I’ll probably never buy another Topfield PVR

Why can’t these TV-recording devices be a bit less shit?


Topfield 5800 - The current bane of my life

I watch a fair bit of TV. I don’t really drink, don’t smoke at all, and I seem to have been broke for most my life so far. TV is a good, cheap hobby.

First attempt – Philips

Going back a few years, I bought a Philips PVR (Personal Video Recorder). It was essentially a DVD recorder, with a hard drive – but where it got cleverer than that, was that it also had an external bit that could change the channels on another device. You could plug it into a Sky box, and it would change the channels on Sky. It could record from anything it was connected to, and you could teach it to control any device.
From my point of view, I guess it was a bit like Sky+ (then in its infancy), except that while you could only record the channel currently being watched, you could burn off a DVD of it afterwards – which would be readable in any standard DVD drive.

Sounds great, huh?
I thought so. For 12 days.

On the 13th day of ownership, when I was burning a DVD (probably the second or third I had made), it locked up. I restarted it, but it thought it was still burning a disc. It never finished. There was no manual eject, no paperclip eject hole, and all the buttons were electronic. I returned it for repair, with the disc still in it, only to be told the model had been discontinued. Philips eventually replaced it with another model, which lacked the Electronic Programme Guide, and was twice the price.

A home-made PVR?

I got rid of Sky, and switched to Freeview, then started looking online at options like MythTV. It’s a free, open-source piece of software, that runs on Linux, and controls TV cards, records TV shows, etc. It has pretty menus, like you would get with something like Sky+.

“Screw these technology companies”, I thought. I’ll build my own.

I got myself a nice looking case (it’s got to look nice, if it’s going under the TV), built a PC, installed a version of Linux, then tried to use MythTV. I couldn’t get it to work. It could record, but the picture being recorded was degraded, and weirdly enough – upside down. Being an open source product, running on Linux, I found support for it pretty useless/difficult. This isn’t to say that all Linux users are like this, but I come from a Windows background, and it’s entirely alien to me. I think because it’s mostly used by scientists and programmers, the replies you get are not made into what I would deem “English”.

Linux users have always told me that the answers to problems are all out there. There’s online documentation and help forums. I tried both, and when I’ve openly admitted I’m a newcomer to Linux, it’s not helpful to be told to “just recompile the kernel”.
The fact that there is about 15bn (mild exaggeration, but only mild) versions of Linux doesn’t help either.

I tried a variety of versions of Linux, each time hitting a brick wall somewhere, due to poor documentation, or lack of support for hardware, but IF I had ever got myself to a point where I understood it, I’d have set myself up as a translator between ordinary humans and Linux programmers. Because fuck knows it’s a service that’s definitely required.

Needless to say, I looked at Windows options. The long and short of it is that at the time, there wasn’t one. There was software that did some things, others that did different, and none that did all of what I wanted. I eventually went for a combination of things, which worked. For a bit.
It would occasionally lock up when attempting to watch one programme and record another. I had some parts fail, gave it a second go, with a different configuration, more powerful, and with a better graphics card. I failed.

You’ll read online that people who have set up MythTV (or similar.. Sage, GB-PVR, ShowShifter, etc.) from spare parts from old computers, and blog about how it’s running flawlessly. This is (or was at the time) total bullshit.
You can try it yourself. Plug a laptop into a TV, and you’ll see instantly that it doesn’t look like the same quality as your TV. This is one of your biggest problems – making a computer’s output look like normal TV. I tried a variety of different graphics cards, and other hardware configurations, and found very few that looked what I would deem “reasonable”.

Topfield 5800

While all this was going on, a friend of mine had bought a freeview recorder, been incredibly unhappy and returned it, then later, bought himself a Topfield 5800, which was evidently the answer to my prayers. It was apparently a lot better than the other one he’d had.

It could record freeview, and two channels at once. You could watch a recording, while recording two things. Amazing. And it had a USB port, to copy things off. All sounds good?

Well yes and no.

From the start, I had wondered “why a USB port? Why not a network port?”
While the USB port allows you to copy programmes off, it is incredibly slow. I can’t copy it off across the network – I’ve got to have a PC plugged into it no more than a couple of metres away.
I guess this became a ‘nice to have’ type comment, rather than a problem.

