Hands On: Harvard’s View21 Smart TV Freeview+ HD PVR

view21-smart-tv-box

For the past few weeks we’ve been playing around with the View21, a set-top box developed by Harvard International who are probably better known for their Goodmans and iLuv brands. Although the View21’s design isn’t overly attractive (it reminded us of an oven dish!), it certainly packs a punch when it comes to features: pause, rewind and record live TV via twin HD tuners, store over 300 hours of recordings, enjoy free to air HD channels and, more uniquely in this crowded marketplace, the ability to interact and stream from the device using a nifty iOS app.

Check out this video where we unbox and setup the View21:

The View21 Play app enables you to stream and view content from your box as well as to control it. So this allows you to stream live TV directly to your iOS device over your home network. You can also watch recordings from your library without interfering with anyone else using the device. This is something that we’ve been keen to see Sky support and it’s nice to see a newer player beat them to it.

We had a quick play with the app in this video:

In terms of controlling your box, this is slightly less ground breaking, but nevertheless you can use your iOS device as a fully featured remote. Users can also download the View21 Photo app which enables them to push photos from your iOS device to be viewed on your TV screen.

The View21 box itself comes with a small selection of apps, in fact the company states that it’s the first digital box to integrate YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. While we can see the appeal of being able to watch ‘Harlem Shake’ on your TV, we remain less convinced by the current push by manufacturers to use social media through the telly.

View21 pride themselves on making user-friendly digital boxes and this certainly comes across in the device’s no-fuss design. The front panel contains no visual display and opts instead to use small lights to show its status: on/off, fast forwarding/rewinding and whether its currently recording. There are also some physical buttons to allow you turn it on, change the volume/channel, start recording and an “Ok” button to confirm menu options.

We found setup to be painless and straight forward – plug in the power, HDMI and aerial cables and connect it to your router. It was a nice to see the company include all the necessary cables as other companies, to save costs, often omit the HDMI cable.

We found the View21 more than capable of handling the standard Freeview+ functions, such as rewinding and pausing live TV and setting recordings. The EPG (programme guide) was adequate and it’s clear that they’ve aimed to make it user-friendly. We found that it could lag slightly when initially scrolling through the schedule, but once fully loaded it was fine.

The View 21 app performed well, there was some stuttering for the first few seconds as the device buffered the content, but after that, the stream was smooth and good quality. The ability to go to another room and continue watching TV on your iOS device is excellent, as is watching the end of a recorded programme from the comfort of your bed – rather than nodding off on the sofa!

Our main gripe, and this applies to other ‘connected’ boxes, is that the View21 doesn’t come with built in WiFi. While you can buy a wireless adapter, or use a powerline ethernet adapter, it would be nice to see these devices working straight out of the box via Wifi, a la Apple TV.

All in all, if you’re not overly fussed about YouView and if you’re looking for a device that can easily stream live and recorded content to your iOS device, then you can’t go too wrong with the View21. At the time of writing the 500GB version is available on Amazon for £199.99 or £169.99 for the 320GB.

Humax Freesat freetime: Fixing broken TV

TV is in an odd state right now. I’m one of the those annoying people who will say “I don’t watch TV” even though I now – thanks to Netflix and other streaming services – watch more TV than ever before. But the idea of coming home and just popping on the “telly” now seems as antiquated as a rotary phone, or opposing gay marriage. More and more high-quality content coming direct from creators – amazing web series are springing up all the time. And non-traditional sources are supporting content – Yahoo worked with an amazing team to create Burning Love and Todd Glass, Bill Burr and Moesche Kasher all have specials out on Netflix.

Free-Time

So where does that leave hardware? Well it’s blindingly obvious that the future of TV is “connect” and the ability to control when and where you consume content should be the minimum entry requirement for any entertainment set-top box in this day and age.

Humax gave us a digital HD freesat+ box with <> to see what a modern set-top box has to offer. Installation was a relatively easy although it requires a wired ethernet connection rather than wifi. I get the logic (stable connections are important when streaming high-def TV) but running cable across a living room is a pain. They do suggest using Homeplug Adapters as an alternative but it’s already heading into “hassle” territory and “old world” technology.

