Terratec Cinergy T²

Terratec, approx price £70 inc VAT

Freeview is now an established digital TV platform here in the UK, allowing anyone access to around thirty channels and plenty of radio channels, all that you need is a decent aerial and coverage, and you can buy a box for around thirty pounds which you can just plug in and go, and your television viewing is now digital. And of course this opens up plenty of opportunities in that there's more things to watch, as well as a better picture quality most of the time too.

So with this in mind several companies are now offering TV tuners which allow you to receive Freeview channels on your PC, so you can watch them in the comfort of your PC room with minimal effort and fuss, well at least that's the theory. Of course things have moved on a long way from the days of when you'd just have a big card that you had to install inside the PC that only did analogue. You can get digital TV cards which sit inside the PC in a convenient PCI slot, but increasingly with the popularity of USB2, there's now plenty of devices which you can simply plug in to a USB port to save opening up your PC instead.

Terratec have been long established, particularly in Germany, for their sound cards and other devices for the PC, and so with this in mind I recently managed to grab my hands on their Cinergy T² offering - thanks to a work colleague who had purchased it - and so I was able to do some thorough testing and evaluation. In terms of ease of use, and also what the reception would be like, would it therefore be any good?

First things first, you'll notice that there's the main Cinergy receiver box, which is really small, it is lightweight and offers a mini-USB connector, similar to those found in digital cameras, as well as a standard aerial connector. Now this gains plus points straight away from me, as you'll see later on. You also get the USB cable to connect up to a spare USB port in the PC, and a stick aerial antenna with a magnetic base so that you can place it somewhere and it'll stick (preferably not a PC hard drive of course). The stick aerial can be used in stronger reception areas which means that in theory you won't necessarily need an aerial cable in the room where you plan to use the receiver. You also get a remote controller (the front of the Cinergy box is actually a remote receiver for this purpose) and a CD with the necessary software.

Now usually with these devices it's normally better to install the software first and then the hardware afterwards. Ignoring the CD (which in some releases was German only - not that smart, methinks) I went straight to the web and downloaded the latest version of their Terratec Home Cinema application, version 4.18, which also contains the drivers as well. The drivers are also certified for the Media Centre Edition of Windows XP, which is handy if you have such a beastie in the house (as many people now do). The application install went without a hitch, and after it installed, it just asked me to restart the PC. That done, I plugged in the Cinergy T² to the PC, and also it's stick aerial to the box, and Windows asked me to locate the drivers - which were unpacked in a folder C:\TerraTec\Cinergy T2\BDA Driver\ for ease of use. And the driver install went super smooth.

So what of the reception with the stick aerial? Well as I live near a church that blocks a fair bit of signal (and hence I have to have a huge aerial stuck to the chimney that's about 15ft up) I didn't expect it to pick up any channels, but it did. However watching them was useless because the signal broke up constantly so it was a bit of a non-starter really. I think thought that's not down to the hardware, as almost all the stick aerials are of the same design, just purely a reception issue that's more localised with my surroundings. Nonetheless it did at least do the scan correctly.

Moving to an aerial cable fed in from the main roof aerial and things were much better. Thankfully as I mentioned the receiver box has a normal aerial connector, so if the stick aerial is no good you can just unplug it and use a normal aerial cable instead. Once I hooked that up, I did a scan for the channels with the Terratec Home Cinema software and it amazingly found all the channels possible. It then arranged them all into a favourites list - and it's here where I encountered my first quirk. Rather than use the official freeview channel numbers, it's instead arranged into an alphabetical list, meaning the BBC Interactive feeds are the first on the list, followed by abc1. It would be much better if the software actually used the proper channel numbers so you could watch it just like a normal Freeview receiver.

That said, the signal was now spot on. The reception varied but never fell below 75% signal strength, and the quality was constantly 95% or above, so in terms of reliability it was rather nice. When you watch the channel, there's a slight pause when you change, but soon the picture comes up fine. Indeed, the software even detects if the signal is widescreen or fullscreen and adjusts accordingly, which can be quite useful if you want to preserve the original aspect ratio when watching transmissions.

Looking at the software in more depth, you also have the option for now and next info, a full 7 day Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) as well as subtitles. Now here's the cinch, the subtitles work really well with transmissions on BBC One for example, but you try and access digital text and it just does not work. I even rolled back to different versions of the software and none of them had that functionality working properly. I guess it could have been set for the way that other countries do teletext, but our digital text just wasn't going to play ball whatsoever. That for me was a major downer, sometimes the BBC teletext is very handy for finding out information and for it not to work just wasn't right.

Also, the Terratec Home Cinema allows you to record programmes and/or transmissions on the fly. I did a test recording of a couple of channels and the quality was nothing short of superb. Even better, as Freeview transmits in MPEG-2 compatible format, it was fairly easy to import the captured video into any DVD authoring software and, if possible, make a DVD out of what you've captured, perfect if you're a home recording enthusiast and you don't want to splash out on a DVD recorder with hard disk and Freeview decoder et al. I also did another recording from the BBC Interactive feed on 301, and that worked really well too, so that was nice to see. Crucially, the recordings kept synchronisation so that there was none of that foreign television advert syndrome you sometimes see.

There's also a remote control which can work the receiver box, and anything on the remote can be replicated with the keyboard and mouse, so it's up to you if you use it or not. The remote was fairly rugged and it did work nicely, the only minus point was that the application for the remote control loaded automatically on startup and so might prove to be an annoyance to some users. It did do what it needed to do though and proved handy for flicking between channels as a test.

Overall Conclusion

Well, it's nice, and convenient, but... there's a few minus points, mainly because of the software. The quirkiness of that could put people off, although the scanning for channels was accurate enough, and indeed when hooked up to a good reception aerial the picture was spot on. Also, I think that in a way the fact that you need to be in a good coverage area shouldn't be overlooked, the reception will only be as good as the aerial you use. At least you have the option of not using the stick, a plus in my eyes for sure. But for recording programmes from Freeview, it's very good, and the quality definitely makes it worth a look. So if you can put up with the odd quirk, it's solid if not spectacular.

Warren's rating: 78%