Next problem. When I built my own recorder, it recorded in MPEG2. All you need to know about MPEG2, is that it is playable in pretty much anything. Windows Media Player will play it. You can burn it to a DVD, and your DVD player (ANY DVD player) will play it. My Philips recorder would record in something obscure, but then you could burn it to a DVD, so it’s all still readable.

Topfield records in the .rec format. Playable in Windows Media Player? No. Nor anything really. It plays in VLC, but VLC plays anything. And (and this isn’t being unkind) although VLC plays ANYTHING, it crashes often, and the picture quality is never that great.
There is software to convert .rec to another format, but it takes a long time, and is another irritating step in the process.

Topfield develops a fault

My Topfield 5800 - now.

A few weeks back, I noticed something I was watching was jumping. I copied a programme off, and discovered that the jumping was on the recording, not the playback. Sometimes the sound cuts out, sometimes the picture breaks up, sometimes both.

I tried a Topfield forum, and was advised it might be the power supply. £25 for a repair on my power supply, and I discovered it wasn’t that at fault. The device was more responsive after it was repaired, but it didn’t stop the jumping.

So now what? I’ve got 150gb of programmes on my Topfield. Do I copy them all off very slowly, over USB, over the course of a week? Well, there is a quicker way. You can take the drive out and put it in a PC. Great. My girlfriend’s is sat here doing nothing.
So I’ll just put it in and copy it off? Think again, because Topfield drives aren’t formatted in the same way as Windows, or Mac. In fact, even Linux can’t understand their formatting.

I get another bit of third-party software from a Topfield forum, which recognises the formatting, and I can copy stuff off. So where the hell am I going to put it? 150gb of programmes? My Mac, laptop, and my girlfriend’s PC – combined – do not have enough free space for that. I copy a load of stuff off, until I run out of anywhere to put it. That’ll have to do, I guess.
I use the same third party software to run some tests, it discovered some faults and asks if I want to fix them. I don’t understand what this software is going to do, but what other options do I have at this point? I agree, then defragment the drive (then get told on a forum that I shouldn’t have done so), copy the files back, and put the drive back in Topfield, wondering if it is still readable.
I record something, and it seems better. For about half an hour, then it jumps again. Over the course of 24 hours, it jumps more and more, until it’s just as bad as it was before I started trying to fix it.

I delete a load of stuff off of it, put an old spare (smaller) hard drive in Topfield, to get it to format it, then put the old and new Topfield drives in girlfriend’s PC, to copy from one to the other. I’ll just copy everything off in the Windows software. This should work great, except that it insists it can’t do this, until I’ve checked/tested both drives with the software first. The same software I used above. I’m quite confident in it now.

I test both drives. It finds faults on the old Topfield drive, asks if I want to fix them I say yes. My drive is now almost entirely blank, except for about 30 small files described as “lost clusters”, which are not my recordings.

Mother. Fucker.

Which all rather begs the question of how I would stop this happening again?

Buy a new hard drive? That doesn’t fix the problem -it just delays it.

Buy a new model? No. The new model still doesn’t include a network port, and now has a 500gb drive (twice as big as mine). That’s even more files I won’t have space to copy off (and even if I did, would mean leaving it on all day and night, because the USB transfer is so slow, or invalidating the warranty by taking the drive out to copy it in another PC).

Even forgetting the “backup” idea, can’t they see that it might be good to be able to share these files? What about people in houses with multiple rooms. You could have one device where the whole family save, and then be able to watch it from different rooms. Seems an obvious addition, no?

It’s completely stupid really. All hard drives (and electronics) die eventually. And to have no decent way of backing anything up, you’re setting yourself up for a fall. Imagine saving all your music on an iPod, binning all the original CDs, and never backing it up on your PC. That’s what you’re doing. You’re just setting yourself up to one day lose everything you’ve put on there.

They might as well put an 80gb hard drive in there, for all it matters. By using bigger and bigger hard drives, you’re just going to save more stuff, and lose more when the drive eventually dies.

It’s funny how attached you become to a device like this.

