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How we test PVRs and set-top boxes

By Lewis Skinner

Which? puts PVRs and set-top boxes through their paces. We rigorously assess the latest models so you can find the best one for you.

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Which? tests all of the major releases in the PVR (personal video recorders) and set-top box markets every year as-and-when they're released, identifying how easy they are to use, what the picture and sound quality is like and what extra features they have. 

We test free-TV boxes from Freesat and Freeview, as well as models from pay-TV services, such as Sky TV, Virgin Media and BT.

Our reviews answer the most crucial questions about PVRs and set-top boxes:

  • How easy is it to use?
  • What features does it have and do they work?
  • How much energy does it use?
  • Should I buy it?

Browse all the best models on test with our PVR and set-top box Best Buys.

How easy is it to use?

Our experts test ease of use by running through a range of everyday scenarios that replicate how you use your PVR or set-top box.

We check how straightforward the PVR or set-top box is to install and set up when you first get it home. Then we look at how easy the on-screen menu and electronic programme guide (EPG) are to navigate. A poor EPG will result in frustration every time the box is turned on, whereas a good EPG will allow you to find a programme with very little hassle.

PVRs should enable flexible viewing, so it is essential that retrieving and playing back recordings is easy. We take a detailed look at how complicated it is to record and play back your favourite TV programmes and films..

What features does it have and do they work?

The EPG is the control-centre for PVRs and set-top boxes. Selecting channels, accessing programme listings and even programming recordings can all be done via the EPG, so this is a vital feature our experts spend a long time scrutinising. The way manufacturers choose to display these varies enormously – we’ve seen excellent examples but come across some complete nightmares too.

The layout is paramount. The best EPGs display a mini picture-in-picture of the channel you're watching whilst offering a great deal of well-presented information on a range of channels

We also look at whether you can set a timer, so the box automatically switches channel at a certain time, and whether you can pre-determine your favourite channels or not, making them easier to access. Other features we test include specific Freesat or Freeview options - such as accurate recording, series link, conflict resolution and trailer booking. We even try out internet TV apps where applicable.

For PVRs that have built in hard drives to store recordings, we note the capacity, number of tuners and how long the pause buffer is - so you know exactly how long you have before you need to get back to your TV show.

How much energy does it use?

We check all products for energy consumption to make sure that they do not cost you the earth once they’re plugged in.

The energy use star rating takes into account how much power the PVR or set-top box uses when turned on and while on standby - this is particularly important as most boxes need to be left on standby to work. We also look at whether there are any power-saving options.

Should I buy it?

We know you want a PVR or set-top box that is hassle free, which is why the majority of the final test score is based on ease of use, from the design of the remote control to how quickly you can find a specific show. We also consider the recording and playback features each box has, as well as how much power they use.

The final test score ignores price and is based on:

  • Ease of use: 45%
  • Performance: 35%
  • Features: 15%
  • Power use: 5%

Models that score 70% or over are awarded Best Buy status, and anything scoring below 40% is highlighted as a Don't Buy that we think you should avoid. 

Why Which? testing is different

We buy every PVR and set-top box we test and look at models of all types, TV platforms and price, including Freesat, Freeview, BT TV, Sky TV, TalkTalk and Virgin Media boxes, costing from £50 to £300. We speak to manufacturers and scour the market to make sure we test all the most popular models that you'll find in the shops or online.

Which? doesn't only tell you about the Best Buy PVRs and set-top boxes that we recommend, we also tell you which models to avoid with our Don't Buys. If a PVR or set-top box has an issue we feel is so bad it must be a fault, then we will buy a new version and retest it. We'll also speak to the manufacturer to find out what it plans to do about the problem.

Follow the link to see all PVRs and set-top box reviews and models currently on test.

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