With DVD recorder and television manufacturers continually releasing new kit without digital TV tuners, and the analogue switch-off provoking viewer concerns the length and breadth of the country, set-top box makers are capitalising. However, Freeview boxes can be hit or miss when it comes to features, most specifically in the electronic programme guide (EPG) area. Netgem has no such worries though, as its iPlayer has so many features you could almost put it into a category all of its own.
The burgundy triangle
It's rather larger than the average STB, and despite the box's curves it can't really be called stack-friendly. But the sleek, UFO-style design, with an absence of any sort of legends or badges, will certainly provoke intense questioning from gadget-loving friends. Even more so when they're confronted with the remote - by far the weirdest looking control device I've come across. Triangular and burgundy, it doesn't really seem to go with anything. It's a easy to use, though, so looks aren't necessarily everything in this case.
Connections are more conventional. Two RGB Scart outputs (for TV and recording device) are present rearwards as are stereo mini-jack and optical outputs for audio. However, there's also a telephone line in/output for connection, via dial-up, to the internet - the first suggestion that this is no mere digital tuner box. On the side are Smart Card and Common Interface slots for expansion to Top Up TV, and unusually, a USB 1.1 port.
Considering the multitudes of functions the iPlayer is capable of, set-up is both easy and frustrating in equal measure. On initial start-up, an extremely friendly wizard (accompanied by a soothing female voice) guides you through channel tuning, the use of the remote control and dial up internet connection. But, if you want to add Wi-Fi or Ethernet functionality (for either media streaming or broadband sharing) it becomes a battle between man and machine that echoes the drama of the Terminator movies. Basically, if you have little or no knowledge of IP addresses, Gateways or DNS entries, a fair amount of time spent with customer support is almost guaranteed. It's also worth noting that external accessories will be required for both, with an USB Ethernet adapter typically costing a tenner and Wi-Fi adaptors ranging from £30 - 70 (for the faster 802.11g).
The USB port will also accept certain USB memory sticks and external hard drives containing MP3 audio, MPEG2 video and JPEG images. Although, as the port is only USB 1.1 compatible, it's worth checking the list of recommended equipment on the website before you can be guaranteed they'll work. Plus, of course, if you're streaming video, there's a slight lag at times due to the connection's low speed.
Worth the effort
But, when you see the presentation and general functionality of the iPlayer , you'll get a feeling that such toil has been worth it. Personally, I thought that the 7-day EPG was gorgeous, with each channel displaying its specific ident as a graphic and displayed using a large, friendly font. It's as if they've been designed for AOL, such are their familyorientated aesthetics. They also pop up almost the instant you press the corresponding button. Also impressive is the ability to keep a signal even when using an indoor (powered) aerial in a poor transmission area - only minimal picture break-up was noted during my trials. Menus are cleverly designed, with mode adjustment available through an intuitive tree system.
The pièce de résistance is the box's ability to access your email, browse the internet or show caller details (accompanied with a corresponding picture) when someone rings the house phone - as long as you have Caller ID activated on your land line. You can even send and receive SMS text messages too, all through the same pleasant menu system, which you can write using the remote control in mobile phone style fashion (or using an IR keyboard, for an extra £25). Essentially, this is a, albeit limited, media hub.
And it doesn't end there. The iPlayer is also compatible with the Phantom PVR accessory; a small device costing £29.99 that syncs and controls your VHS, PVR or DVD recorder to start recordings following a click on the netgem's EPG. Unfortunately, this too needs a fair amount of patience during set up, as you have to program it to recognise your recording hardware, but it's still a neat feature nonetheless.
Bells and whistles aside though, the most important aspect of Netgem's machine is its primary purpose, TV viewing. More specifically, the audio visual quality. Thankfully, the iPlayer performs well. Through the RGB Scart there's a rewarding richness to the unit's colour performance (I often find digital tuners to be slightly washed out, even pastel in tone) and blacks hold their own well without a loss of shadow material. There's few artefacts around edges, even during fast movement.
Sonically, the unit operates at its best when using the optical digital audio connection. Digital radio stations sound as crisp and clear as the broadcaster's bitrate, while more general broadcast fare is quite comparable with the performance of other set-top boxes.
The Netgem iPlayer is undoubtedly the most versatile Freeview box you can currently buy. Its feature spread is inventive, if complex. However, only the techno-savvy or masochistic will enjoy the hideous set-up shenanigans you have to go through to connect it to a router or PC.
Average users may feel that it's too convoluted for the living room: for example, the internet browsing capabilities are restricted to simple websites without Java and unless you have a keyboard, you'd never really use the email hub. However, as a advanced Freeview box, the iPlayer is unique - and probably has one of the nicest user interface seen outside Windows Media Center Edition 2005.