Telewest TVDrive HDTV-enabled PVR
HD and more from the cable co
Review Sky might be making all the noise about HDTV in the UK  but, in classic tortoise versus hare scenario, its cable rival Telewest has got there first. Telewest's HDTV enabled hard disk based video recorder, the TVDrive, went on sale last week. It is available to four million homes with viewers signing up via Currys, Dixons or through Telewest.
It costs users £15 per month on top of lower tier packages, or £10 a month if they subscribe to Telewest's top level TV package. Telewest has also hinted that it might actually sell the boxes, which incidentally are made by Scientific Atlanta, at some point in the future. We have had the box installed for over a month now and here’s what we think of it and how it compares to the Sky+ unit.
The big difference between the TVDrive and the Sky+ unit at the moment is that the Telewest system is HDTV compatible, whereas Sky’s is standard definition only. The HD Sky box will probably debut in April, though there are whispers it might be even later. For Telewest customers this means that through the Teleport TV on demand system they can view, as well as record, High Definition programmes. Telewest currently has a limited service with only two true HD programmes – The Magic Flute and BBC docu drama Pride available in true HD. The company says more HD content - probably movies - will be added shortly. As for the quality of the HD signals, Telewest claims both are in 1080i, which should make them look significantly clearer and more detailed than standard definition.
Of the pair, the HD obviously works best on Pride. The resolution of the images is superb and, yes, you can see so much more on the close ups of the faces of the animals than you can in SD. There is a real depth to the image and, for the first time, objects distant from the camera are clear and in focus too. That said, there was some notable picture noise, which is very marked in some of the programmes that have been upscaled to HD like The Blue Planet. Overall though, you can see why documentary programme makers and channels are getting very excited about the potential of HD. As for The Magic Flute – the biggest HD kick is actually seeing close-ups of some of the hideous clothes the toffs in the audience are wearing. Mozart's opera is, however, something of a masterpiece and pretty enjoyable even if you don’t like opera much. Can’t wait for those movies though.
Not surprisingly, Telewest has chosen to roll with a 160 Gigabyte hard disk - the same as Sky’s current box. It claims that it can house 80 hours of standard definition programmes and around 20 of high definition. Sky still hasn’t said how big its hard drive will be, but there are journos from home cinema magazines who are willing to bet their grandmothers that it will be 300 Gigabytes – so nearly double the storage. We’ll have to wait and see.
Telewest's big advantage is that its TVDrive has three tuners so users can record two channels while watching a third. With the existing Sky+ the user can only record two channels simultaneously – the HD box has three tuners. The Telewest box has an eight day electronic programme guide, a few days less than Sky, and a more sophisticated user interface. So, for example, viewers can search their record programmes by date, series, A-Z, rather than them being lumped all together on one page as Sky offers. Perhaps the TV Drive’s biggest advantage over Sky is that when you are using the EPG, the TV programme you were watching last continues in a box in the corner of the screen. It's a lovely facility and Sky would do well to copy it. The Telewest box also has a few more DVD style trick play facilities than its Sky rival, and has a neat option that enables users to manually record programmes or extend the recording time at the beginning and end to ensure the box records programmes that may overrun.
There is a price to pay for cramming in all these extra features. One of the beauties of the Sky+ box is its simplicity and, by adding so many options, Telewest has made the TVDrive slightly trickier to use. It feels more like a TV enthusiast’s box rather than the Sky+, which has more universal appeal. That isn’t to say that only techy-minded Telewest customers will be able to use it. It is just that the Sky+ box is so brilliantly simple to use that Telewest would have had to pull a huge rabbit out of its hat to rival it.
There’s no denying that at the moment the Telewest TVDrive has the edge over the current Sky+ box in several key areas. It has HDTV compatibility, a wealth of very cool features and access to the excellent on-demand Teleport service. Sky will undoubtedly tweak its HDTV box to add a few extra facilities, and is also likely to have a bigger hard drive and access to a lot more HDTV footage. Given the track record of hard disk video recorders, reliability is also going to be a big issue for both Telewest and Sky. The one other advantage the TVDrive may have over Sky is that it may actually have more HD footage than its satellite based rival. If, as expected, the Sky HD channels are also available via cable, though Sky hasn’t confirmed this, Telewest may have all the HD content offered by Sky plus more HD available through Teleport from third parties. If you already have a Telewest unit then the TVDrive is an obvious upgrade. If you are considering going HD and are not sure whether to opt for cable or satellite it might be worth hanging on for a few months to see which rabbits Sky pulls out of its hat.
Certified gadget obsessives Tech Digest  and Shiny Shiny  scour Gizmoville for the oddest digital goodies, TV Scoop  features all that’s cool in British telly and HDTVUK  has the latest on high definition TV.