PVR smackdown: Humax 7500T vs Strong SRT 6500

Not all personal video recorders are created equal. Strong and Humax's recorders offer Season Pass options and streaming video features, but which is best for your lounge room?

Australia's free-to-air commercial TV networks go out of their way to make it hard for us to catch our favourite shows each week. In theory a Personal Video Recorder (PVR) frees you from the shackles of the broadcast schedule but, as I explained recently, most PVRs tend to leave you in the lurch.

Two key contenders in the Australian PVR market are the Humax HDR-7500T and the Strong SRT 6500. These flagship models offer insight into how the two PVR vendors are heading down different paths.

The Humax is compatible with IceTV.com.au, an Australian online Electronic Program Guide which replaces the EPG embedded in the broadcast signal. An IceTV subscription is $99 per year, although you'll probably find a voucher in the box offering a few months for free. You'll also get good deals on some PVRs if you buy them directly from the IceTV.com.au website.

IceTV makes it easy to create Season Passes to automatically record your favourite shows each week, managing everything remotely from your computer or mobile device. You can also create Season Passes based on keywords and other variables. The beauty of IceTV is that it checks the EPG for schedule changes rather than blindly recording the same timeslot each week.

Strong's former flagship PVR – the SRT 7000 – offered IceTV integration, but it's been dropped with this new SRT 6500 (the model numbers aren't sequential, I know, it confuses me as well). Strong has built its own Season Pass features into the 6500, relying on the free-to-air EPG in the broadcast signal, and Strong tells me it's unlikely to reintegrate IceTV into future PVRs.

Keeping an eye on multiple channels

A PVR's primary job is to record your favourite shows from start to end, every week without fail. Considering this, it's worth examining Strong and Humax's core PVR features before delving into their streaming features.

Both PVRs can record two channels at once on two different networks, while letting you watch a third live channel from one of those networks. Alternatively you can watch something you recorded earlier.

If this isn't enough you might look around for the old Strong 7000 which was discontinued a few months ago. It lets you record three channels at once, as long they're not spread across more than two networks. While you're recording those three you can even watch a fourth live channel.

This might sound confusing, but it basically means that the Humax 7500T and Strong 6500 can record programs on Seven and Nine simultaneously while you're watching 7MATE. The old Strong 7000 will let you record Seven, Nine and 7MATE simultaneously while you're watching 7TWO, Nine's GEM or Nine's GO. This might seem like more flexibility than you'll ever need, but it could be a lifesaver if you're catering to the viewing needs of a busy household.

It's tempting to ignore the 7000 and just concentrate on the new 6500, but it's important to appreciate what's been gained and lost in the upgrade.

A 500GB hard drive should be good for storing more than 200 hours of standard-def recordings. This sounds like a lot but you'll be surprised how quickly a busy household can fill it. You can set the Humax to automatically delete the oldest shows when the hard drive is full, but you can "lock" programs you want to keep. Unfortunately there's no way to only keep the last few episodes of a Season Pass, as you’d find on a TiVo or Windows media centre.

Meanwhile Strong's 6500 simply stops recording once the hard drive is full, so you'll need to get into the habit of regularly deleting old shows. There is no way to tell it to automatically delete old recordings.

Talk of Season Passes brings us back to the fact that Strong has ditched IceTV. This means there are no remote scheduling options for the 6500 via a computer or smartphone, you can only set up your recordings using the onscreen EPG. Strong calls its Season Pass feature "Smart Series Record" and it's designed to check the EPG for program changes rather than blindly record the same timeslot.

Simply select the program you want to record in the onscreen EPG and press the "S REC" button on the remote control to create a Smart Series Record. You can then dip into the Timer List to set it to start recording a few minutes early and run a few minutes late. You can also set global padding to automatically add up to 10 minutes before and 30 minutes after every recording. The Humax can automatically start all your recordings up to 20 minutes early and run them up to 20 minutes over. The longer post-padding means the Strong is more likely to catch the end of a prime time program running late, as sometimes even 20 minutes isn't enough in Australia.

Unlike an IceTV Season Pass, there's no way to further tweak a Smart Series Record – such as preferring high-def broadcasts, ignoring reruns and limiting recordings to certain times of day. With Strong's Smart Series Record it's all or nothing, which is a problem when the networks tend to rehash programs and sprinkle them throughout the week.

Another issue with Strong's system is that it relies on the haphazard program title data included in the broadcast signal. For example, I called up Nine's GO schedule on the Strong and found three episodes of The Big Bang Theory in a row. The official title of the first and third episodes was "The Big Bang Theory (Includes sneak peek - Power Games - The Packer Murdoch Story)". When I clicked on the episode called "The Big Bang Theory" and created a Smart Series Record it failed to pick up the "sneak peek" episodes because they didn't use exactly the same title.

Meanwhile the hand-curated IceTV EPG had no trouble recognising all three as episodes of the same show. IceTV also gives you the option to find programs on any channel, whereas Strong's Smart Series Record for "The Big Bang Theory" on GO didn't pick up episodes screening on Nine. If you do run into trouble IceTV also lets you create keyword searches, but this isn't possible with the Strong.

This might seem like a minor technicality, but it's actually a big deal. Like I said, a PVR's primary job is to record every episode of your favourite show, from start to end. This is much harder if you're relying on the free-to-air EPG. This isn't Strong's fault, but it certainly puts the Strong PVR at a major disadvantage and will be a deal-breaker for some people.