That ability to just pause TV. To start watching a film, realise you’re a bit tired, and just record the end to watch later. Recording two channels at once is very handy, because let’s face it – while the BBC is good, and 4od is almost there, the ITV Player is a bag of shite (the video and sound doesn’t even seem in sync for me), and FiveFwd (or is it DemandFive?..whatever it’s called this week?) has loads of adverts. In the past I’ve sat through two adverts and a sponsor message just to watch a trailer for an upcoming programme. Two adverts and a sponsor message, just to watch another advert!

I’m told this is the era of on-demand video. There’s the iPlayer and 4od. Why do I even still need to record anything? Well, my Internet connection is piss poor slow (thanks BT, no thanks to Virgin who tell me it is not cost effective to cable my road, despite the one off mine already being cabled).

The BBC has the iPlayer but in a lot of cases, you have to watch things within the week. American films/dramas – sometimes, just forget about it. They don’t get on there at all.

There was always a rival manufacturer to Topfield, called Humax. Their new device records FreeviewHD, and has a network port to copy shows off. Maybe worth a look when I’ve got money again. I won’t be buying from Topfield’s any time soon.

12 thoughts on “I’ll probably never buy another Topfield PVR”

  1. Ben,
    A similar story to mine. I had similar problems with my Digifusion PVR which eventually I traced to a HD problem. The disk was replaced and all was fine for a couple of months until….
    The company that transmitted the EPG to the box decided they would no longer do that, instantly turning my Digifusion box into a brick. Oh how my Topfield owning B-I-L laughed. If he suffers from the same problem as you then maybe I will have the last laugh. His is the 500GB version.
    A couple of other points to make. I had similar struggles to you with MythTV and I’ve been using Linux for years. MythTV is very hardware sensitive and extremely non intuitive to configure so I said bye bye. I now have a Virgin+ box and also a tiny pc behind my TV running my music and videos from a server elsewhere in the house.
    You can keep stuff from BBC iPlayer if you still have a Linux box by using a very simple command line program called get_iPlayer. This clever bit of software streams progs from iPlayer and saves them as .mp4 files. There is a Windoze version, but I have not used it.
    Good luck.

    1. Hi Nick,
      Bad luck on the EPG. That’s a crappy way to end up with a brick.

      I think it’s quite likely he’ll have the same problem – there’s only really 3 components in there – the motherboard (including tuners), the power supply, and the hard drive. Apparently motherboards/tuners very rarely go. PSUs go very often after about 2-3 years, apparently.

      Glad it isn’t just me who struggled with Myth. At the time when I was trying to use it, I couldn’t find anyone with a bad word to say about it. I tried installing it myself, then when I got lost with that, I tried the Knoppmyth easy install, which also lost me completely.
      By far the best TV card I found was a Hauppauge something-or-other with hardware mpeg encoding, which sells itself as a “PVR”. What it doesn’t say on the outside of the box is that they don’t have TV listings for the UK. Hauppauge make great hardware, but surprisingly poor, unreliable, memory-hogging software. Not that there is any software support for Linux, anyway.
      The video card was harder. Best one I found for mpeg2 playback was an ATI, and at the time, ATI weren’t really doing Linux drivers.
      These issues probably didn’t help me much.

      I reckon it might be easier nowadays, as TVs are no longer CRT, and also – computers have HDMI output. Now they’re speaking some of the same language, the resulting picture might be easier to get.

      What I found most annoying about Topfield, is that they’ve never gone back and sorted these issues out.
      I’ve had the device for 3.5 years, and in all that time – no new model has come out with a network port. If I owned an electronics company, I’d have stuck a network port on it, added £50 to the price, and sold it as a PVR/media server hybrid – that can do things that other devices can’t.
      Surely you’ve got the same problem with your V+, in that you can’t keep anything/copy it off? Or do you just copy off select things to DVD?
      Not heard of that iPlayer save tool. That does sound handy. Might look into that.


  2. I’ve been using MythTV since about 2006. It’s a bit of a pain to get /everything/ working properly (i.e. weather, news feeds, emulator integration, etc) but being based around open standards, it doesn’t come with any of the hassles of the various appliances. I used the Fedora Mythology ( http://wilsonet.com/mythtv/fcmyth.php ) guide. The mythtv-users list ( http://www.mythtv.org/mailman/listinfo/mythtv-users/ ) is probably the best place to get assistance.

