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Digital set top boxes with HD recorders

Posted by: By Risto Sampola, Deep Tank | 18 January, 2009 - 10:11 PM
Digital Set Top Box with HDD recorder Digital television broadcasts offer many advantages over their analogue counterparts and are something that after many years of talk is finally starting to come of age with Freeview (www.freeview.com.au).

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In addition to the already available (as of January 2009) digital TV channels, Freeview promises Australians an extra fifteen digital TV channels by the end of this year – and unlike Foxtel, it is totally free. If you already have a TV with a digital tuner you’re all set to receive these channels, but you’ll still need something to record your favourite programs, movies, sports etc. If you have an analogue TV you’re missing out in a big way...

Buying a new TV can be costly and perhaps you’re still debating whether to go for a plasma or LCD. For around the $100,- mark you can purchase a ‘digital set top box’. This device will receive its TV signal from your existing aerial, so as long as your current reception is good there’s no need to do anything in that department. However, if you’re willing to spend upwards of around $400,- then you’re in for a serious treat in the way of a digital set top box with a hard disk recorder. Plus remember, this is a one-off cost with no subscription fees to pay, so as an investment over a few years the cost is very low indeed. Also, as often the case is with technology – prices drop and features improve.

You’ll be able to receive all digital TV channels with excellent picture (right up to true High-Definition – ‘HD’) with pristine audio quality. Perhaps even more importantly, you’ll be able to record hours upon hours of TV direct to the built-in hard disk. As a yard stick, I would recommend devices with at least a 320GB (Giga Byte) hard drive – the bigger the better as it will give you more recording time. Some more high-end devices allow you to also connect external hard drives for extended recording time. Not only that, but with just about every device in this category you’ll also be able to record two channels at the same time, whilst watching a third. A sure fire cure to those “What do you want to watch?” arguments! There’s also the added bonus of being able to pause and rewind live TV. These set top boxes are usually configured to record TV at all times as a background process. If you’re watching a program and the phone rings or nature calls, simply press ‘Pause’ on you remote control, go about your business, and when you’re ready to resume watching you’ll pick up from the same spot.

A so called EPG (Electronic Program Guide) will show you all TV listings for every available channel, so recording a program is a simple as finding it in the on-screen EPG and then pressing ‘Set to record’. Much easier than the old VHS or DVD recorders – and as there are no tapes or disks to change you can go on holidays and when you come back you can have hours upon hours of your favourites waiting for you upon your return. Tapes and DVD’s have limited recording time, so unless someone is at home to put in a new blank one, all you’ll get is a couple of hours.

Most devices will also offer some kind of a folder structure, so you can easily find all those recorded programs. One folder for kids stuff, one for sport, one for movies and so on. The recorded program will display its real title, which is automatically tagged from the EPG, but you can also rename programs afterwards. Once you’ve finished watching a program you can of course keep it for future viewing or simply delete it to make more room for future recordings. You can also set up these devices to record an entire series, so if you’re a fan of a program broadcast on a, say weekly basis, then you can set it up to record it every week with one simple command – and never miss another show.


-Excellent picture and audio quality
-Receive numerous extra channels not available on analogue broadcasts
-Record two channels while watching a third
-Pause and rewind live TV programs
-Electronic Program Guide to see what’s on and easy recording
-Organise recorded material into folders for easy archiving
-Very long recording times

When asking Risto product specific questions please provide the brands and models of your equipment as this will allow him to respond with a more detailed reply.

Blog comments Your Say

  • Hi, I have a motel 13 TV's off the one aerial. No cable or satelite. But do have in house movies to rooms off the one DVD player. Do I require a STB from the aerial or one for each TV.
    Please Help!