The actual box is a little on the dull side but you’re supposed to be looking at the content not the device. Obviously there are HDMI connections but if you still have an older SCART etc device you can still get connected. I found the remote a built builky and plasticky but that’s probably because I’ve been spoilt by the frankly amazing remotes that come bundled with Samsung devices.

One you’re connected all the standard on-demand services such as the iPlayer, 4oD and itv Player. And all the regular Freesat programmes are there if you dish/antenna set up confirms to regulations.

Remote

The main feature of the box is it’s recording functions and dual-tuner Freesat PVR is easy to use. It’s also quite clever in the way it groups shows together making it pretty intuitive to work your way through Homeland or whatever the kids are watching these days. You can manually manage recordings and the box will automatically delete older recordings if you run out of space. For £20 over the 500 Gb base model you can get a 1TB internal HDD which is definitely worth it.

There’s a little USB port on the front for media playback and DLNA streamng is also supported with the system is able to handle HD MKVs if you’ve somehow aquired a bunch of those.

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The standout feature of the unit however is it’s EPG which is a delight to use. Navigation is fast and fun and the slick interface is one of the better ones I’ve seen on this type of unit. Finding what’s on and saving things you enjoy is a breeze. Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be an app to record remotely via your smartphone but I’m sure one is in the works.

Overally the freesat box has “a fresh spin on an old classic”. It won’t revolutionise the way you watch TV but if your viewing habits match 90% of the population you should fine something for you in here.

The Humax 100S is out now and costs £280.

HomeFree Duet: Freeview comes to your iPad

AverMedia has come up with the bright idea of a network-attached TV tuner and an app that enable iPad fondlers to watch Freeview TV on their tablet devices.

AverMedia

The HomeFree Duet connects t your digital TV aerial and wireless network router. Then it can stream real-time digital TV to IPads, as well as Windows laptops and PCs. Using the HomeFree player app, available from Apple’s App Store, users can watch all the freely available digital stations. And because the Home Free Duet has two TV tuners, it is possible for two people to watch different channels on two different iPads or computers.

The HomeFree player has a touchscreen interface, allowing you to see channel and programme details as well as an electronic programme guide. To change channels, just tap and drag on the iPad display. You can even grab screenshots of anything you’re watching, to share with mates or upload onto social networking sites.

The HomeFree Duet will be on sale for £149.99 from Amazon in December. The HomeFree player app can be downloaded from the Apple App Store from the middle of December for £2.99.

And if you feel like your whole home is being overtaken by gadgetry (and yet don’t want to stop adding to it), the good news is that the HomeFree Duet is no hulking behemoth, but is, in fact, smaller than your iPad.

More details from Aver Media.

Preparing for the digital handover: the best of the set-top boxes

It all started off with a trial in the small Welsh communities of Ferryside and Llansteffan. 500 properties switched over to digital television in 2005, way before anyone else did, as part of a Government trial. Next was the Copeland area in the Borders in 2007. And now in 2010, BBC One and Two, ITV, Channel Four and five are systematically being dumped from the analogue airwaves as the Digital Switchover really starts to take a grip across the UK.

There’s a whole host of digital television set-top boxes out there to buy if you’ve never made the digital TV leap yet – but if you fancy something a little different, there’s also a load of other digital avenues to investigate.

Boxee-Box

There’s a host of HTPCs around – Home Theatre PCs – or integrated digital TVs too, but are these about to sound a death knell for the more traditional set-top box? LatestGadgets decided to look at some set-top boxes on the market and ponders if they’re about to become obsolete in the face of more upmarket and deviant forms of digital television.

1. Philips DTR220 Freeview Set-Top Box – With a guide price of £35, this set-top box is digital television at a modest price and perfect for those on analogue television needing to make the transition to digital.

2. Alba ALDTR160 Freeview+ recorder (guide price £70) – Taking the next step up, Freeview+ draws inspiration from Tivo and Sky+ and allows you to record digital televison. It’s got a 160GB hard drive, equating to 80 hours of material, so recording your episodes of Coronation St. hasn’t quite been so easy.

3. Sky+ HD – You can now pick up Sky+ boxes relatively cheaply if you’re about to join Sky – or if you’re an existing customer – so there hasn’t really been a better time to delve into satellite television. And with HD functionality too, super-sharp image quality is one of this box’s more redeeming features.

