The TVonics DTR-HD500 might not be the first gizmo you have in mind when it comes to buying a Freeview HD set top box. After all, why bother when big names like Humax and Panasonic are turning out such incredible machines? Why? We’ll tell you: read on and find out why we’re rooting for this plucky British underdog in our TVonics DTR-HD500 review.
Not all Freeview HD PVRs are alike. Free to air HD is still in relative infancy, and the quality of set-top boxes offering it shows its immaturity. We’ve seen boxes that struggle with HD playback at speed. Those with awkward interfaces, and some that’re just plain noisy. It’s refreshing then to see TVonics, a small British firm, leading the way with a dynamite 500GB Freeview HD recorder in the TVonics DTR-HD500, jam packed with smart features and clad in a wonderfully eye-catching design.
Prize the TVonics DTR-HD500 from its packaging and it’ll draw ooohs and aaahs from all around. The audience of our first trial run described it variously as a “manta ray” a “curvier PS3” and “just bloody lovely.”
The rakish angle of the DTR-HD500 means there’s plenty of room for connections around the back, a neatly presented display up front, and an overall impression that the whole shebang is slimmer than it is. The curved transparent top looks outright gorgeous, and although there are no buttons on the DTR-HD500 itself, it just screams to be stroked. This is possibly the best looking set-top box we’ve ever seen.
Spin the TVonics DTR-HD500 around, and the surprises continue to usher in grins. On its rear there are the standard Scart and HDMI outputs, a USB socket and a connection for the power adapter. There are two extra HDMI sockets though, capable of sucking up pictures from two other bits of HD kit, such as a games console or Blu-ray player.
Those extra sockets mean the TVonics DTR-HD500 can act as a HDMI switch, multiplying the capacity of your TV’s HDMI socket by three. On our two-HDMI test TV, that was most welcome, and switching between inputs is as easy as tapping a button on the TVonics remote.
So far, so brilliant. But there’s a nasty surprise in store when the TVonics DTR-HD500 is finally switched on. Sure, it’s absolutely silent operation is a welcome change from humming set-top companions, but lime green menus, yellow highlights and high-contrast blacks mean it’s an ugly operator. For all the beauty of the TVonics DTR-HD500 exterior, its menus turn our stomach and strain our eyes.
That’s not to say TVonics hasn’t put thought into its menus. They’re simplistic, to the point, and actually very well designed. We love the subtle fade-in and fade-out effects. There’s no clutter, they’re efficient, and zip you around the functions of the DTR-HD500 in double quick time. There’s even an impressive picture in picture mode, so you could theoretically keep an eye on two football matches airing on two different channels at the same time. It’s just the colouring that leaves us wanting for preferences to change those hues. Would it really have been so hard to offer different colour schemes?
In operation, once your eyes adjust to the garish menus, the TVonics DTR-HD500 is wonderful. HD playback is smooth and speedy. Even zipping through time-shifted or recorded HD is judder-free, with almost zero lag between hitting play and seeing video on-screen.
TVonics’ remote is a triumph too. At first glance, it’s the same button box we’re used to, but there are handy shortcuts everywhere. Dedicated buttons switch between those extra HDMI inputs, and it’s programmable to control your TV too.
A single ‘clock’ button means you can glance at the time without diving into the full EPG or calling up a half-screen information pane, and a simple picture-in-picture button lets you watch a second channel in miniature, perfect for keeping an eye on breaking news, or live sport, while also catching up on soaps.
Best of all, dual power buttons let you switch off the TVonics DTR-HD500 and TV from the same remote, completely eliminating the need for our TV’s controller.
Later this month, the TVonics DTR-HD500 will also become capable of Dolby Surround Sound with a software update delivered by USB. That’s a major upgrade, and one it’s great to see being offered, even after customers have splashed a not inconsiderable £250.
As Freeview HD recorders go, the TVonics DTR-HD500 might not be the cheapest, but it is the best looking, quietest and, assuming you can stomach those eye-jabbing visuals, the best Freeview HD PVR we’ve seen to date.