    Maz Sunday 14 February, 2010 - 2:59 PM
  • Hi Risto,
    I'm technologically challenged & would appreciate ur recommendations for a set top box/digital recorder to suit me. My LCD TV doesn't have an inbuilt tuner so I'm after a set top box that's also a digital recorder. I don't care about internet connectivity, or features I'll never work out how to use - I just want to be able to record two stations at once (more if possible), watch beginning of show while end is still recording & pause on live tv. wouuld like it to store at least 20hours of HD content. Can you reco anything in under $1,000 price range? Also, is Tivo a set top box as well or just a recorder. Cheers, Sherry

    sherry watson Friday 12 February, 2010 - 11:46 AM
  • Hi Kasey,

    Looking at the Samsung SH855 spec it's apparent that it doesn't have a HD (High Definition) tuner, just an SD (Standard Definition) one. This being the case it won't be able to receive HD channels no matter what you do. One possibility would be to buy a HD tuner with an RF output and then plug your aerial to the HD tuner's input and plug its RF output into the Samsung's RF input. The other option would be to go the whole hog and buy a new HD capable tuner/recorder. If the Samsung is brand new then I'd try to return it as SD is fairly 'old hat' now and in due course all channels will go HD. If, on the other hand, you're also having trouble with receiving SD channels then it might be an issue with your aerial or simply reception in your area. Either way, the SH855 will never receive HD channels on its own.

    Cheers, Risto

    Risto Sampola Sunday 27 September, 2009 - 7:19 PM
  • I have a HD recorder/dvd recorder (Samsung DVD-SH855) and I'm having problems getting all of the new channels. I can get ABC2, but can't get some of the other new ones. Is there something I can do to my current equipment or do I have to buy something else?

    Kasey Saturday 26 September, 2009 - 9:24 AM
  • Hi Rob,

    Personally speaking I've been using a Palsonic HDD320G for about a year now. It was an absolute steal (pretty much an 'impulse purchase') at $390,- and offers HDMI out and as the name would suggest it has a 320GB HD, but the user interface is a little clumsy and it doesn't accept and external HD's etc... However, as you're willing to spend a little more I would recommend the Topfield line of units - in particular their new drool-inducing Masterpiece HD. It does have an RRP of $1,099,- but I reckon you'll be able to get one for WELL under $1,000,-... perhaps right down to your budget. It comes with a 500GB HD and allows you to connect external drives too, so you won't run out of space and as external drives are so cheap these days you can use one (or several) to archive/back-up your recordings. It also supports Internet connectivity for things like You Tube and Flickr. I would imagine you'll be using a HD TV with a HDMI input...? If that's the case it's just one single cable from the PVR to your TV and you're in business.

    Cheers, Risto

    Risto Sampola Wednesday 22 July, 2009 - 12:57 PM
  • Hi Risto,
    I am about to buy a HD set top box with built in hard disk. Would you recommend a particular brand. Am happy to pay up to about $600 to $700.
    Thanks for all your info.



    rob burgess Tuesday 21 July, 2009 - 9:45 AM
  • Hi Shelley,

    When you say 'digital channels' I guess you mean Freeview (ABC, Ch7, Ch9, Ch10, SBS...) and as I would assume the TV has a digital tuner then they don't need a HD Foxtel box as they can simply connect their aerial straight to the TV. However, if your parents paid for a full HD LCD TV then, in my opinion, they owe it to themselves to get a HD Foxtel box in order to make the most of their TV with Foxtel channels too. An extra $200,- doesn't seem that steep in the context of unlocking the full potential of a TV, which no doubt cost a few grand. If you need more info, just email
    me at: risto@deeptank.com.au

    Risto Sampola Monday 13 July, 2009 - 8:40 PM
  • My parents have a full HD LCD TV connected to Foxtel. They have been told they cannot receive the digital channels because the foxtel box doesn't allow the HD message and will have to order a Foxtel HD box for $200. Can they simply get another cable and loop it so they can watch just through the TV and not Foxtel or what should they do?

    Shelley Friday 10 July, 2009 - 10:04 PM
  • Thanks for your time and the advice Risto, I'll certainly look into that HD PVR, and maybe use the DVD on odd occasions. the PVR by the way is a Wintal, it's been there for a couple of years, I'll have a look at the back of it, thanks again.