    ‘Degraded’ picture quality doesn’t give a lot to go on, but the upside-down picture suggests to me a bug in the video card driver you were using. I bet if you’d tried playing the recording files on a regular monitor connected via the VGA connector, it would have looked fine. I certain had similar problems when I experimented with ATI cards; I now exclusively recommend nVidia for MythTV (I’ve used a GF440, a 7600GT, a 7600GS and a GT240). I’m pretty happy with Hauppauge DVB-T tuners, though their Nova-T-500 dual tuner card is somewhat buggy and requires careful handling.

    As for its connection to a CRT TV, I use a homebrew VGA to RGB SCART cable ( http://www.nexusuk.org/projects/vga2scart/ ). As you say, modern flat screens should be easier as they usually include HDMI, DVI and/or VGA inputs (though from what I gather, there’s a different world of pain resulting from TV motion compensation, frame rates and the like). Sadly, I only found out after I bought it that the GT240 won’t produce a 15kHz VGA output like earlier models – I’m using that elsewhere until I get a TV with a HDMI or DVI input.

    1. Cheers Alex. I don’t have the funds at the moment to go down that road again – but given that there still isn’t another system to rival it, I might have another go at some point in the future.

      Think part of my problem with video cards was that of the ones I managed to test, the best mpeg2 playback (in windows) was with an ATI (although oddly enough – using nvidia’s truevideo..truemotion..true..something.. codec).

      When I realised that ATI has poor support under linux, I started thinking about testing nvidia cards, but it’s hard to really properly test a card, without buying it and putting it into a PC.
      I did once sneak an mpeg2-filled dvd into a demo model in PC World of a so-called home media center (came with TV-out, a remote control, etc.). The picture quality was absolute shite. The definition just wasn’t there. I’d have been extremely disappointed if I’d bought it, expecting to use it as a media center, connected to my TV.

      Good luck with your future compatibilities, picture quality, fighting the motion compensation, etc.

      1. Regarding definition, the problem is usually source material in my experience. Pressed DVDs are usually pretty carefully produced (though there are exceptions!); broadcast Freeview TV is quite another matter. I recently used MythTV to archive some films recorded from ITV onto a DVD. It will automatically re-quantize recordings to fit onto a single disc if necessary, and it did this to squeeze about 6GB of recordings onto a 4.5GB DVD. When I played it on a DVD player, I was disappointed to see some painfully obvious blockiness in certain high-action scenes. I initially put this down to trying to squeeze too much onto the disc, but when I checked the original recordings, the same blockiness was present! Generally the BBC channels use the highest bitrates, for best quality, whilst the commercial channels use significantly lower rates, and the teleshopping channels the lowest. You can use all the clever upscaling algorithms you like, but you will never get back to the original picture quality.

        The problem is not unique to SD Freeview, either – I remember reading complaints a couple of years ago that the same issues were present with UK HD broadcasts after the compression parameters were tweaked in favour of squeezing more channels onto the HD multiplex, at the expense of picture quality.

  3. So sad. Can sympathise. Hubby & I are currently stuffing around with topfield 7100. Pressed a wrong button somewhere and our menu page will not allow us to get into the timer setting. Do you have any ideas???

    1. Since I wrote this, I’ve replaced the hard disc with a spare, and it is now working ok-ish. It’s a bit noisy and the drive isn’t really fast enough to record two shows and watch a third, like the original was.

      I’ve no experience with the Topfield 7100 at all. I think it’s just an upgraded 5100, but am not sure any of the menus will be the same as mine.
      BEFORE you try anything, have a look on http://www.toppy.org.uk, register for the forums and ask them – they are a helpful lot.
      Also, you may find there’s an upgrade for the box that resolves your exact problem.

      If it was me, if it is the same as the 5100, you can get into the timers page either by going Menu -> Recording -> Timer Setting,
      OR by going, Menu -> Timer Setting.

      If neither of those ways work, I would probably bite the bullet, assume that I would have to add all the timers back in, and do a factory reset. WARNING: This will wipe all channels and timers. You will have to do a service search, and set up all timers again. That’s under Menu -> Installation -> Factory Setting. On my box at least, it doesn’t wipe any recordings, but as I don’t know the 7100, I couldn’t guarantee the same on yours.

