Co-developed Lord Alan Sugar, the first YouView PVR is here. Should you hire it or fire it?
YouView, the perennially gestating terrestrial digital/IPTV TV service, has finally arrived… in the guise of a rather anonymous-looking digital recorder from Humax. Developed by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five, TalkTalk, BT and Arqiva, to the tune of £70m, the service was originally expected to launch in 2010. But at times it looked like it might never appear.
YouView is best thought of as Freeview on steroids. It’s the first non-subscription TV service to combine over-the-air DVB with internet-delivered catch-up and on-demand services (courtesy of BBC iPlayer, ITVPlayer, 4oD and Demand 5). It’s a genuine alternative to the likes of Virgin Media’s TiVo and Sky+HD, and its makers hope those who have resisted the siren call of subscription TV packages, or simply fancy a change, will see it as a tempting proposition. Both BT and TalkTalk will also be pushing the platform, with branded YouView boxes forming part of their own triple-play packages.
Of course, two years on the back-burner haven’t done the service too many favours. Many of YouView’s integrated online offerings are already available on Smart TVs and other connected devices.
What’s more, the service will soon have to face off against a new generation of Freeview boxes, which promise to offer much of the same functionality. Dubbed Freeview Smart, these will embrace many of the advances outlined in the latest D-book 7 specification, including a retrospective EPG, integrated catch-up and IPTV-only channels (sound familiar?). Unless there’s a coming together (which, of course, would be the sensible solution), both operations would seem to be shaping up for a classic format-clash.
Humax knows how to make a good PVR, so it’s perhaps no surprise that this £300 box is so slick. Featuring a 500GB hard drive and twin Freeview HD tuners, it’s clearly a close relation of the brand’s HDR-Fox T2. The finish is gloss black, with a large illuminated power button at the centre.
Connectivity includes HDMI, aerial loopthrough, Scart, AV phonos and an optical digital audio output. There’s also a USB port and Ethernet. Curiously, Wi-Fi is AWOL. If users are unable to easily hardwire the box to their broadband router, Humax does sell a USB Wi-Fi dongle to do the job.
But it’s not the hardware which sets this YouView box apart, it’s the user experience. An inspired blend of iPlayer and TiVo, it presents what could potentially be a confusing offering and makes it a breeze to use.
Beaneath the lid, clever things are afoot but you never feel bogged down in menus. The main screen is a subtle live content overlay, with a navigation bar across the bottom of the screen. From here you can scoot to the TV guide, on-demand content (which at the moment is just the four channel catch-up players, but other services including Sky Now will come) and your recordings library.
The retrospective EPG is key to YouView’s appeal. Users can both plan ahead and record to the HDD, or look back for what they’ve missed. When a past show is selected from the guide, it starts the relevant channel’s catch-up player. There’s also powerful, but flawed, Search functionality. Type in a subject and related suggestions are offered. You can filter content via genre and type, or peruse a Most Popular selection. Unfortunately, searching is restricted to catch-up content only; the live TV EPG is ignored.
Image quality is outstanding. Recordings mirror their original transmission quality, with the best offering plenty of fine detail and texture. Standard-def content is obviously soft in comparison, but the box does a fine job upscaling.
Streamed content is far more variable, and to a large part is dependent on the speed of your broadband. YouView itself appears to be optimised for 3Mbps to prevent stuttering. To mitigate any buffering problems a small partition on the hard drive is reserved to cache streams. During my audition I experienced no buffering problems.
Overall, I’d rate this YouView debutant a winner, although it’s not without issues. The box makes a (low-level) noise, even in Standby, and Wi-Fi really should be integrated. The latter issue will be addressed shortly, as will the average-sized hard drive – a 1TB version will follow later this year.
As a user experience, though, it’s pretty darn good, beating the current crop of wall-garden Smart TVs at their own game. Buy with confidence
Price: £300 approx
Highs: Seamless integration of internet television and DVB; excellent hi-def image quality
Lows: Noisy, even in standby; no DLNA functionality; no USB media reader; restricted Search
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