The Philips HDT8520 is a fine looking machine, housed in a solid, slab-like case measuring just 21 x 24cm and only 6cm high. There's a lighted panel on top that gives off a futuristic white glow when the box is turned on and off, and the white LED panel looks neat and elegant. Extra LEDs are kept to a minimum, so it's nice and discreet.
The back of the machine sports the usual range of connectors: HDMI, Scart, Analogue and digital audio, plus USB and Ethernet adapters for firmware updates and playing additional media. There's also a USB on the side of the unit for ease of access.
Hooking up is as easy as you'd expect - simply connect your aerial pass-through, HDMI into the back of the TV and plug in the power. The PSU is not built into the device but instead uses an external laptop-style 12v adapter, and this helps reduce the size of the box itself.
Once this is done, you'll probably hit your first problem.
Tales of Philips' shoddy software for this device are all over the Internet and the latest developments can be found on the relevent AVForums and DigitalSpy threads, so the very first thing you'll need to do is perform a software update. Without it, your box may suffer from any of a multitude of bugs. Despite the box being out for months now, the test unit would not even record - quite a major problem for a PVR.
The latest version at the time of writing is v5.15. This was recently broadcast over the Freeview update channels (details here) but this unit simply would not pick anything up. Since the update was only available for three days, the easiest way to install the firmware turned out to be manually via USB, as follows:
Your box should find the file on the USB stick and install it once you select it.
*Note: the USB stick must be formatted to FAT32 and the file should be in the root directory ending in .bin. An external HD may not work and a multi-disc device like a 3G dongle with a memory card may not either, so try to use a 'normal' USB stick to save hassle.
After updating the firmware and rebooting the machine, you may also experience a 'Drive Full' error when trying to record. The only way I found to fix this was to reformat the drive - again via the setup menu - which is now mercifully quick and solved the problem as well as speeding up the EPG navigation into the bargain.
These initial hurdles do not bode well for customers who are not technically minded, however. The prospect of having to get a family member or a neighbour in to update the firmware just to make the box usable is going to harm Philips' reputation in the eyes of many. The theory is that the box was rushed out in time for the World Cup in order to be the first to market, but the problems still persist months (and at least one update) later.
With an up-to-date box, the EPG navigation is much quicker and there's no longer a horrible lag as the page scrolls. Green and Yellow buttons are now used for moving back and forth through the EPG a whole day at a time, and Red now acts as record rather than the OK button. More importantly, pressing Channel Up/Dn now moves up and down a whole page in the EPG where OK now jumps straight to that channel - things that were not implemented at launch day.
The box supports Freeview+ Series Record and Recommendations. When you press Record on a programme with either of these associated, a selection menu appears allowing you to record just the programme, the entire series or the programme and its recommendations. Recording anything but the programme alone takes a second or so as the box searches for future occurrences of the title (subject to the 7-day EPG) but once done, should ensure you never miss your soaps. In addition the box uses Accurate Recording to ensure delayed programmes are still recorded correctly, and entries set to record are highlighted in red in the EPG.
The 500GB drive in the HDT8520 is good for a claimed 250 hours of standard-definition televison and 125 hours of HD. There don't appear to be any practical limits (that I've found so far) on the number of timer entries that can be configured, either, making this a very useful device to have over Christmas.
Twin tuners come into play here as well - you're able to watch one of the Freeview Channels while recording another, or record two channels while watching a previous recording. This is pretty standard behaviour for a PVR these days and it's good to know that it works as advertised.
Stored recordings are accessed via the 'HDD' button on the remote, and appear as a list of either file or folder icons on the left hand side, depending on how many episodes (eg via series record) of a title are available. A single recording appears as a file icon whereas multiple episodes appear as a folder - clicking the folder then shows each episode as a single file icon. Selecting a recording from the list shows a thumbnail and summary details on the right.
This approach is immediately familiar to anyone who's used a computer before, and fairly obvious after a few attempts to even a complete novice.
By all accounts, HD picture quality on the Philips HDT8520 is exactly what you'd expect - fresh and vibrant and so much nicer than standard definition. It's worth noting, however, that SD programmes are upscaled as well, giving them a clearer, crisper appearance than they would normally have.
I say 'by all accounts' because Freeview HD isn't actually available here at the moment. Going on other online reviews the picture is great, interrupted only by the occasional "HDCP authentication error" messages and garbled audio on some HD broadcasts, which is a problem across Freeview HD boxes and not specific to the Philips.
You can check the availability of Freeview HD here.
The sound output over HDMI is noticibly quieter than over Scart, but other than that there are no problems. Picture brightness is lower over Scart as well, which is a little odd.
Fast-forwarding doubles the playback speed with every keypress, with 2x remaining silky smooth but 4x suddenly becoming quite jerky. Pressing Stop or Play while forwarding is nice and responsive, however, so there's little risk of overshooting the ad-breaks that you're speeding through.
This is a nice box let down by the attrocious software. The first thing to do after opening the box is to ensure you have the latest version by downloading the update and applying it. Really, the box is not supplied in a usable condition otherwise.
Once it is updated, however, it's a very quiet, capable box that performs mostly as you would expect, and since the unit is still supported and the software under development things should continue to improve. If Philips ever include iPlayer and/or YouTube support then they'll have a winner on their hands.