Philips DTR5520 £159
2nd Jun 2010 | 09:30
Does the Freeview HD basics well, but this Pace-y box lacks features
Philips DTR5520: Overview and features
As with a lot of brands trying to address the UK-specific market of Freeview – and in this case, Freeview HD – Philips has enlisted the help of renowned set-top box maker Pace to deliver its entry-level receiver, the DTR5520.
We say entry-level because a Freeview HD recorder, the HDT8520, is also a result of this collaboration – that box includes a 500GB hard drive capable of recording 125 hours of HD programmes.
The DTR5520 is far simpler, but looks the part; dressed in a reflective though fingerprint-hungry gloss black fascia, the diminutive box sports a Freeview HD logo beside a classy blue LED display and some basic controls for channel-hopping, toggling between resolutions (hardly necessary as a front panel control) and VOut, which swaps the output between Scart and HDMI.
That latter function does introduce some confusion because if the Scart is used, nothing can be watched in hi-def – surely the whole point of the DTR5520.
Its rear panel reveals the usual ins and outs alongside something unexpected; analogue audio outputs. That may not seem too exciting, but it does mean that the DTR5520 can take analogue stereo sound to an amplifier.
Also unusual is the fact that the DTR5520 can convert audio on Freeview channels to Dolby Digital if you connect it to an amplifier using the coaxial digital audio output.
Elsewhere you'll find Ethernet LAN (making the DTR5520 ready for on-demand services on Freeview when they start), a USB port (for software updates only, unfortunately), RF in and out (for loopthrough to a VCR) and a Scart. Sadly there's no Common Interface slot, so Top-Up TV is off the menu.
Philips DTR5520: Performance
A broadcast on BBC HD features a vivid image with well saturated and nuanced colours, though skin tones can seem a little peachy. The detail level is high, naturally, but motion is handled relatively well – there's rarely much blur as the camera pans – and the overall picture is spotless.
It's a similar story on ITV 1 HD, though unfortunately it's a lot harder to find native hi-def material on 'the light channel'– an up-rezzed live broadcast of the National Movie Awards just didn't cut it. Phew. Some Freeview HD boxes let you know whether you're watching native HD or SD; the DTR5520 does not, though it's not difficult to see for yourself.
Talking of upscaling – a crucial skill for any Freeview HD box – the DTR5520 gives the many standard-def channels an pristine polish. That same rich colour and deep contrast (and ripe skin tones) continue on Pirates of the Caribbean on BBC3, with the slight drop in detail the only clue that you're watching SD – the DTR5520 is as clever an upscaler as any Freeview HD box we've seen.
Philips DTR5520: Value and ease of use
Installation is a simple process, though not as quick as we'd hoped – it took around five minutes to find all regular Freeview and hi-def channels, and put them in the correct order.
One thing we did notice is that the BBC HD channel – and a number of others – weren't all that stable, suggesting that the DTR5520's DVB-T2 tuner lacks sensitivity.
Meanwhile, the DTR5520's electronic programme guide (EPG) is accomplished. It's designed in shades of blues, greys and blacks and features some subtle 3D effects that lift the text from the screen – that's especially useful since the interface, which could be a touch sharper, uses an ugly font.
Press the information button and the DTR5520 brings up the name of the channel you're watching alongside details of what's currently showing, and what's coming up next – and how long you have to wait. There's also a visual that shows how far along the current programme has gone.
Hover over the channel name and it's possible to scan to another channel and see what's on – and up next – without having to call-up the EPG. It mirrors how set-top boxes from the likes of Sky and Virgin work, so it's not exactly unique, but we've not seen many interfaces that work so logically, or as quickly.
The ability to see what's happening on other channels proves crucial, because the dedicated eight-day EPG is demanding; call it up using the 'guide' button on the remote and it blanks out and mutes the channel you're watching.
If that's unnecessary, at least the EPG is lively. Graced by a Freeview logo, the EPG houses eight channels with three hours of programming divided up into 30 minute segments. A short programme synopsis is displayed beneath.
There's rarely room to display programme titles in this rather rigid grid design, but if you move the cursor into any particular time slot the name of the programme will shift back and forth to reveal itself, though it does do this rather too slowly for our tastes.
If you want to switch channels without recourse to the EPG, there's a simple, transparent channel list that appears is you press the 'OK' button in the centre of the remote. Similarly, hit the 'info' button twice and a full-screen programme synopsis floats over while a channel plays underneath.
The remote control, as usual with Philips gear, is too small. If you've got sausage fingers you will struggle with it – aside from an almost redundant numerical pad, and the volume and channel up/down keys, all the other buttons are way too small.
The fastext controls that are crucial for operating the EPG properly are too close together, while even the oft-used 'guide' (to summon the EPG), 'menu' and 'exit' (to return to live TV after searching the EPG in silence) commands are tiny.
And that's about it for the DTR5520; thankfully this is not a complicated box, though we would have liked a few more options, such as changing the EPG to a transparent design (with sound), or some indication of signal strength on individual channels.
Our only real complaint is the while the EPG is just about quick enough, changing channels does involve a short delay of over a second while the box tunes-in.
Philips DTR5520: Verdict
Philips has made a set-top box that's centered on achieving the highest picture quality – and with Freeview HD on the menu, there's really nothing wrong with that.
Compare the DTR5520 to other options on sale, though, and it doesn't come off too well – with its relatively high price the main reason why we can't give this well-designed box top marks.
The best reason to buy the DTR5520 is for its stunning picture quality. Both standard and hi-def channels are treated well, and in this respect the DTR5520 is in the upper echelons of Freeview HD receivers.
The chance to pipe Dolby Digital sound into an amp is also welcome and the product's interface is generally easy to use.
Without any Common Interface slots the DTR5520 isn't a box to aim for if you've any interest in adding pay TV to the Freeview roster of channels – and with Sky Sports channels likely to form part of Top-Up TV packages in future, that could harm the DTR5520's chances in this competitive market.
We'd also like to see some kind of digital media playback from the USB slot, such as DivX or MP3.
Meanwhile, the remote's buttons are just too small, making the occasionally clunky EPG tricky to navigate.
Good-looking and an excellent picture performer, Philips' DTR5520 nevertheless seems rather overpriced. There are plenty of other Freeview HD boxes that do a similar job and add a few extra features, to boot.
Common Interface slot for adding subscription channels would be very welcome, though its ability to create Dolby Digital is a useful – and unique – feature that could see the DTR5520 do well in a home cinema set-up.
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