What are the best set-top boxes available on the market?
Predicted to overtake Sky in popularity this year, Freeview boxes are getting more and more sophisticated. Just as well, because the competition for digital TV is about to explode, writes Tom Alexander

Bush iDaptor DFTA1000



Where available:High street and online

Box clever?With Freeview set to overtake satellite television in the UK by the end of this year (according to the IPA), and the general trend towards ever smaller devices and mobile means of consuming content, this space-saving and portable offering represents cost-effective forward-thinking.

Pros:Designed to slot into the back of a TV's Scart socket and not much bigger than a fist, the iDaptor stays out of sight - a unique selling point. Operated by a remote control, searching through menus and setting programme timers is simple, although access to the full seven-day EPG is a little convoluted. Set-up is as simple as any other Freeview set-top box fed with a strong digital signal.

Cons:The iDaptor is heavier than it looks and not quite the snug fit it would appear, with power lead and aerial connection giving the same cable-heavy operation as any other option - and that's without mentioning the infra-red module that involves even more wiring.

Estimated sales:Concrete figures aren't available, but its launch last Christmas can't have harmed its mass-market appeal.




Where available:Not until autumn

Box clever?'Convergence' was the watchword of the dotcom boom and it's back on the agenda, offering users a one-stop media/communications experience. As a 'hub' for the digital home, this is one of the most ambitious products available, but highlights a problem facing the sector - how and when to offer HDTV capacity.

Pros:Not available until October at the earliest, this promises to integrate digital home entertainment once and for all. As well as digital TV, it has email, internet, telephony, MP3 playback, the ability to 'fetch' and send photos, video and music files to and from a PC, as well as a CD/DVD burner. The manufacturers even plan to throw in a universal card reader for digital cameras.

Cons:The lack of HDTV capacity could prove a shortfall. it promises to bridge the gap between PCs and home entertainment rather clumsily.

Estimated sales:Low. 'Convergence' products like this are only likely to succeed with big marketing budgets or backing from major broadcasters.


Platform:Sky digital

Price:£15-£42.50 per month

Where available:Only from Sky

Box clever?This is the PVR service for which Sky has become renowned. Although bound to be replaced by Sky HD boxes eventually - which have exactly the same functionality - there's still room for Sky+ to grow in homes without HD-ready TVs and the service is helping BSkyB push towards its target of 10 million subscribers by 2010.

Pros:Converts call it an epiphany in TV, with one-touch recordings of entire series making primetime scheduling a thing of the past and effectively allowing on-demand viewing for the first time. Subscribers can pause and rewind live TV and record two channels simultaneously.

Cons:The only constraint of the Sky+ box is the size of the hard disk. Users also 'complain' that it's addictive!

Estimated sales:From a subscriber base of over 8 million, almost 1.25 million are Sky+ users.

Sky HD

Platform:Sky digital

Price:£299 plus £10 per month and a Sky digital subscription

Where available:Only from Sky

Box clever?Sky is leading the charge into HDTV - especially while Freeview lacks the spectrum capability to do so. Sky expects there to be 2 million homes with HD-ready TVs by the end of the year.

Pros:It's what everyone's been waiting for: live coverage of major TV events and Hollywood movies in glorious high-definition and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. Offering access to Sky's HD channels as well as National Geographic HD and Discovery HD, the BBC's HD trial channel is showing the World Cup. The box works in exactly the same way as Sky+ with the same 160GB hard disk capable of storing 30 hours of HDTV or 80 hours of normal TV.

Cons:Having forked out not just for this new Sky box, but also an HD-ready TV, the main issue for Sky HD subscribers will be the level of HD content: not everything will be shown in HD even on HD channels. Slo-mo cameras and some studio footage in Premiership football and cricket coverage will still be shown in standard definition. Without ITV HD, only half the World Cup will be shown in HD to Sky HD customers.

Estimated sales:Low in the short-term because of a shortage of set-top boxes. Earliest installation dates are now in mid-July although by then at least 40,000 people will be watching.

Telewest TVDrive

Platform: Telewest Teleport

Price:Free installation plus £15 and a Telewest subscription

Where available:4 million cabled UK homes

Box clever?As one of the major cable platform providers, Telewest has significant reach. It got to HDTV promptly, but it's hard to emerge from Sky's shadow.

Pros:Offering around four times higher resolution than standard digital TV. Although it carries BBC HD and ITV HD (the latter exclusively at present), this service comprises largely on-demand BBC Worldwide footage (such as Blue Planet and Pride) and an increasing roster of movies (Sin City being its debut) in HD. Telewest TVDrive also offers pause, rewind and record live TV options - and all on a 160GB hard disk that also has three TV tuners . Meanwhile, the rest of the Teleport service involves standard definition movies on-demand and Sky+ style pause, rewind and record functions.

Cons:There's little live HDTV until a deal can be struck to carry Sky's own HD channels, while Telewest's reach is limited to cabled areas of the UK.

Estimated sales:Telewest has 1.2 million digital TV subscribers, but is vague on the number of TVDrive customers. Still, as the only platform showing the entire World Cup in high definition, TVDrives must surely have been flying off the shelves of late.

