Setting up the unit is a breeze, as the crucial settings are handled when you first turn on the machine. This initial setup process asks if you want to turn on portable antenna powering, asks for the aspect ratio of your TV and then launches into channel tuning, which is carried out quickly and finds the correct regional variations based on your postcode. Any other changes are made in a clear, logical setup menu, and options include HDMI output resolutions (576i up to 1080p), which can also be changed using the RES button on the unit’s front panel.
The only setup sticking point concerns audio output. The unit cannot transcode HE AAC into Dolby Digital, which means that the Dolby Digital option may cause problems when selected. Pace is working on a fix for this, which will be included with a bunch of other upgrades available ‘later this year, probably not before November’, but until then it’s best to keep the output set to PCM (stereo).
In general, the HDT8520 is a smooth operator. Channels change with only a momentary black screen, digital text is super speedy and the menu cursor moves around with satisfying alacrity. The remote boasts a superb layout too, with rubbery, tactile menu controls, intuitive button placement elsewhere and foolproof labelling.
The HDT8520 is a superb picture performer, skilfully side-stepping the noise problems that beset the TVonics DTR-HD500. First off, high-definition channels boast illuminating clarity thanks to the crisply defined detail, which doesn’t suffer any degradation when converted from 1080i to 1080p. The procession of programmes on the BBC HD Preview looks absolutely gorgeous – from the intricate archaeological detail of Pompeii to the stunning vistas on show in Helicopter Heroes, the Philips box delivers all the razor-sharp detail and effulgent colours with aplomb. These qualities are preserved perfectly when recorded onto the hard disk. HD images lose none of their sharpness or depth, and artefacts are kept at bay.
Even standard-definition broadcasts look impressive on our 60in Sony set, whether the box’s HDMI output is set to 576p or 1080p. Programmes like Loose Women (ITV1), Homes Under The Hammer (BBC One) and The Good Wife (Five) are reproduced without the abundance of shimmery mosquito and block noise seen on some other Freeview boxes. That’s not to say that it’s completely free from artefacts but the HDT8520 seems to tame it better than the TVonics recorder, for example. Philips’ pictures are clean and more stable, and are captured on the hard disk as such. As for sound, the stereo PCM output via HDMI or S/PDIF is clear and dynamic.
Despite the lack of alluring features like USB media playback or HDMI switching, the HDT8520 remains a very likeable Freeview HD PVR. It’s well made, the operating system is slick and easy to use, there’s a sizeable hard disk on board and a healthy amount of recording functionality to go with it. We’re also impressed by its picture quality, which is cleaner and more stable than expected. At over £200, the price tag may seem steep to some buyers, but it’s cheaper than both the Humax HDR-FOX T2 and the TVonics DTR-HD500, a fact that will hold the Philips in good stead among budget-conscious buyers.