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Technology.

24 June 2021

How to buy the best PVR or set-top box

See if a set-top box or PVR suits your needs, how much money you should spend on one, what features to look out for and our pick of the best TV boxes.
Martin Pratt
Accessibility features

Whether you're looking to record TV onto a PVR, or just want to access more channels through an aerial or satellite with a set-top box, there are plenty of options.

In this guide we'll explain the differences between the two types of device and highlight the most important features.

PVR vs set-top box: what's the difference?

Not much, to be honest, aside from 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 such as Freeview or Freesat; they can't record.

Some set-top boxes have the ability to be paired with an external hard-drive, which will grant them PVR-like capabilities. When this is the case, we make sure to mention it in our reviews.

A lot of companies play fast and loose with these definitions – you've most likely heard Sky's latest product referred to as a set-top box – but this is how we at Which? make the distinction.


Don't need access to live TV channels? If you're just after something to give you access to catch-up and streaming apps, check our our TV streamer reviews.


The best PVRs and set-top boxes

Some of the models we feature below have been around a while, but all of the devices we feature are excellent PVRs or set-top boxes that you wont' regret buying. 

  • 84%
    £124.99

    It's blissfully simple to use set-top box and won't impair the picture or sound from your TV. It's a great choice if you want extra channels through your satellite.

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  • 80%
    £119.00

    It may cost more than most, but this set-top box is top of the heap. It’s packed with features, including 4K support, access to catch-up apps and Freeview Play, which lets you watch the previous week’s shows from the electronic programme guide. It gets the basics right, too: it’s a doddle to use and the picture quality is excellent.

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  • 77%
    £229.00

    With its hefty 1TB hard drive and 4K support, this accomplished PVR is ready for anything, and it's easy to use.

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  • 74%
    £178.99

    A comparatively affordable model, this PVR has a slightly smaller hard drive but shares many of its predecessor's other features. It's one of the best we've tested.

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Table last reviewed: April 2021

Looking for something a little different? Find the perfect model for you with our PVR and set-top box reviews.

How much should I spend on a set top box or PVR?

PVR prices tend to range between £150 and £300; the price is often dictated by two key features:

  • The size of the hard drive – typically between 500GB and 2TB (2,000GB) – which affects how much you can record. 
  • The number of tuners. The more tuners a PVR has, the more channels you can record at once. 

Set-top boxes are usually much cheaper, since they lack the ability to record – you can pay as little as £30 for a basic high-definition model. More expensive set-top boxes are often smart, which means they have catch-up and streaming apps, such as BBC iPlayer and YouTube. You can pay up to £100 for these models. We're also starting to see 4K models (see features to look out for, below), which can up the price still further.

Family watching TV with PVR

Best PVR and set-top box features to look out for

  • Freeview or Freesat – a Freeview device uses an aerial to access channels, while a Freesat one uses a satellite, so make sure you choose the right one.
  • Is it smart? – not all PVRs and set-top boxes are internet-enabled, so if you want to access catch-up and streaming apps then choose one that is.
  • Hard drive size – a 500GB hard drive can store around 125 hours of HD TV, if that's enough then choose a bigger model.
  • 4K – all PVRs and set-top boxes can access HD channels, but some also support the higher-quality 4K. As yet, 4K content is relatively limited, but a 4K device will let you make the most of what's available now and in the future.

When is the best time to buy a PVR or set-top box?

Both types of device can stay on sale for many years. Prices aren't that high to start with, and get even lower the longer a model is on the market. Unsurprisingly, the best time to buy is usually during a sale, such as Black Friday or the January sales.

How do I choose the best PVR or set-top box brand?

Humax is the big name in PVRs, but Panasonic makes them, too. Freesat also made its first forays into both the PVR and set-top box markets in 2020. Humax certainly offers the most choice with a bigger spread of pricing, so if you're after a cheaper model then it's probably best to start with its PVRs.

Sky and Virgin also make PVRs, but the SkyQ and Virgin V6 boxes are only available with a Sky or Virgin TV subscription.

The set-top box market is focused around two brands: Manhattan and Bush. Manhattan has a wider range of products to suit most price points, as well as a few PVRs, while Bush (a brand owned by Sainsbury's) makes some of the cheapest set-top boxes.

You can read more about the different brands and which make the most reliable devices in our PVR and set-top box brand guide.

Set-top box and PVR accessibility features

Many PVRs and set-top boxes offer additional functionality for those with sight or hearing impairments. We've highlighted some of the most common, below.

Audio description

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. 

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 while 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

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.

Sign language

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.

Set top box

Popular set-top boxes and PVRs compared

There are usually clear differences in features that separate cheaper TV boxes from more expensive ones. Below, we've highlighted the key features a set-top box and a PVR at the more premium ends of their respective price scales, and what they offer that cheaper models may lack. 

Manhattan T3 – £85

  • Set-top box capable of outputting in 4K
  • Supports a range of catch-up services 

This is one of the more expensive set-top boxes largely due to it being able to access catch-up apps and supporting resolutions up to 4K. 

Cheaper models won't have any streaming apps, such as BBC iPlayer and Netflix, and will only support SD and HD resolutions.

Read our Manattan T3 review and see what we thought of its PVR sibling, the Manhattan T3-R 500GB.

Humax Aura 1TB – £249

  • A PVR with a big 1TB (1,000GB) hard drive
  • Can record up to five shows at once

Humax is the main player in PVRs and this is one of its most advanced thanks to built-in Android TV that gives you access to a range of streaming apps and lets you cast videos from your phone. 

Cheaper PVRs won't be able to record as many shows and won't have the same advanced smart features.

Check our Humax Aura 1TB review to see if all these advanced features are worth it or whether you'd be better off with a cheaper model such as the Humax HDR-1800T.