How to buy the best PVR or set-top box
By Martin Pratt
You’ll need to buy a set-top box or PVR that suits the platform you use. Some models are designed for pay-TV services from Sky TV, Virgin Media, BT TV or TalkTalk, others work with free-to-air services from Freesat or Freeview.
- Pay-TV set-top boxes and PVRs: you subscribe to a paid digital TV service from BT, Sky TV, TalkTalk or Virgin Media. Choose which service you want, sign a contract, pay a monthly fee and they'll send you one of their set-top boxes or PVRs, depending on the package.
- Free-TV set-top boxes and PVRs: you make a one off purchase of an integrated digital TV, set-top box, or PVR to access free TV services such as Freeview and Freesat. All the latest TVs now have built-in digital tuners.
If you buy a Freesat or Freeview set-top box or PVR, you can save yourself the monthly expense of a cable or satellite-based service, as there's no on-going costs. You can even watch high-definition programmes on some free-TV models. However, you won’t get the variety of channels that can be found on pay-TV platforms.
Some of the latest Freesat and Freeview boxes allow you to scroll backwards through the electronic programme guide to watch catch-up TV. Look out for the Freetime and YouView logos on Freesat and Freeview models respectively.
Ready to buy? Find the perfect model for you with our PVR and set-top box reviews.
PVR vs set-top box: What's the difference?
There's not a great deal of difference between what we'd call a PVR and what we'd call a set-top box – bar one key factor.
PVRs have the ability to record live television, saving it to their built-in hard drive. Set-top boxes, meanwhile, merely allow you to watch live or catch-up TV via services like Freeview or Freesat.
Some set-top boxes have the ability to be paired with an external hard-drive, thus granting them PVR capabilities. When this is the case we'll make sure to clarify and highlight it in the review.
A lot of companies play fast and loose with these definitions – after all, you've most likely heard Sky's latest product referred to as a set-top box, but this is how we draw the line at Which?.
PVR hard drive size and storage
Set-top boxes are a great, cheap way of accessing digital TV, but they can't be used to record and store anything to watch another time. For that, you'll need a PVR. They record TV to an internal hard drive and these days they have huge storage capacities. Most PVRs have a minimum of 500GB storage space, but you can get ones with up to 2TB of space if needed – that’s four times the size of standard PVRs.
All of our PVR reviews state the size of the hard drive, as well as the maximum recording time, so you can find the model that suits you best.
As a rule of thumb, if you divide the hard drive capacity in two, you’ll get an estimate of how many hours of standard-definition recording a PVR will hold. For example, a PVR with a 500GB hard drive is able to store around 250 hours of standard-definition recordings. Halve this again for the high-definition capacity – so 500GB should store around 125 hours of HDTV.
When the hard drive is full, you’ll need to delete some recordings to free up space before the PVR will be able to record anything else. Not all PVRs warn you when they’re almost full, it’s worth keeping an eye on this so it doesn’t reach capacity and stop recording future shows without you noticing.
Most recordings you want to keep can be downloaded to a separate DVD recorder if you wish.
Set-top box and PVR accessibility features
Audio description (AD) is an additional narrative audio track for visually impaired people. It describes what is happening on screen, from changes of location and actions to facial expressions and gestures in order to give context and set the scene. Descriptions are fitted between dialogue or commentary to avoid interrupting the flow of the programme.
Audio description can be found on many free-to-air programmes and most new digital TVs can decode the signal. You can also use a DVD recorder to record audio description – but be aware that the audio description track will be permanently recorded on to the disc.
There are two methods of receiving audio description. The description can be carried on the same channel as the original programme, or it can be broadcast on a second sound channel which contains the audio description.
The latter system allows more flexibility, as one person can listen on headphones whilst others watch the programme without audio description. It is also possible to change the volume of the original programme and the audio description soundtrack independently.
Subtitles, often referred to as Closed Captions (or 'CC') are transmitted on some digital TV shows and a PVR will automatically record them. They can be switched on or off while watching either a live or recorded program using the remote control. Legislation requires that 90% of ITV and Channel 4 programmes must be subtitled, the BBC has been subtitling 100% of its programmes since April 2008.
Subtitling obligations have been extended to many other channels, whether they are broadcast by digital terrestrial or digital satellite signals. Currently, most channels are ahead of the targets set for them.
The Communications Act 2003 requires broadcasters to meet the legal requirements either by programmes being translated into sign language or programmes being made by or for deaf people and presented in sign language.
What should I check for when buying a set-top box or PVR?
Set-top boxes and PVRs can be bought on the high street or online. High-street shopping allows you to see (and possibly play with) a range of models before parting with your cash. And good sales staff should also be able to answer your queries. However, the lowest prices are generally found online.
When shopping consider the following points:
- Electronic programme guide (EPG): the EPG is a vital part of a set-top box or PVR, and its layout is crucial to how easy it is to use. The speed at which you can navigate around the EPG, find the programme you want and select it for recording has a huge impact on how easy the machine is to use.
- Access to smart TV features: some set-top boxes and PVRs allow you to connect to the internet, via your broadband, to stream live TV or access catch up TV, such as BBC iPlayer. This can turn an older TV into a smart TV at a fraction of the cost. You can also buy a dedicated internet TV box which will work in a similar way, though they don't give you access to any free-TV services.
- Remote control: the remote control is the primary way to control a set-top box or PVR and finding one that is well laid-out, intuitive and comfortable in your hand is an important part of its ease of use.
- Fan noise: PVRs generate some noise from their hard disk and cooling fans. It’s unlikely to bother most people, but ask for a demo in the shop if you think this may annoy you.
Set-top boxes and PVRs compared
We take every set-top box and PVR worth buying and put them through our rigorous lab tests, so we can give you a definitive verdict on which one is best and how they rate against each other. To find out which models top our tests take a look at all of our set-top box and PVR reviews.