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Best set-top boxes 2021: The best affordable and premium PVRs

It used to be that a set-top box sat beneath your TV and fed you channels that you couldn’t get from terrestrial TV. Now set-top boxes are getter smarter and evolving, offering more functionality, features and content in one neat and tidy box.

They offer integration with video and audio streaming apps such as Netflix and Spotify, along with 4K UHD content, HDR support and multi-room functionality if you buy more than one box. They’re also versatile when it comes to storage options with some offering up to 2TB of space for anyone looking to keep track of and record their favourite content.

With several ‘free’ options and subscription-based methods, set-top boxes offer a balance between those who want premium, content-rich options and less expensive boxes with support for catch-up TV options.

Whether you’re looking for Freeview or satellite options, we’ve reviewed a number of options to cater to those interests. If you’re looking to move from one TV provider to another, or are interested to see what other options are available, have a look below to see what’s on offer.

How we test set-top boxes

We watch a lot of TV on these set-top boxes, paying attention to the image and sound quality. When possible, we compare that picture quality to what is expected from the television itself, to gauge what, if anything, these set-top boxes are bringing to the picture.

Interface is a big part of how we review set-top boxes. Is the remote easy to use and responsive to presses. Is the user interface intuitive? Is it easy to navigate and what forms of navigation does it support? All these things will help determine how good the user experience is.

And what about content? How much content is available, which apps are supported and is support in terms of features up to the standards we’d expect. If a set-top box says it supports apps in 4K HDR, we’ll be looking for apps that actually carry support for those features.

Other features we look out for are the number of tuners supported, connectivity and how do the catch-up features work. Smarts are to be expected, and we’ll test these to judge whether they’re implemented well and live up to expectations

Finally, every element is judged against the price. If a machine represents good value generally, we’ll be a little more lenient on a bad remote. Pricier machines, however, had better be great.

The best set-top box for on-demand and live content
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Pros

  • Watch practically everything anywhere
  • Powerful interface
  • Brilliant Netflix integration
  • Lots of Ultra HD content
  • HDR and Dolby Atmos

Cons

  • Not cheap
  • HDR support limited
  • Dolby Atmos doesn’t work in apps

The Sky Q platform is the best set-top box for those with satellite installation. It is an incredibly powerful system that integrates content from several services such as iPlayer, Netflix, Spotify and (later this year) Disney+.

The Sky Q and smaller Q Mini boxes offer smooth multi-room functionality and Sky Go continues the experience on your mobile devices. It isn’t the cheapest, but for this quality, you’re paying a premium price for a premium service. It doesn’t support HDR, which stops it from being the feature-complete box it aims to be.

Reviewer: David Ludlow
Full Review: Sky Q

Slick and well-made
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Pros

  • Easy to use
  • Great picture when recording HD TV channels
  • Quiet HDD operation
  • Personal Watchlist for on-demand content

Cons

  • Limited simultaneous channel recording
  • No Netflix or Amazon Prime Video
  • No Netflix or Amazon Prime Video

This Freeview Play smart recorder is one of the best set-top boxes for those who want a versatile box, but don’t want to pay the prices of Sky and BT.

It has support for HLG and HDR, and usability is strong, with an interface that’s easy to use even for tech luddites. Freeview Play integration is seamless, though watch out for SD quality on bigger TVs as its lack of clarity will be exposed.

Otherwise, audio-visual quality is good, with minor niggles being the lack of Netflix, Prime Video and limited channel recording.

Reviewer: Steve May
Full Review: Manhattan T3-R

A future-proofed set-top box
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Pros

  • Record up to four shows
  • Simple interface
  • Supports HDR and Ultra HD

Cons

  • Channel 4 not in HD
  • No Dolby Vision

The Freesat 4K TV Recorder is Freesat’s latest attempt to take on Sky, ditching the Humax boxes and coming up with a design and interface that’s all its own.

It’s compatible with Ultra HD content, but the only way to currently get 4K content through the set-top box is via Netflix or YouTube. Features are robust with the ability to record up to four shows at once, and the interface is simple, mixing live-TV with on-demand content.

If you prefer to get your satellite TV for free, this box is a great way to get it.

Reviewer: David Ludlow
Full Review: Freesat 4K TV Recorder

A great choice for many
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Pros

  • Good value
  • Next-gen YouView interface is great
  • Good range of unique content

Cons

  • No TV preview window
  • You can’t get all Sky Sports channels

BT TV is a great choice for many with the mixture of its own unique content, BT Sport UHD and premium range of channels.

Sporting the Next-Gen YouView interface (which was new back in 2017), it’s a stronger, more visually driven interface that blends Live-TV and on-demand well. YouView is powered by Freeview, and it comes with all the content available on that service as well as the option of paid-for On Demand films and programmes.

Picture quality is excellent, as long as you have the bandwidth for it, with Sky Q the only other option that’s better in this regard.

Reviewer: David Ludlow
Full Review: BT TV

A smart upgrade to the TiVo
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Pros

  • Vastly improved performance
  • Clever multiroom option
  • HDR and 4K support

Cons

  • Interface looks dated
  • Not much 4K content at the moment

For existing Virgin customers, the V6 is a worthy upgrade to the TiVo. It’s more compact, offers faster performance and just an all-round better performer.

An improved interface would have been nice considering how stodgy it is, and the smart multi-room functionality means older TiVo and V6 boxes can be used to increase the number of tuners.

With Virgin’s growing library of 4K HDR content, the V6 offers excellent value.

Reviewer: David Ludlow
Full Review: Virgin V6

FAQs

Can I get the likes of Netflix and Disney+ on set-top boxes?

Yes, that’s increasingly a possibility on set-top boxes, though not all boxes support the main apps and in a number of cases, some may be missing features compared to what you find on native TV apps.

Do set-top boxes support 4K and HDR?

Yes, the days of just HD support is being left behind with more set-top boxes supporting 4K resolutions and HDR10.

How many channels can I record simultaneously on a set-top box?

That depends on the set-top box itself. Some will have up to 7 tuners for recording, others only 4 and some others fewer that that.

We’ve reviewed

30

Set top boxes

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