Skipping the ad breaks

Both the Humax 7500T and Strong 6500 automatically buffer what you're watching so you can pause and even rewind live TV. You can also start watching a program while you're still recording the end. If you're trailing behind the live broadcast, known as chasing playback, then you can fast-forward through the ad breaks until you catch up to the live action – handy when you're watching the footy.

Apart from traditional fast-forward and rewind buttons, the Humax also lets you jump forward in 60-second increments and back in 15-second increments, although you can change these time periods. They're 30-second increments on the Strong.

Unfortunately both of these PVRs delete everything in the buffer if you forget you're time-shifting and start channel-flicking. When you switch back to the footy you've jumped to the live action and there's no way to get back what you've missed. The contents of the buffer will only be retained if you were actually recording the game before you changed the channel.

Easy to use?

Unfortunately the Strong's menus aren't overly user-friendly and its remote control is also rather busy and daunting compared to the Humax. Tech-savvy users will eventually learn their way around but novices will struggle more with the Strong.

Humax's onscreen EPG displays more channels, but still manages to be easier to read and navigate than Strong's. When you're looking for shows you've recorded, the Humax puts all the recordings from a Season Pass in a sub-folder to make them easier to find. Ease of use also depends on the little things, such as the fact that the Humax pops up a notification to let you know when you've switched from a recording or time-shifting to live TV.

Even so, both PVRs leave a lot to be desired in the usability stakes compared to a TiVo or Windows 7 media centre.

What can I stream from the web?

Both PVRs feature a built-in Ethernet port and the Strong comes with built-in wi-fi, while Humax offers it as a $49 optional extra. It's worth noting that the Humax 7510T isn't far away and will come with a wi-fi adaptor standard, plus Humax intends to overhaul the PVR interface and include support for Hybrid broadcast broadband TV (HbbTV), an internet video standard which Australian TV networks are starting to explore.

The Humax has a clear advantage when it comes to online content. Press the TV Portal button on the remote and you're presented with apps for Quickflix, ABC iView and SBS On Demand. You'll also find TV-friendly versions of YouTube, Picasa and Wikipedia along with an App Store containing a grand total of 13 apps.

Humax's apps and streaming video services aren't much to get excited about compared to what you'll find on a Samsung or Sony smart TV, but the inclusion of a movie service and Catch Up TV is better than what you'll find on most Australian PVRs.

Meanwhile the Strong 6500 is an internet video wasteland, only offering access to internet radio and online weather. If you look to the old Strong 7000 it offers YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Picasa, internet radio and a basic web browser which doesn't handle Flash. Strong tells me that it's moving its focus away from online video and Catch Up TV, which will certainly disappoint some shoppers.

What can I stream around my home?

This is where things become more interesting, especially if you currently rely on a PVR like a TiVo which locks away all your recordings and won't stream content from your local network. There is optional TiVo software for copying recordings to your computer, but I've always found it flaky.

Both the Humax 7500T and Strong 6500 can act as DLNA servers, letting you watch the TV shows you've recorded from a range of other devices around your home. The ability to stream recordings from your PVR is great if you're catering to a busy household, letting the kids watch their pre-recorded shows in the rumpus room rather than commandeering the lounge room.

Both PVRs will play files from a USB stick, plus the Strong sports a DVD/Blu-ray player which offers region-free DVD playback. The Humax's strength is that it's also a DLNA player, letting it stream files from your computer, network drive or even your smartphone if it can act as a DLNA server (such as Samsung's Galaxy S4). You can even stream recordings from other DLNA-enabled PVRs and use the ad-skipping buttons, which could make two PVRs at either end of the house a powerful combination.

What's surprising is that Strong's 6500 isn't a DLNA player, although you can specify a folder on a local computer from which you want to stream content. The 6500's party trick is that you can use an iOS or Android device to access the built-in tuner directly and watch live television across your home network. Strong recommends using the 8player app on iOS, although I found it to be temperamental with audio missing from some content. In theory you can stream live to more than one mobile device at a time, but the picture breaks up. The 6500 is also a DLNA renderer, letting you stream from mobile devices, but again results are hit and miss in terms of audio.

The Humax isn't a DLNA renderer, unlike some DLNA-enabled set-top boxes and televisions, so you can't stream to it from a mobile device. It can only stream from DLNA servers.

So what's the verdict?

The Strong 6500's 30 minutes worth of post-padding is certainly attractive, but you're giving up a lot in return – especially considering the live mobile streaming isn't rock solid. The Humax's 20 minutes of post-padding seems a reasonable compromise considering you gain DLNA playback along with Catch Up TV and Quickflix movies. The fact it's more user-friendly also wins it points, along with its storage management options. Unless you desperately want Strong's live streaming options, the Humax 7500T makes a better all-rounder for your average home.

Yet to be brutally honest I wouldn't trade my old TiVo for either of these PVRs, even though the old Series 3 TiVo can only record two channels at once and lacks local and internet streaming features. The TiVo's slick menus, ease of use, tightly integrated custom EPG and intelligent storage management still make it my PVR of choice. The fact TiVo is dead in Australia and we're missing out on the new model TiVo Roamio is heartbreaking.

That said, the ability to stream recordings from a PVR via DLNA is tempting. If I was forced to replace my TiVo tomorrow I'd go for the Humax 7500T over either of the Strong options. Yet hopefully by the time my TiVo gives up the ghost the competition will be a little more polished.


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