Digital television got off to a shaky start here in Australia back at the start of the 21st century. But being the early adopters of tech that we Aussies are, it made its way into homes quickly and painlessly. After all, it was hard to resist the lure of perfect picture quality – no more analogue static and snow! Plus, widescreen support provided a handy excuse to go out and buy a new slim flat-panel TV to replace the power-hungry square box in the corner of the room. But thanks to PVRs, that’s no longer a must.
If you were one of those early adopters spending a substantial sum of money on a new TV, you might have started noticing something a bit annoying moving forward. Free-to-air networks have been launching new channels to run alongside their main ones, with whole new schedules of shows or HD versions of the ones on the main channel. But for some reason, your TV can’t receive a bunch of them.
You don’t want to buy a new TV to solve the issue. And luckily, you don’t have to either. All you need is either a set-top box (STB) or a personal video recorder (PVR) plugged into your existing TV. You’ll be right back in the action with all the channels available to you.
Where did those channels go?
Without getting too technical about it all, what’s been happening with the free-to-air networks in recent years is a move towards a new method of broadcasting digital channels. Called MPEG-4, it’s a more recent video standard which has a lot of advantages. It fits more in less space (so the networks can fit more channels into their broadcast) and has superior picture quality. Perfect for HD – in fact, it’s a variation of the way video is stored on a Blu-ray disc.
But that comes at a price. Many TVs made before MPEG-4 started being used around the world simply don’t support it at all. They see the broadcast, but have no idea what to do with it. That’s doesn’t mean you bought a dud, by the way. It’s just that when older TVs were made, they didn’t support it because it wasn’t being used for broadcasts.
The good news is that any modern STB or PVR will effortlessly handle MPEG-4. You’ll be able to view all the channels currently on air. Like Nine HD, which also broadcasts with 6-channel surround sound, making even The Block seem like a night out at the cinema. Well, almost!
STB or PVR – what’s the difference?
A set top box (STB) is little more than a digital TV tuner in a small box, with an output on the back to connect to your TV. All it does is receive digital TV channels (and, of course, display the current program guide). STBs capable of high definition were up around the $1000 mark when digital TV started. Now, a far more capable STB will set you back less than 50 bucks. This makes them the perfect instant upgrade for an older TV that still looks great but can’t see the newer channels.
A PVR, on the other hand, takes things one step further. The PVR is basically the modern-day equivalent of the VCR. Except instead of using tapes to record shows on, it stores them all on a built-in computer hard disk. You get instant access to any of your recordings, and everything recorded looks exactly the same played back as it did when it went to air. PVRs can store enormous amounts of recordings, too – in some cases, hundreds of hours. Many of them can record multiple shows at once from different channels. And yes, inside every PVR is also a digital TV tuner (or several of them) so it acts as an upgrade for the new channels as well.
That convenience does come at a price premium, though. PVRs runs from around $250 all the way up to the $1000 mark and beyond.
What to look for when buying a STB or PVR
Let’s say you’re not tempted by the idea of recording hundreds of hours of TV that you’ll probably never get around to watching. You just want to upgrade your older TV for the new generation of digital TV channels. If that’s the case, then a set top box is for you. And while there’s not a huge amount of them to choose from any longer – the PVR has all but taken over the “digital box” market – you still have some options. Even the most basic of STBs, a Laser brand model that sells for $49, now have the capability of recording shows to a USB drive that you plug into a socket on the front. This is a good way to get a PVR “on the cheap.” Models by Teac ($59) and Aerialbox ($99) also offer this feature.
The more expensive Aerialbox model carries its price tag because it’s a “Freeview Plus” certified STB. This gives you a range of extra features including an interactive on-screen program guide that’s integrated with each channel’s catch-up services. That way, you can instantly watch shows you’ve missed (though you’ll need to connect it to your home broadband to do so).
The other thing you’ll want to check out is the remote control that comes with each box. Find out whether it’s something you can easily use day-to-day. This is going to become your main TV remote, so the last thing you want is one with dinky little buttons that you have to squint to tell apart.
With PVRs, there’s a lot more on the table when it comes to options. You’ll first want to give yourself a price range, then work within it. At $249 you can get a very basic Teac brand PVR with twin tuners (which lets you record one channel while watching another). But if you’re happy buying online, Aerialbox has a fully Freeview Plus certified PVR with twin tuners and a mammoth 1TB hard disk (that’s about 160 hours of HD programs) for only $199. Its remote control is also big and generous.
