IN DEPTH REVIEW: Topfield TRF-2400 Masterpiece HD

IN DEPTH REVIEW: Topfield TRF-2400 Masterpiece HD


As the publicity shot suggests Topfield’s new Masterpiece HD is intended to be an object of desire.

The
Masterpiece HD features most of the mod-cons you’d expect from a
Personal Video Recorder such as dual-HD tuners 500GB hard drive
eSata port for attaching an external drive HDMI and digital audio
outputs. You can easily record two shows at once pause and rewind live
TV and even watch the start of a program while you’re still recording
the end. The PVR can extract the Electronic Program Guide from free to
air broadcasts but it’s also compatible with the IceTV
subscription EPG service (Topfield throws in a three month subscription). IceTV gives the Masterpiece HD TiVo-like
powers such as remote scheduling and the ability to create a true
Season Pass – which checks the EPG for schedule changes – rather than
the recurring recordings used by most off-the-shelf recorders.

The
Masterpiece HD is MPEG-4-compatible meaning it will handle the
eventual switch from MPEG-2 broadcasting which will render older
devices useless (although this won’t happen for at least five years).
The Masterpiece HD still doesn’t get the Freeview tick of approval but
that’s only because it offers features the networks frown on – such as
ad-skipping and the ability to copy recordings from the device. You’ve
still got access to all the new standard and high-def channels.

There
are rumours that Topfield may release a firmware update to make the
Masterpiece HD compatible with the upcoming Freeview EPG but this is
unlikely as it would require Topfield to license the MHEG-5 platform on which the EPG is built.
It would also require Topfield to disable features such as ad-skipping
which would cause a riot amongst customers who bought the Masterpiece
HD specifically because it’s not hampered by Freeview’s restrictions.
If the Freeview logo does gain traction amongst shoppers Topfield has already released a Freeview-endorsed 7150 model
with features disabled – similar to the Beyonwiz FV-L1. Right now there’s no
advantage in buying a Freeview-endorsed device as Freeview has
confirmed its upcoming EPG will be based on exactly the same data already
embedded in the broadcast signal.

Enough industry gossip is the
TRF-2400 Masterpiece HD any good? It’s certainly got a few tricks up
its sleeve for those looking for more features than TiVo offers. For
starters the Masterpiece HD has Flickr and YouTube access complete
with an onscreen keyboard for entering search queries. It’s also a
media player handling DivX VOB MKV and MP4 movies as well as MP3 and
JPG files. What’s really surprising is that it can’t play these files
over your network from a PC or network attached storage. Instead you
need to copy them to the hard drive via FTP browser or USB stick or
else play them directly from a USB device. This is a major
disappointment considering the trend towards networked lounge rooms.
Technically you could use FTP backup software such as Handy Backup to sync your BitTorrent download folder with the
Masterpiece HD but it would still be a hassle compared to using a true
networked media player such as a Beyonwiz PVR.

FTP and web
server access open up some interesting possibilities such as copying recordings to your computer and converting them for a mobile device. If you
configure your router to allow remote access from the web you can
schedule recordings and download them from afar – although they’re
bloody big files.

Another feather in the Masterpiece HD’s cap is
composite and component video inputs for time-shifting and recording
from external devices. It sounds like the perfect option for Foxtel
subscribers who don’t want to pay extra for an iQ or iQ2 personal video
recorder although the catch is that it doesn’t handle high-definition
signals only 576i and 576p. That’s another major disappointment and
if you’re a Foxtel subscriber you’d be better off spending your cash
on an iQ2.

Here’s a close up of that Topfield publicity shot so you can really appreciate its features. Before you complain I didn’t cut her head off – that’s exactly how she appears on the Topfield website. Note that high gloss reflective shine.

When to comes basic PVR features the Masterpiece HD
can hold its own. It automatically buffers up to five hours of video
allowing you to rewind live TV but the buffer is reset if you change
channel. Unfortunately it doesn’t prevent you from channel-flicking
whilst time-shifting so if you’re watching the footy and forget you’re
10 minutes behind the live broadcast changing the channel will throw
you into the present and reset the buffer (in Topfield’s defence most
other PVRs suffer from the same flaw). The buffered video is stored in
the recording folder but meanwhile the game is still going so you’d
need to hit record watch what was in the buffer and then start
watching the recording. It sounds like more hassle than it’s worth.