4. Sony Bravia KDL46EX503U (£996.55 on Amazon) – Splash out with the 46-inch Sony Bravia TV with built in Freeview HD. It’s got all the mod-cons – like WiFi and Internet Video capabilities – and of course, integrated Freeview HD. Freeview has never quite been so luxurious.

5. Boxee Box – Boxee is a novel concept – a free computer program allowing you to collate videos from your computer and the Internet, pulling content from a number of outside sources too, such as YouTube and Last.fm. D-Link have made the soon-to-be-released Boxee Box, a sleek looking box which removed the PC from the Boxee equation, allowing you to watch content from the Internet or your hard drive. It’s similar to Home Theater PCs, but is designed for the living room.

Sagemcom Freeview+ HD: Simple, yet effective

The number of companies vying for a space next to your TV seems to grow every day. Once the sole domain of the VCR, now countless set top boxes all jostle for your attention. From 3D Blu Ray players to the new Mac Mini, there are more ways than ever to beam images onto a TV screen.

Joining the throng of devices competing for your hard earned cash is Sagemcom’s SAGEMCOM RTI90-320 T2 HD and the SAGEMCOM RTI90-500 T2 HD. Rather than attempting to be a Jack of all Trades, Sagemcom have instead decided to become a master craftsman and have focussed on the Freeview+ HD markets.

Sagemcom-Freeview+HD

Sagemcom invited us to a product launch and we got to spend some time looking at the unit with some of the Sagemcom team. Remarkably simple to operate, the SAGEMCOM RTI90-320 T2 HD is compact and looks like a chubby VHS. Packaged with everything you need to be up and running in minutes – the unit, remote, batteries and wonderfully, an HDMI lead. Tantalizingly there is a USB port at the front and an Ethernet port at the back of the unit. Pouring over the refreshingly thin manual I could find no real clue as to what they were for. When I asked the Sagemcom team they confirmed -the ports don’t have an official function yet. However there is a possibility they may be upgraded at some point in the future. For now however, the focus is on getting the Freeview+ HD functionality right.

After tuning, the unit is virtually idiot proof. The inbuilt hard drive (320 Gb on the unit i used but there is a 500 Gb unit floating around) allows simple one button recording, either from the EPG or from the live TV which you can also pause, record or rewind. You can also record a whole series, via the Series Link feature, hard drive space permitting. Twin DVB-T2 tuners are fitted so you can record two programs at once and of course you can access Freeview HD channels, including BBC and ITV HD, so it’s an ideal device to watch the World Cup on. If you watch a lot of Freeview and crave digital simplicity, this unit could well be for you.

Prices for the Freeview+ HD £249.99 for the 320gb and £299.99 for the 500gb which is due out at the end of the month.

Something worth watching: the EZBox LT-105 digital freeview set-top box

With the analogue to digital switchover happening now, the nice people at NextD have created the EZBox LT-105, a gadget that allows analogue viewers to keep watching their favourite programmes without having to splash out on a new digital TV set. Complete with an auto-retune feature, the box will automatically upgrade when the switchover happens in your area without you having to lift a finger.

Ez-Box

The EZBox supports the Freeview TV standard and provides 50 Freeview Channels and 24 digital radio stations. These include the usual suspects (the BBC channels, ITV and Channel 4), as well as digital-only services, such as Film4, E4, BBC3 and ITV2. And if all this choice leaves you indecisive, viewers can now avoid family squabbles and choose their schedule in advance using the eight day listings guide.

Easy to set-up and install, the box comes with step-by-step instructions. Thanks to its auto-retune feature, users only have to go through the set-up process once. Even if channels are added to or removed from the digital service in the future, the box will automatically retune itself. Other standard features include parental controls, two scart connections to allow VCR recording and an RF loopthrough. Using less than 1W when on standby, the box is energy efficient and bill-friendly.

In addition to the usual set-top box features, NextD have installed a USB 2.0 connection for firmware downloads, as well as a JPEG and photo album viewer that allows you to share pictures with family and friends through your television set. For all the music lovers out there, the EZBox comes with WMA and MP3 playback features so you can listen to your favourite tunes before flicking over to the news.
On sale for just £35, the box can be purchased directly from Amazon and provides a cheap solution for analogue television owners.

