Another new Set Top Box

I don’t know if it’s just us, but our set top Freeview Digiboxes don’t seem to last that long.

We don’t have Sky or anything like that here, just a Freeview box with a Hard Drive for recording TV shows. The first one we had years ago was Digihome Freeview box and we loved it. It did everything we needed and worked well until July 2009 when it just stopped working. At the time we looked around for a suitable replacement but couldn’t find anything that had all of the features we used most from the digihome box so we upgraded from what was a then broken 40GB version to a newer 80GB version. At the same time we decided to upgrade our very old TV and also our even older DVD player so we had a completely new home entertainment system.

When it all arrived the digibox didn’t work so had to go back to be replaced. eBuyer replaced it without any quibbles, but it has never quite lived up to expectations and has never really worked as well as the original 40GB version. It’s often slow to respond, often needs to be re-booted and has lately become even more temperamental, sometimes simply ‘forgetting’ to record programmes for us. Yes, it was time for another new one.

Now, whenever buying new bits of tech it’s always fun to do some research and see how things have moved on. I hadn’t looked at digiboxes and Freeview recorders for a few year and things have certainly changed.

More Storage

The smallest digiboxes these days seem to have 320GB Hard Drives, with most sporting 500GB or larger drives. Until I started writing this post today I hadn’t realised that ours was only 80GB, but not wanting to go for the smallest on offer these days we ended up going for a 500GB version. After the paltry 80GB that we’ve had it should be more than enough – although Morgan will soon fill it with episodes of Doctor Who.

High Definition

Many Freeview channels now have a High Definition Freeview+HD alternative. I’ve haven’t seen any HD content yet as our old digibox was only SD and we don’t have a Blu-Ray player, but our TV is ‘HD Ready’ so it would seem to make sense to get a new Freeview+HD box rather than an SD one. There is a difference between HD Ready and True HD mind you, with HD Ready being an intermediate step in resolution between SD and HD.

  • Standard Definition (SD) = 576 Horizontal Lines
  • HD Ready = 720 Horizontal Lines
  • True High Definition (HD = 1080 Horizontal Lines

Even though, it would seem silly to get a SD box these days – Yes, as we were looking around for a new Freeview box our television started to feel old and out-dated as well – sometimes progress can be frustrating  but we can’t afford a new TV so we’ll have to put up with it for a few more years yet. Hopefully having an HD Freeview box will give it a new lease of life.

Going for an HD box also necessitates the need for more storage as HD programmes will take up much more room on the Hard Drive than SD programmes – justification for the 500GB version then!

Smart Boxes and Connectivity

The next thing that caught my eye with many of the latest Freeview+HD boxes is their ability to connect to the Internet and offer additional features. Some of these new ‘Smart Boxes‘ allow access to various online services such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Many allow access to BBC iPlayer and a few also allow access to other catch-up or on demand services such as ITV Player and 4OD. Others allow you to connect to your local network and stream media from a networked server. Some even allow you to stream media stored on the hard drive of the Smart box to compatible devices such as tablets. All of these features sound pretty good but quite how much we’d actually use them after initially playing with them is another matter.

Very few of the affordable Smart Boxes offer all of the features and it was difficult to find any definitive answers on what other devices they were compatible with. We were tempted by a few of them though. The ability to use BBC iPlayer and other on demand services was top of the list of extra features. The only boxes that seemed to offer all of the UK on demand services were YouView boxes. YouView is a joint venture by some of the UK’s biggest names in TV and broadband. Headed by Lord Sugar it provides free access to Freeview Television and TV on demand services There is no contract and no subscription for accessing catch-up and Freeview content. We couldn’t quite find a box that was within our price range though with most YouView boxes starting at around £250, but it does show promise and could by the way things go in the future.

Another Freeview+ Box that caught my eye was the View21 box which also offers Freeview+HD and access to BBC iPlayer. It doesn’t support the other On Demand services though. What it does have that sounds nice are iOS apps that allow you to use your iPad or iPod as a remote or as the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG), allowing you to set up recordings etc on your iOS device whilst still watching the TV. You can also stream photos from your iOS device to the TV and even watch TV or recordings from the View21 box on your iPad whilst someone is watching something else on the TV. This all works over a wireless connection but unfortunately the box itself doesn’t have Wi-Fi built in so you have to either buy an additional Wi-Fi dongle or connect it to the network via Ethernet. This adds extra expense to a box that was already a little out of our price range at around £170. The iOS apps look like a really nice feature though and would probably have been something we would have used.

We were quite taken with the Samsung Smart Hub as well, which has many of the same features and seems to be becoming the king of web connected Smart boxes. Exactly how compatible it was with iOS devices though was a little uncertain and again at just under £200 they were just out of our price range.

Stick with the Basics

In the end we decided it was best to go for the least expensive option and stick with the basics. What we ‘needed’ was a solid Freeview+HD box with a good EPG and robust recording ability. A quick, responsive basic box would be better than an all singing all dancing smart box that we would end up constantly configuring, rebooting and fighting with clever features that weren’t quite up to the task yet. I’m sure all set top boxes will be ‘smart boxes’ in the near future and all will have in built W-Fi, countless apps and integration with mobile devices. They’ll all be fully configurable and will all work just the way we want them to, but at the moment they aren’t quite there and it remains to be seen how it will all fit together. No doubt Apple will bring out a new AppleTV that does it all and ‘just works’ – they’ll probably announce it just after our new one arrives!

We needed one now though and decided that the basic functions needed to work properly before we started adding on any extras. In the end we found a TVonics Set Top Box that was being sold at various places for £115. Its a Freeview+HD recorder with two Freeview HD tuners and a 500GB hard disk. It therefore ticked all of the boxes on the basics and had some good reviews. The screenshots of the EPG looked good – something that we are always keen to see as there’s nothing worse than a difficult to use EPG. Also important to us was the speed and responsiveness of the box and the reviews all seemed positive in that respect:

“The user interface is quick and slick, with great use of colour and, most importantly, speed.”

“The interface on this TVonics box is simple, super-fast, hi-res and impeccably consistent.”

“The slickly-designed user interface makes this box a pleasure to use. The fonts and colour scheme are attractive, and navigation between menu screens is fast and logical”

We like the sound of that. The reviews did say that it was let down by its web connectivity and the fact that it didn’t have built in Wi-Fi, but whilst researching it we discovered that a Wi-Fi dongle for it cost less than £10 (similar dongles for other makes were around £40-£50) and that the firmware has been updated several times since it’s release. Adding the Wi-Fi dongle this to the box allows it to connect to your wireless network and the latest firmware provides access to BBC iPlayer. So, as well as having the basics covered, it would seem as though it will have a few extra features for us to play with after all.

We ordered it over the weekend so hopefully it’ll arrive soon and I’ll be able to report back saying that all is well and it does just what we need. Lets just hope there’s some good TV on over Christmas so that we can really put it through its paces.

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Alan Cole

Alan is a Freelance Website Designer, Sports & Exercise Science Lab Technician and full time Dad & husband with far too many hobbies: Triathlete, Swimming, Cycling, Running, MTBing, Surfing, Windsurfing, SUPing, Gardening, Photography.... The list goes on.

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