PVR set-top TV tuners overview

Jan 30, 2011 No Comments by

Freeview, Freesat, Sky, Virgin and all that black box mallarkey…

Even though we still refer to external plug-in TV tuners as ‘set-top boxes’ today’s TVs are so thin as to make such balancing acts impossible.

Pedantic semantics aside, there’s still plenty of room for confusion when it comes to getting a decent choice of channels on your TV and that’s before we even scratch the shiny surface of Internet TV and other on-demand services such as catch-up players (BBC iPlayer, ITV Player etc) and video-streaming via services such as Netflix and Amazon‘s LoveFilm.  And then there’s YouView, more of which here.

By the end of 2012 analogue transmissions will cease and all TVs will need an integral digital tuner or an external digital tuner to receive TV channels.  The initial promise that a standard TV aerial would be sufficient to receive terrestrial digital TV turned out to be (mostly) bollocks.  So an aerial upgrade is usually required.  But it’s not and never has been necessary to junk your fat CRT (cathode ray tube) TV.  So unless you really want to, don’t.

The most basic choice of digital channels (a combination of TV and radio) is Freeview. Much of it is crap but if your life is given meaning by endless re-runs of Murder She Wrote or Columbo at least you’re stuck indoors and not cluttering up the real world. It’s worth remembering here that if you can’t get decent digital radio reception on a DAB radio, you might do better listening via the TV; bigger aerial.

In terms of hardware some definitions are useful:


Short for personal video recorder.  Records TV programmes onto a hard disc drive (HDD) inside the box.  May or may not also have one or two TV tuners built-in. Twin/dual tuners allow you to record two programmes at once.  Although if you’re also watching TV at the time you’ll have to either watch a previously recorded programme or one of the programmes being recorded.  Go for the biggest hard disc drive you can afford, especially if you’re recording in High-Definition (HD).  HD takes up much more space than standard definition (SD) because there’s more digital information in an HD picture.  Sky’s newest HD box has 1 terabyte (that’s 1,000 gigabytes) of storage and it can’t be long before the Freesat/Freeview crowd follow suit.  For them, 500 GB hard disc drives are becoming common.


Picks up digital TV and radio stations.  Might be built in to your TV; might be a separate box that connects between your aerial and your TV.  May or may not have the capacity to record – the cheaper the tuner, the less likely it is to have a record function.  Look for an ‘R’ in the name.  The Humax HD Fox T2 doesn’t record, the Humax HDR Fox T2 does.

So, options:

FREE TV        (once you’ve paid the licence fee…)


Multiple TV channels and radio stations transmitted digitally via a (sort-of) standard TV aerial.


High Definition version of Freeview.  Right now only BBC 1 HD, BBC HD, Channel 4 HD and ITV 1 HD are available on Freeview HD and then not across the entire UK.  There are, however, over 50 HD channels on Sky if you think £50+ a month a fair price to pay for seeing how spotty many actors really are.


Some far-flung yokels can’t get terrestrial Freeview.  For them, Freesat – Freeview beamed via satellite – is an answer.  Requires professional installation of dish and wiring (unless you’ve been subscribing to Practical Electronics for 50 years in the which case DIY installation may be possible).  Maplins sells a kit but remember Rod Hull before you get the ladder out. Emu has been an orphan since 1999.


HD version of Freesat.  As with Freeview HD only BBC1 HD, BBC HD ITV HD are available in HD on Freesat.  But you may be aware that Channels 4 and 5 both broadcast in HD and wonder why, therefore, these aren’t also on Freesat HD given that they are ‘terrestrial’ channels and so part of what you pay for with your TV licence fee.

If only TV life was so simple. Channel 4 HD is on Freeview HD but not Freesat HD (although it is due to join Freesat HD in April 2011). Channel 5 HD is currently only available on the Sky platform,


If you subscribe to Sky HD and have a Sky HD box but realise  in a fit of crazed austerity that a year’s subscription is equivalent to the average annual salary of a worker in, say, Nigeria or Mali and so, still crazed but now also guilty and remorseful, decide to cancel said subscription you will still be able to receive Channel 4 HD, Channel 5 HD and others.  Until recently ITV 1 HD wasn’t available on the Sky platform but now is and who knows if/when Channel 5 HD will debut on Freesat.  Men in suits.  Money. Arguments.  TF will let you know when things change.

One other weensy thing; there are some relatively cheap 1080p Full HD TV sets out there.  They are cheap because they don’t have built-in HD tuners.  Which is to say that, even though they may have a built-in tuner it will be a Freeview tuner, not a Freeview HD tuner, which means you’d still need to buy another, separate Freeview HD tuner to receive any HD TV channels.  Got that?



There are other options than just Sky and Virgin when it comes to pay-tv but why bother farting about with the untried and untested?  Chances are you’ll only regret it.  And Sky actually commissions programmes too rather than just showing how clever (or not) everyone else is.


Uncle Rupert has pretty much got the market cornered here.  Sure, there’s fibre-optic cable from Virgin and other stuff that crawls down your phone line but because these all rely on Sky’s co-operation for much of their premium programme content it’s easy to conclude that you’re better off cutting out any middle men and mortgaging your goggle-eyed soul to Sky.  Even at the top end, a package that costs £56 a month equates to £1.84 a day and good luck getting an unsubsidised pint for that.  In return you get lots of lovely footie and rugby and cricket – all in HD – and soon Mad Men too and lots of films and stuff.  And Discovery Shed with all its cars and motorbikes and fishing and power tools.  I mean; why go out?  Why do anything else?  Stay in, watch TV. Drink beer.  Burp, fart and scratch.  But most of all, be safe.  Sky can also furnish you with a broadband connection and packages that bundle phone/Internet together with TV are pretty good value.


A weird one.  In 2006 NTL and Telewest, who’d been trying (and failing) to flog cable TV to townies for ages, merged and re-emerged as Virgin Media. In the US cable is king.  In the UK it’s a pox-ridden peasant with aspirations.  The principle is fine: TV and all else digital is whizzed down a fibre-optic cable.  No issues with Sky’s infamous ‘no satellite signal is being received’ garbage which seems to occur whenever there’s weather.  And cable is fast.  In theory there’s no limit to the speed at which it delivers content which makes watching a movie, streamed from a big fat server, a much more reliable proposition than the 54mbps speed which seems to be standard for stuff that slouches along a copper cable via the Internet.  And it ends up nice and crispy on your TV rather than a blizzard of stuttering fuzz on a PC.  And like Sky, Virgin does broadband.  If you bundle it all together it should be much better value than paying for such services separately.  The permutations are complex and you commit for 12 months, so it’s worth doing some research.

So when all’s said and done, reviewing PVRs or set-top boxes, or whatever is fraught with complications.  If you don’t want to record, just want to watch whatever’s on and your TV doesn’t have a digital tuner built-in, a basic Freeview tuner such as the TVonics tk will do.  If you hanker after HD and are picky about what you watch and when, get a 1TB Sky+ HD box.  And that’s all before we’ve even scratched the surface of cave-dwellers who still record onto VHS tape or DVD.  If that’s you, just stop it; get something with a hard drive.  Get with the programme.