      Good luck.

  4. I bought a Topfield trf-7160 only last month. Imagine my surprise at not finding a manual inside the box. Also it should have included a HDMI cable but it wasn’t there. It’s not a very easy PVR to understand and the remote control is absolute crap. Sure you can unload 100 pages of instructions from the net, but to find what you want will take you hours. Never again will I buy such shit! When I complained to the salesman at Harvey Norman, he pretended that the manual and cable applied only to models two years ago. Let’s face it, once you pay your money they don’t want to know you.
    Customer satisfaction only applied in the past.

    1. I’d say the user interface (and remote control design) are probably the biggest weaknesses of the Topfield (although you’ve bought a much newer model with a different menu, etc. to mine). They could probably do with some kind of wizard that runs on installation, that helps you set it up.
      And with mine – the remote control is all over the place – it was a long time before my housemate understood what button did what, because it’s not immediately obvious in a lot of cases. It’s almost like it was an afterthought.
      It also surprises me they’ve made no effort to do anything with HD in the UK, as debated in this article: http://gonedigital.net/2010/12/30/how-topfield-lost-the-plot/
      Humax is probably the forerunner in that area now, here at least.

      With a lot of electronics nowadays you don’t get a manual in the box, unless it’s on a CD, and HDMI leads seem to have become a bit like when you buy a printer – you don’t seem to get them with the device. Just the way of the world I guess.
      I’ve always found more useful Topfield information/help on sites like http://toppy.org.uk, than I have from official sources.

  5. Mine is dead/behaving oddly. I reckon it’s the harddisk. A PVR is gonna cain the harddisk, so death is inevitable. Replacing it every so often should help. Having a small NAS connected to it that automatically backs stuff up is one solution; I’ve never bothered to fully set this up though.

    It’s a shame all the tech is not-quite good enough yet.

    1. The NAS configuration is a pain in the arse though. You can’t just connect one (no network port), nor can you just plug in a USB hard drive. The USB-PC transfer is too slow to be done regularly, without losing the will to live. I know you can do it easier/more regularly with a Netgear ‘slug’ thing and 3rd party firmware, but what a pain/extra expense, just to backup your own recordings.
      I used to think it was convenient to have 250+gb of recordings stored up, but where’s the convenience, given you could lose them at any minute and can’t easily back them up? 1000gb or 50gb. It makes little difference, as these days I try and make myself watch things ASAP or just admit I’ll probably never do so, and delete them to save myself the agony of these sort of problems.

      I can’t remember if I documented all this, but when my Topfield first went funny, I thought I’d take the hard drive out, copy the lot off to another drive, and put a new drive in. But you can’t seem to. The transfer software that understands their stupid drive format, didn’t seem to like having two drives of that format connected at once, nor would it reliably copy all the programmes (some copied, some got corrupted somehow). I think it’s supposed to be ok with two drives, but it didn’t work reliably at all.

      To be fair to Topfield, my girlfriend has recently bought the Humax HDR-Fox T2, and that isn’t without fault either. It’s got a USB port where you can just plug in a memory stick/usb hard drive and copy files off. Great. So I recorded 2 minutes of standard def tv off BBC1, copied it to a usb stick, then to my computer. On trying to watch it, I get sound but no video (in VLC. Which traditionally plays anything/everything as you probably know). I’m assuming there are workarounds/alternative software for that.
      It has also (at least twice in the last fortnight) forgotten to record things I’ve set it for. When I go in the scheduled recordings, they’ve just gone as if I never set them. Hopefully there’s a bug fix for that. I’ve tried to tell myself “it’s just some TV shows.. get a life!”, but it isn’t half annoying to lose 1-2 episodes sporadically from a series you’re trying to follow. Sometimes I don’t watch stuff within the week, so by the time I realise, it’s gone from the iPlayer/wherever too.
      I’ll need to troubleshoot this further through the cold winter evenings.
      Much as I hate the price of Sky, you have to hand it to them that Sky+ (while you still can’t copy programmes off, and even if you could, they’re all encrypted) at least remembers to record things, doesn’t wipe all the timers when the channel lineup changes, doesn’t try and add 3 versions of BBC1 (two of which are unwatchable), need rescanning every 6 months, etc. It mostly just works.

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