HD-FOX T2 – Humax’s first Freeview HD PVR

If you want to experience the thrill of high definition television but don’t want to spend wads of cash on a cable or satellite subscription, try the new Freeview HD box from Humax.  It’s the first HD set-top box in the UK, and likely to be a trendsetter as demand grows for the pin-sharp detail and vibrant colours of high definition programmes.

For a one-off payment of around £179, Humax’s HD-FOX T2 gives you the usual 50 standard definition channels and 24 radio stations, plus the two existing free HD channels from the BBC and ITV in 1080p full HD.  You can also use it to view photos and videos, listen to MP3 players, and set up home networking via its Ethernet port.

Freeview boxes tend to be refreshingly easy to use and this one is no exception.  Taking just minutes to set up, the instructions are clear enough for even the most dedicated technophobe to get right first time. Automatic channel updates mean that once it is set up, it pretty much looks after itself, and no subscription means that you can forget about it once it’s installed.

However, for all the positives, there are drawbacks.  You only get two extra channels and, when you consider that the price of a standard Freeview box starts at about £20, the extra cost makes those two channels very expensive indeed.  But the good news is that more free HD channels are expected, with Channel 4 and S4C Wales being added imminently and others sure to follow in due course.

The other downside is the level of HD coverage at the moment.  Right now, you are only able to pick it up if you live around London or in the Granada region, made up of Lancashire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Cheshire and North Staffordshire.  However, Glasgow, Newcastle, Leeds, Birmingham and Cardiff are due to be added by the end of March; check your local area before you splash your cash by clicking on www.freeview.co.uk/availability.

Overall, the HD-FOX T2 is an ideal choice for anyone who is curious about the benefits of HD but wary of getting tied into a long-term contract.  It is also a good option for those in rental properties who are not allowed to install cable or a satellite dish.  And although there are only two HD channels at the moment, more will follow, and at least the existing two will keep you entertained throughout a summer of sport.

Toshiba Freeview HD Blu-ray recorder?

Though it’s somewhat late to the Blu-ray party after nursing the HD-DVD hangover, Toshiba is ready to lead the pack when it comes to Freeview HD. The company has revealed that it plans to launch a Blu-ray recorder with twin DVB-T2 tuners and a hard drive to cover all your free HD recording needs in 2010.

toshiba-hd-bluray-freeview

Keen AV gadget-watchers will probably notice that this set up will make it a kind of spiritual brother to Panasonic’s DMR-BS850. Yes, that’s right, Panasonic really did have the temerity to release a £1000 TV recorder with the letters ‘BS’ in the name, no doubt echoing the thoughts of most Curry’s patrons when it’s suggested to them.

Toshiba’s confirmation of support for Freeview HD comes as perennial early adopter Humax announces its first DVB-T2 receiver. The earliest version will have no PVR, but you’ll be able to record to a hard drive attached over the USB port. 3view just about bested Humax though, with a twin-tuner receiver including 320GB of storage and an Opera web browser.

Freeview HD broadcasts began in earnest in London and Manchester on December 3rd, but it seems those in the right area will need to be patient for some time longer. It is expected that over 50% of the UK will be able to receive the HD broadcasts by the time the World Cup begins, if you’re willing to upgrade your equipment.

Initially, Freeview HD’s offering will be limited to BBC HD, Channel 4 HD (or S4C HD for you Welsh types) and ITV HD, with Channel 5 expected to join them later. Not all programs will be in HD, but the broadcasters are beginning to take advantage of the technology for those shows that would benefit from the boost. At the BBC alone, several studios have been upgraded and 2009’s Children in Need was the first ever available in HD. Other shows to get a video bump are Strictly Come Dancing (fair enough; it’s pretty glamorous), Ready Steady Cook (well, it’ll make the food look nicer I suppose) and Eggheads (wait, what?).

Look, it doesn’t matter that Eggheads is pointless in HD. Keep your eyes on the real prize: The World Cup. In free high definition. And England have got a fairly easy group. I’m experiencing the highs already. Does this mean a horrendous low in 10 days’ time? Damn.