However, when it comes to PVRs, Freeview Plus isn’t always what you want. One of the best features of PVRs is instant access. And that means you can skip to anywhere in a recording instantly. With this in mind, many PVRs include a special button to skip 15 or 30 seconds instantly – in other words, a button you can use to zap through the commercials, one after the other, instantly. Freeview, being owned by the TV networks, would like you to see the ads that pay their bills, so Freeview Plus PVRs are restricted to simple fast-forward through ads. It’s still fast, but it’s not instant. On the plus side, though, the excellent and super-accurate Freeview program guide is only available with Freeview Plus.
Spending more money gets you more features. However, there are a lot of upgrades included in higher-end PVRs that you simply may not need. Like the ability to play media files over a home network, for instance. You’ll also find up to four TV tuners in the more advanced and expensive models. At $399, Fetch TV’s Mighty box gives you that and a 1TB drive, alongside support for Netflix and Stan and Fetch’s own subscription streaming channels. It’s a great-value choice for a PVR at that price point.
Oh, and there’s one other excellent PVR worth mentioning – Foxtel’s iQ3 box, which you can’t buy outright, but can get with a Foxtel subscription. It boasts ten tuners (ten!) and the ability to record from both Foxtel’s digital channels and free-to-air (the satellite version of the iQ3 has two free-to-air tuners built in, so plug in that aerial alongside the Foxtel cable). In other words, it’s a feature-packed PVR that’s locked down to Foxtel. In terms of reliability at recording scheduled programs, we’ve found it’s at the top of the heap. You can even set recordings from the web or your smartphone when you’re anywhere in the world away from home.
The market for PVRs and set top boxes is pretty much static these days – and in fact, some of the former big names in the field like Topfield and Beyonwiz have all but vanished. There’s a reason for that – online streaming has almost eliminated the need to record free-to-air shows. Meanwhile, pay TV services like Foxtel and Fetch come with incredibly capable PVRs that are designed especially for those services, which includes the newly released iQ4K box that supports Foxtel’s live 4K programming. The STB/PVR market is now tiny. But also, thanks to technological improvements, incredibly cheap. This article was updated in November 2018.
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How much storage do I need on a PVR?
You’ll see numbers thrown around with PVRs that are measured in gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB – 1TB is 1000GB). It’s impossible to say exactly how many hours of TV any given size will record, because every channel’s broadcasts use up different amounts of space. But with a 1TB drive able to record enough HD to continuously play back for an entire week 24/7, you’ll soon find that’s more than enough storage for your recordings. If you can save some money and get a model with 500GB storage, that’ll still be more than enough for most people. The thing about the new channels in particular is that they don’t use up very much storage space at all.
The idea of a PVR is as a temporary recording device, by the way. While you can keep recordings as long as you want, you’ll eventually run out of space if you’re a hoarder. Some PVRs let you copy recordings off to an external USB drive for safekeeping, but that’s a feature usually only seen on the more expensive models. Freeview Plus models specifically do not allow copying of recordings at all.
Digital free-to-air TV supports closed captions (subtitles) and their use is required by law in prime-time programming. So if you’re hard of hearing you’re well catered for. Before buying, make sure the box supports closed captions – you’ll know if it does because it’ll usually have a dedicated button on the remote to turn them on. We don’t know of any current STB or PVR that don’t support captions, but there’s a few out there that don’t make it quick and easy to access.
And again, check the remote before you buy to make sure it suits your needs. If it’s too small, too complicated or confusing, you don’t want to have to battle with it every time you watch TV. Remotes with big clear buttons are best for everyone, but especially so for those who are long-sighted or otherwise visually impaired.
The last 15 years of digital TV in Australia have been a period of change and growth. There have been some missteps – including some incredibly unreliable PVRs and STBs. But the technology that powers digital TV is, these days, well understood, affordable and more feature-packed than ever before. Whichever model of STB or PVR you choose, you’ll be plugged in and watching all the new digital channels in no time. A great and accessible way to keep that treasured TV alive and active for many years to come!
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Last audited 09 September 2020