wait for the weather to rain on our parade.

      If you find yourself having to buy a disk, forget it. There are plenty of low-end specification machines for about the same total cost, and at least the warranty covers the whole machine, not just the new bits!


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    • Product Details

      Install a new or used hard drive up to 500GB capacity for 250 recording hours. Watch one channel and record another. Pause live TV and use scheduled recording. 7-day Electronic Programme Guide. Compatible with most IDE hard disk drive.

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