Considering the buffer is stored in the recordings folder it’s
surprising that if you press record a few minutes into a show it
doesn’t add what was in the buffer to the start of the recording. You
can however rewind a live broadcast to the point where you last changed
channel and then hit record.

When it comes to usability the
Masterpiece HD is streets ahead of the painfully clunky Beyonwiz
interface but it still falls short of the idiot-proof TiVo. Channel
changes take around 1 second and the transparent menus are attractive
informative and mostly intuitive. The inclusion of a universal remote
control is also a nice touch although it’s got ugly square buttons and
minimal colour coding which would make it hard to use in the dark
especially as it lacks a backlight. The four-way rocker also makes an
annoyingly loud click. I’d leave it in the box and stick with something
like a Logitech Harmony universal remote.

The Masterpiece HD’s
onscreen EPG displays 7 channels by 2 hours or 5 channels by 5 hours
and you can easily jump 24 hours forward or back. Pressing record lets
you schedule a recording or recurring recording and specify pre- and
post- padding in case it starts late. You can also set global
post-padding in the menus. The program is now flagged in the onscreen
EPG as scheduled to be recorded. Unfortunately if you want to create a
proper Season Pass you need to do it via IceTV which means you lose
the ability to adjust the pre- and post- padding. IceTV is looking to
improve this in future versions but meanwhile the process isn’t as
smooth as using a TiVo or Vista Media Centre.

When it comes to
picture quality both SD and HD broadcasts looked just as smooth as as
our TiVo with both PVRs set to 1080i and connected via HDMI to our our
46 inch 1080p Sony Bravia. The TiVo perhaps still featured slightly
less compression articfacts when the picture quality was poor. DivX and
VOB files also played smoothly although for some reason 192 kbps MP3
files were downscaled to 128 kbps.

The big question concerning
the Masterpiece HD is reliability and here there is still work to be
done. The PVR features seem solid as does the IceTV integration –
something which has been unstable on previous Topfield models.
Unfortunately the TRF-2400’s media player features
still seem flaky. It refused to play many YouTube clips
refused to display most of the JPGs I threw at it and offered choppy
audio on some VOB
files. The files were copied to the Masterpiece HD via FTP and HTTP so
I copied them back to the computer see if they were corrupted by the
transfer process. The VOB file’s audio played fine but some of the JPGs
didn’t. When I copied the originals to a USB stick and stuck it into
the player they played fine.

Of course such bugs can be fixed with a firmware update but
the very thought should strike fear in the hearts of longtime Topfield users – something we’ll get back to in a minute.

So
what’s the verdict? The Masterpiece HD gets a tick in almost every box
although the fine print is frustrating – such as no LAN-based playback
and a component input which only handles 576i/p. The media player
features are a bit buggy and a cloud also hangs over Topfield in terms
of general reliability.

The high-def Topfield TF7100HDPVRt was met with rave reviews a few years ago until it became apparent the unit had
major stability issues. The situation wasn’t helped by Topfield’s habit
of using customers as unwitting beta testers of new
firmware. Owners of the 7100 were forced to suffer through months of
flaky firmware
releases before it became stable and even now problems persist.

The forums at itopfield.com.au were full of unhappy 7100 owners until
the forums were mysteriously taken offline a few months ago. Topfield
assures me that the forum is only temporarily offline while it
negotiates moving to a new website but the timing would seem designed
to quash complaints about the new Masterpiece HD.
Even when the forums were up and running Topfield was generally less
than forthcoming and helpful.

Enough of such talk let’s take another look at that Topfield promo shot because it actually speaks volumes. Don’t ask questions don’t complain about bugs – just look at the pretty pictures. What are you looking over here for worried about silly things like reliability when you should be looking at the sexy hardware over there?
 

The Masterpiece HD is only
just hitting the shelves so there are few
user reports to go by at this stage although it was amazing how
several new forum members sprung up at Whirlpool
people who miraculously managed to get early units and absolutely loved
them. Eventually the forum moderators stepped in and removed many of
these posts – labelling them as spam. The same users turned up on other
forums and in the comments section of online reviews gushing about the
Masterpiece HD.

Even if the TRF-2400 Masterpiece HD seemed absolutely flawless I’d still recommend
potential buyers hold off for a few months to see if problems emerge
and more importantly how Topfield responds. It will take time for Topfield to earn
people’s trust again.