Sagem PVR7280T



Where available:High street and online

Box clever?People are not aware that they can enjoy a 'Sky+' experience with Freeview, but products like this are burgeoning in number and could soon dominate the market if Freeview gets the branding right, which would be a further boost for the platform.

Pros:Essentially a step up from Sagem's other set-top here (right), the PVR7280T is one of a new breed of hard-disk PVRs that offer similar features to Sky+ boxes. With two digital tuners it's possible to record one channel while watching another, as well as pause/rewind live TV (for 30 minutes) and record 40 hours of TV to the unit's built-in 80GB hard disk. Who needs a VCR?

Cons:Despite its twin tuners it's not possible to record two programmes simultaneously, while the settings have to be adjusted manually to record programmes close to one another in the schedule.

Estimated sales:Exact figures aren't available, but almost all of the PVRs sold in the UK so far have been Sky+ boxes. That could be about to change with the new 'Freeview Playback' brand and logo that will appear on products like these from September to increase consumer awareness of PVRs.

Sagem ITD72



Where available:High street and online

Box clever? Simple, cost-effective boxes like this are driving digital TV's growth, although current Freeviewers looking to upgrade should look elsewhere.

Pros:This is one of the simplest and most reliable of the many 'cheapie' digital TV receivers around, but it does allow access to subscription deals like Top-Up TV - a nice extra. It's slim so relatively inoffensive when placed next to a TV, and scans in all available channels quickly and presents them with no interference.

Cons:Recording programmes via the box's menu system is far too convoluted and the resulting footage is of poorer quality than it could be. Neither are timed recordings possible. Considering its 'my first set-top box' status, the ITD72 is too fiddly.

Estimated sales:High - Sagem also manufacturers this box for others to rebadge.


Platform:BTVision (digital terrestrial)

Price:No monthly subscription

Where available:BTBroadband customers can register now

Box clever? BT's TV-over-broadband service, BTVision, is delivered on a software platform powered by Microsoft and is demonstrative of the huge shift taking place in digital TV as the telecoms giants muscle into the sector.

Pros:Comprising a Sky+ aping, 160GB, 80-hour PVR made by Philips with a Microsoft operating system and BT's own broadband service, BTHub will be capable of receiving Freeview, while interactive on-demand content will be provided by Endemol. Other video-on-demand will come from BBC Worldwide, Paramount, Warner Music Group and National Geographic while kids channels will come from Cartoon Network, HIT Entertainment and Nelvana. Wireless broadband and voice-over-internet technology mean five phone calls can be made simultaneously and the technology even allows video telephony on the TV screen.

Cons:Its availability to BTBroadband customers only is potentially limiting - and there's no mention of HDTV in BT's plans. Nationwide trials begin this summer for an autumn start, although it's not clear whether the service will be UK-wide from launch.

Estimated sales:High - BTBroadband has 2.5 million customers and as we went to press, BT announced that it had successfully bid with BSkyB to screen Premiership football 'near-live' and on-demand from 2007-8.

Humax PVR-9200T

Platform: Freeview


Where available:High street and online

Box clever? Those happy with Freeview are unlikely to want the trappings of accessibility to material stored on a PC, but it's nevertheless hard to imagine Freeview boxes getting any more useful than this.

Pros:The latest and greatest of Freeview PVRs, Humax has managed to combine a huge 160GB hard disk with two tuners and an eight-day electronic programme guide (EPG) to make recording a doddle - even two TV shows at the same time. Add pause and rewind live TV, Top-Up TV compatibility and a USB slot - making it possible to archive recordings on a PC as well as take photos and digital music into the Humax - and it's hard to resist.

Cons:With prices of similar boxes plummeting the Humax is left looking a specialist buy, but even if the 160GB hard disk is overkill for some users, it's still one of the most versatile and useable boxes around.

Estimated sales:Despite BBC adverts constantly saying set-top boxes are just £50, this unit boasts sales of around 40,000.




Where available:2.4 million homes in London and Stevenage

Box clever?TV-over-broadband service HomeChoice pioneered IPTV in the UK but the service crucially lacks national reach and scale. On-demand HDTV could be a possibility, but for now it's akin to getting excited about dial-up internet. Rumours earlier this year suggested a buy-out by BSkyB.

Pros:If owning DVDs, CDs and even digital copies of home entertainment becomes a thing of the past, it will be thanks in no small part to services like HomeChoice. With 3,000 films, 1 , 000 music videos and BBC series on constant repeat - as well as the full gamut of digital TV channels, wireless broadband access and telephone deals - it's a couch potato's dream. And all down the phone line to a box as pretty and potentially as iconic as an iPod.

Cons:Its on-demand channels aren't cheap, while periodic signal disruptions and the need to reboot the box regularly take away the shine. The box has no built-in hard disk for recording while poor picture quality means you can forget watching HomeChoice on a big plasma TV.

Estimated sales:Around 40,000 - a slow start despite blanket advertising on the Tube.