Monday, 19 April 2010

Why do Freeview PVRs have such awful interfaces

For over three years I have been using a Topfield 5800 Freeview PVR. The great thing about the Topfield is that it has a programming interface and encourages people to create add-ons. Many of these are improvements of the user interface as the basic interface is painful. Even setting a timer is not simple and you need several button presses to get to subtitles. This machine started to give problems a couple of weeks ago, probably power supply problem (known issue with these) but work has got in the way of checking.

Because we love the MyStuff interface (an add-on for the Topfield), we wanted another Toppy, so we ordered a Topfield 5810 (current model) from John Lewis. Unfortunately, that lasted about two days before it refused to do anything. Literally, all I could do was go to system settings and do a service search or factory reset.

So SWMBO said: let's just get the Which? best buy. That would be a Humax PVR9300T. Used it for no more than a couple of hours and she then said: can we get another Topfield, this interface is horrible. Of course, this wasn't helped by the Hummy losing a recording of Foyle's War - it seems if you Chase Play, it only holds for a limited time and then forgets that you were recording. So I am now waiting for the delivery from

Now, we did check out several PVRs in reviews, and they all, without exception, have user interfaces that were, and there is no polite way to say this DESIGNED BY PROGRAMMERS. There, I said it. Only the person who wrote them could love them. They are uniformly, diabolically, awful. Even the much liked Sky+ box is pretty grim (but we don't have Sky, so no point going there).

So why is the MyStuff interface so good? Clearly, the developer is extremely good, it is remarkably reliable with few bugs. But far more important, it has been thought out with a view to what people want to do with a PVR. Want to record a program while you are watching it? Press the Record button. Want to record a program from the guide? Press the record button. Want to edit the details of a timer? Go to the timers screen and (can you guess?) press the record button. Of course, it does far more than that, like a way of using the series data on Freeview to minimise the chance of clashes (it looks for alternates even across multiple channels). I can see 11 channels at a time, and as many hours as I want (of course, what you can physically see is limited by text size, but you can at least see six hours).

And there are other things, like smart programs that save the EPG to disc (so you don't have to wait half an hour for it to populate after turn on), programs that make using subtitles really easy - most Freeview boxes don't let you swap to text if you have subtitles on and vice versa, you can on the Topfield.

The real problems with all this on the Topfield are that (i) it should be set up with a decent interface anyway and (ii) most people don't know about these add-ons.

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