Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Rage Against the Machine

In an ideal world, technology would make life easier wouldn't it? In fact, in an ideal world, technology would mesh so seamlessly into your life you wouldn't even notice it making your life easier. Only a few short months ago, that's how it was in the Bear House. And now we have descended into a swirling maelstrom of rage, frustration, recrimination and angst. Oh for those long-lost halcyon days....

We had a PVR. A lovely, modest little Humax. We watched television, we recorded television, we watched recordings, we listened to the radio, we downloaded recorded radio programs to MP3 players to listen to on the bus. It just worked. Press a button and what you wanted happened. You don't really appreciate the glory of a well-designed user interface until you lose it. A user interface that's so unassuming, so mild, so perfect that you can just use it without having to think about it, or fight, or hunt around desperately for the right button or obscure menu option. I feel almost misty-eyed at the memory. Sniff.

And then, slowly, inexorably, our dear little Humax started not to be quite so happy. Instead of switching on and working we'd get the dreaded "green screen". Something was going horribly wrong with the HDMI handshaking between the Humax and our television. We tried everything. New cable, different input, different settings, switching on to an HD channel only, switching on to an SD channel only, switching the TV on first, then the Humax, switching on the Humax then the TV, standing on one leg and only using the remote control left-handed. Nothing worked. Every day it took longer and longer to get to the point where anything worked. With a heavy heart, I researched finding the perfect replacement. I consulted Which? for recommended buys. I read reviews, scoured websites, studied specifications. We (I) decided, in retrospect rashly, not to trust the HDMI interface between Humax and Sony again. I found absolutely nobody online complaining about the connections between Panasonic and Sony units, so chose the best reviewed Panasonic PVR I could find, the DMR-HWT130EB:

"This PVR is one of the best we've tested and a worthy Best Buy"

"all the features you could possibly need in a recorder"

" the Panasonic DMR-HWT130EB is an excellent smart recorder to consider"

How wrong I was. Well, I was right about the HDMI interface. That works fine. Completely glitch free. But the user interface? Oh dear... how is it possible to get it so badly wrong? We've had this stupid machine for months now, and yet BigBear and I still both manage to accidentally press a wrong button at least once every single day. We're not idiots. We're technologically literate. BigBear was even part of the team writing a PVR for Sony a few years ago, so he really does know what he's doing. As far as I can tell, the user interface was designed by rejects from Microsoft who probably thought the Office Paperclip didn't pop up and ask you questions often enough.

Try something simple... try and find a program you want to watch... bring up the electronic program guide. So far, so good. Where are we in the schedule? Nope, not going to show you. You have to pay a license fee on the patent to show you where in the schedule you are, and apparently Panasonic were too tight-fisted to do so. So instead you have to stare forlornly at the screen until you see the tiny writing that tells you the current time, then try and work out where on the schedule that falls. Once you've done that, you have some chance of knowing which programs are currently showing.

Nothing on the current screen appeals... try and page down to the next screenful... oops, no, the page up and page down buttons are handily located at the opposite end of the remote to all the other navigation buttons, and just out of reach of your thumb. You squirm your hand round to hit page down, and accidentally change the TV input setting, because the buttons are too close together, and have the same labels on them. That's right, they've labelled both the PVR page up and page down, and the TV channel up and down with "CH" and some arrows. And put them next to each other. Awesome design skills there.

Now you're back to where you want to be and have found a program you'd like to watch... OK, let's watch it. Nope, you can't just select it, you're going to have to answer a subsidiary question about whether you really mean you want to watch it. And then, if it's also available in HD, you'll be asked if you wouldn't rather watch a different channel instead. Three button presses just to choose a channel? The default action on selecting a program should surely be to watch the damn thing, shouldn't it? If I want information about it, or to record it, place the burden on me to choose a different button, rather than mess around with the simplest function of a PVR. And the HD alternative could be offered in a little pop-up window later, you know in that discrete, simple way my lovely little Humax used to. And yet, when I'm navigating seventeen layers deep in a set of menus and I accidentally press the "guide" button, which is where I'd expect the "up" button to be, I bomb straight out of the menu system and back to the guide I didn't want to see. No double-checking this time, oh no, my mistake, my problem. We're only going to ask you questions when it will slow you down and irritate you. 

How about if you've missed a program and are wondering if it's repeated at a peculiar time of day? Or someone at work has mentioned a really great program you should watch, but they can't remember when it's on? What you need is a search facility. Nothing sophisticated, no need to worry about categories or genres, just a simple keyword search. Oh, no, you can't do that. If you want to search for a program you'll need to turn your computer on, search on the internet for the time, date and channel, and then go and scroll through the EPG till you find it. Which is convenient.

And don't think about trying to start watching something while you're recording it. Apparently if you start watching it, that means you're no longer interested in recording it. None of this high falutin idea of wanting to chase a recording through because you're only ready to start watching twenty minutes after the program started. Oh yes, you can start watching it fine. Everything will appear to be fine. But the bastard box will have stopped recording the moment you pressed "play". Obviously it doesn't claim this is what happens in the manual, but in practice, this is exactly what keeps happening. User error perhaps, but when it's one that occurs with no warning and when used by two moderately competent people, you can't help suspecting a flaw in the UI somewhere.

As for trying to play things that you've got recorded? Don't expect to be able to do that in a hurry. First of all, to bring up your list of recordings you need to use a button helpfully named "Direct Navigator" and disguised as a left cursor. Once you've got used to that though, you'll need to get used to... waiting... and waiting... and waiting... and waiting a bit more, while this useless excuse for a PVR thinks about whether it can be bothered to populate the list of recordings. And it doesn't show any clue that it's thinking, it just shows you an empty page, nonchalantly pretending to have deleted all your recordings. Once you have got a list of recordings, you will find them marked with small, obscure hieroglyphs to hint at further information. Perhaps on a 92" television these etchings would be decipherable. To the normal human eye, on a normal human telelevision, they're just a colourful heap of gibberish. 

If you haven't, by this stage, thrown the remote control and/or PVR itself out of the window, you may consider watching a recording. Be careful not to leave one program selected for too long or it will just start playing it. Not full-screen mind you, just as a thumbnail within the library. Just enough to start annoying you or to spoil the start of a film. Three button presses before you're allowed to watch a live program, and yet the bloody thing starts playing a recording without you pressing anything at all.

How anyone was able to actually use this machine and conclude that it was a really good device is beyond me. Sure, the picture's good, and erm, yes, it does let you watch television, after its own fashion. But it's not really useable. Anything that makes you trip and stumble and swear every time you try using it has failed at a fundamental level in its design. 

I'm seriously considering giving up on it and buying a new Humax.

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