    Dave Friday 3 April, 2009 - 10:33 PM
  • Hi Dave,

    You haven't told me which brands/models you own, so I'll have to 'shoot in the dark'. The chances are that your SD PVR only has a co-axial aerial input - and the chances are that your HD STB (whichever model you purchase) will not have a co-axial output. If these assumptions are correct then this won't be a solution. However, your DVD recorder will possibly have (for example) composite input and if your HD STB has a composite output (most likely) then this could be a potential solution. Even then you're looking at limited recording time on a DVD and if you go away for a while and there's no one to put in a new blank DVD then the recording time limit is still tied to the capacity of a DVD. For $390,- you can buy a Palsonic HD PVR with a 320GB HD. I've been personally using one of these for a good few months and despite its low price it hasn't missed a beat - and I can record hours of TV while away from home. Also, unlike a DVD recorder, I can record two channels at once, whilst watching a third. Food for thought...

    Risto Sampola Tuesday 31 March, 2009 - 10:59 AM
  • I have a SD PVR, DVD recorder, plasma TV, if I was using a HD set top box, would I be able to either record to the SD PVR or/and the DVD recorder, I realise this would not be true HD but is it possible, any comments appreciated.


    Dave Thursday 26 March, 2009 - 10:54 PM
  • Hi Mark,

    I am not aware of any STB's with a coaxial output, but this isn't to say they don't exist. Having said that, if they do it's pretty unlikely they would then receive HD channels, which would be a half-way solution as you would not be able to receive all the HD channels, which are going to be increasing in numbers. Naturally an older CRT TV would not be able to display HD, but you'd miss out on all the programming on HD channels. If your parents' VCR has a composite input then this could be a solution, but again most VCR's only have a coaxial input. Another solution would be to have a composite to coaxial converter and these could be tricky to track down - if they even exist anymore. I'll post back with a reply if I come across one of these, but in all reality if all above fails it just might be time for your parents to opt for a new TV - or even a second hand one at a low cost with composite inputs. Let me know how you go!

    Risto Sampola Wednesday 18 March, 2009 - 10:31 PM
  • My parents have a analogue tv that has just the antenna socket on the back - no a/v sockets nor a/v button on the remote so does that mean they can 't use a STB. They do however have a mono VCR connected to the TV. Could they connect the STB through the VCR. I use a HD USB tuner on my PC using rabbit ears. The rabbit ears are split to the SD 160GIG HD tuner.

    Mark Creighton Wednesday 18 March, 2009 - 6:29 PM
  • Hi Gerry,

    Pretty unlikely, I'm afraid - but worth checking. Your HD STB would have to be able to output SD (Standard Definition) and your current PVR would have to have whatever AV output your HD STB would have (Composite, S-video etc.).

    Given that this is quite unlikely, you'd be better off looking at buying an HD STB/PVR. You can snap some up for less than $400,- with a 320GB hard drive.

    Cheers, Risto

    Risto Sampola Monday 16 March, 2009 - 9:28 AM
  • A question regarding compatability. I currently have a digital PVR (not High Def). I use this on a CRT TV. Would I be able to include an HD set top box into this setup? Would I be able to record HD signals on the PVR? I'm not particularly looking for picture quality, rather extra content. (I could be watching golf on 10HD as we speak.)

    Gerry Stewart Sunday 15 March, 2009 - 10:21 AM
  • Hi Rod,

    Only if you're VERY lucky... Digital does need good reception and 'rabbit ears' are usually anything but. I would recommend a properly installed aerial without any hesitation.

    Cheers, Risto

    Risto Sampola Saturday 14 March, 2009 - 5:49 PM
  • Hi Ken,

    Yes, you can connect an HD digital set top box to a DVD recorder and then to a plasma TV - and then record the programs received by the digital set top box. You haven't told me which particular models you're considering, so whether you use S-Video, composite or HDMI cables to do the connection will depend on what ports your chosen equipment has. However, DVD recorders (or players) cannot record (or playback) true HD signals, so the DVD player will scale the program down to SD (Standard Definiton). This will obviously result in a bit of a quality hit. If you buy an HD digital set top box or Blu-Ray recorder (expensive at the moment) you would be able to record and playback in HD.

