As much as we love to compare and contrast it is a bit unfair to carry out a head to head between the Sky+ 160 box and Telewest's new TVDrive system. Very few people are going to make their choice about which TV service - cable or satellite - they choose on the basis of a hard drive video recorder. Nevertheless after seeing the TV Drive in action last week, we can say it will certainly give Sky's engineers something to think about.
The big difference between the two boxes is at the moment the Telewest system is HDTV compatible, whereas Sky’s is standard definition only. For Telewest customers this means that through the Teleport TV on demand system they can view, as well as record, High Definition programmes. At the current time Telewest only has a limited service – see here for more, but this inevitably will grow especially when HDTV films are added to the mix in the spring, and, hopefully, sport in the summer. The quality of the HDTV signal – we saw 1080i from the BBC series Pride - was quite superb. It is not the huge leap that the Americans had from wonky NTSC signals to high def, but still enough of a gap to impress the viewer with the richness of the colour and level of detail. Sky is going to offer up to eight HDTV channels in early next year almost all of which will show more than fifty percent of their footage in the new format. Incidentally the Telewest HD footage is in the MPEG2 video format whereas Sky has opted for MPEG4. Even Telewest's engineers acknowledge this makes little difference to the viewer – a codec is a codec apparently.
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 eighty hours of standard definition programmes and around twenty of high defintion. 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.
Sky currently charges from £199 for its 160 Sky+ box and no one as yet knows how much the HD box will retail for. Telewest has taken a different option and is allowing users to rent the box for £10-15 per month depending on which tariff the subscriber is on. It will almost certainly sell the units to customers at some point in the future. Telewest claims that as the box is rented it is easier/cheaper for users to upgrade to future boxes. Unless Sky offers a trade-in discount, Sky 160 box owners will be paying the same price as everyone else to upgrade their HD system.
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 etc rather than them being lumped all together on one page as Sky offers. Perhaps the TV Drive’s coolest feature 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 that the box records programmes that may overrun. Finally the Telewest box will let users rewind a programme they have been watching for up to an hour and a half. With Sky this is half an hour.
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 it 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. Still both units are excellent in their own way and both are very warmly recommended.