    Risto Sampola Saturday 14 March, 2009 - 11:18 AM
  • Hi,

    I am wondering if a STB works with Rabbit ears aerial or if you have to have a wall socket to a roof top aerial?


    Rod Saturday 14 March, 2009 - 8:11 AM
  • Hello,can i connect a high definition set top box to dvd recorder then to a plasma tv and receive and record high def tv,thanks.

    ken Friday 13 March, 2009 - 8:20 PM
  • Hi Mandy,

    TV sets themselves more or less never come with Hard Disk recorders, but that's no problem.

    When you buy a sigital set top box, make sure it is HD capable - and by that I mean it's is High Definiton capable. This is what will give you the highest screen resolution and will allow you to tune to High Definition channels.

    Then make sure it has a HD - and this time I mean a Hard Disk recorder - gun for at least 320GB. More the merrier as you'll be able to record more.

    The output port at the back of the set top box should have a HDMI interface as this will allow connection to a digital TV when you get one. It should also have whatever your current TV uses. When you do buy a digital TV later down the line then you can simply connect the set top box to your new TV and 'off you go' with all recorded material still there.

    Risto Sampola Monday 16 February, 2009 - 10:06 AM
  • Hi Most the LCD's I've looked at don't come with their own HD. Is the hd in a set top box able to still be used when I bite the bullet and buy the LCD tv? Or do i then need to buy a separate device? cheers, M

    Mandy B Sunday 15 February, 2009 - 3:07 PM
  • Yes , the antenna was installed by a tech with his magic box. There is a m/h amp also. Will try the other option also.
    Geelong may not be the best location for long distance digital reception.

    Raymond Trewartha Friday 23 January, 2009 - 11:23 PM
  • Hi Raymond,

    Three possible causes come to mind - 1. Despite having a new antenna its not aligned properly, so better get it checked by a reputable antenna fitter. 2. Your set top box is playing up. Can you try at a friend's house with guaranteed good digital reception to eliminate this possibility? 3. The reception at your location is simply too low. A booster might help and again an antenna fitter should be able to help you out here.

    Risto Friday 23 January, 2009 - 4:47 PM
  • Living out of Melb I find digital TV nbg.I have a new antenna system. Any interference results in loss of sound, picture either breaking up into checkerboard or freezing then resuming sometime later - missing the storyline. At least with analogue you can follow the story and sound through the snow. My HD set top box is not as clear sometimes as the analogue reception.

    Raymond Trewartha Friday 23 January, 2009 - 2:18 PM
  • Hi Lucy,

    As with all technology products, make sure it's easy to use. No amount of bells-n-whistles will make up for a complicated device, which you are then unlikely to actually use. Have the salesperson take you on a tour of its features. Most devices I have seen in this category are pretty easy to use. Maybe print this article when you go shopping to make sure the features I have described are included. Personally speaking I purchased a Palsonic HDD320G a few months ago and it's been a pleasure to use so far. It has an RRP of $599,- but can be found considerably cheaper if you shop around a little. Perhaps the main drawback of this unit is its inability to accept an external hard drive, so this is something to bear in mind if you're a bit of a 'TV junkie'.

    Risto Friday 23 January, 2009 - 10:57 AM
  • Thanks for the easy to understand advice Risto...
    Can you recommend any brands or models to look out for?

    Lucy Friday 23 January, 2009 - 8:46 AM
  • Excellent article! Thanks Risto. Finally someone is writing a simple technical paper for us average folk to understand! Well done

    David McDonald Tuesday 20 January, 2009 - 9:19 AM
  • I think the HDD recorders are the best thing ever invented. I will definately buy one to record my favourite programs. I will record Day Dusk (not Day Night as falsely stated on Cricket fixtures)cricket matches from Melbourne mainly.

    Brett Savage Monday 19 January, 2009 - 1:06 PM

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