It's probably fair to say that the much-hyped Freesat initiative has been something of a fiasco so far.
Much of the promised hardware has not yet materialised and, as a result, supply has failed to meet demand.
However, there are alternatives – especially if you're specifically interested in getting hi-def for free.
Indeed, distributor Turbosat has been promoting the MVision HD200 – and its 'Combo' bigger brother, which adds Freeview DTT reception and is the subject of this review – as Freesat alternatives.
Although these receivers don't support uniquely Freesat features like the EPG, they are ready for free-to-air, hi-def channels. That means BBC HD and, thanks to a firmware tweak, the ITV HD channel that was hitherto a Freesat 'exclusive'.
In terms of other features, though, the HD200 duo goes far beyond the average Freesat offering. You get common interface capability, Conax CAM emulation and DiSEqC 1.2 dish control. And all of this for not much more than the price of one of those elusive Freesat boxes.
The midi-sized HD200 Combo is quite distinctive-looking, with a front panel that gently slopes inwards towards a slightly recessed centre section – thereby guiding your attention to the controls and green channel-number display that live there.
Sensibly, basic menu control is available from these buttons and so day-to-day operation doesn't have to rely on the handset.
The latter is of far better quality than is the norm with satellite receivers, owing to a solid feel, good layout and the pre-programmed ability to operate many third-party TVs, VCRs and DVD players.
The same handset is used with some other MVision receivers and so some of the labelled buttons (notably DivX playback, which is sadly not supported here) have no effect.
Behind a flap located on the receiver's right 'cheek' reside the viewing-card slot for the built-in CAM and a single CI slot. On the rear panel are a battery of terminals that nod to the Combo's flexibility.
These include HDMI and analogue component (both of which will convey 'native' hi-def or upscaled standard-def video up to 1080i), the single satellite tuner's LNB input and loopthrough output, VCR and (RGB-compatible) TV Scarts, coaxial/optical digital audio and a USB 2.0 port.
The latter is provided for firmware updates, MP3/JPEG playback and the 'back-up' or installation of channel databases from memory devices.
Turbosat told us that a future firmware version will add USB PVR functionality, if a FAT32-formatted USB hard drive is plugged in. This should be available by the time you read this.
No hi-def Freeview
Exclusive to the 'Combo' version are a terrestrial aerial input and output for the DTT tuner which, it should be made clear, is DVB-T only and will thus be incompatible with the proposed Freeview hi-def channels (which are likely to employ DVB-T2).
Internal construction – which partners a Samsung tuner with the powerful STi7100 chipset – is neat, if a little busy. Unfortunately, the receiver runs very warm; under no circumstances should its cooling vents be obstructed.
The main menus that configure the unit are nicely presented, animated gaming console-style icons being used to select one of the five main sections. As is the norm nowadays, the handset's 'coloured' buttons access relevant submenus,thereby reducing superfl uous onscreen clutter.
For the most part the menus are well-organised. There are exceptions to the rule; why the item that switches the digital audio output between PCM and AC3 (Dolby Digital bitstreams) is in the OSD setup menu is anyone's guess.
In the installation menu you can search for satellite and DTT channels. Related menus configure LNBs, a four-way DiSEqC 1.0 LNB switch or – if you've gone all the way – a DiSEqC 1.2 or USALS motorised mount.
These potentially confusing menus are of excellent design, all of the relevant items (e.g. satellite selection, dish movement, limit setting) being laid out intuitively.
Our only criticism of them is that DiSEqC 'step' movement is rather coarse, making peaking of a motorised dish difficult. You have to search each satellite manually; no provision has been made for automated multi-satellite searches. Searches can be conducted on a transponder-by transponder basis.
An alternative is to search all of the satellite's pre-programmed transponders. 'All-channel', FTAonly and network searches can also be specified. If you want to manually enter PIDs you need to set up and store a transponder with the relevant values; only then can you seek out the desired channel.
Unwanted transponders can be deleted if need be. For some reason manual FEC selection is only available for DVB-S2 channels.
Blind search is, sadly, not a feature of these models. Fortunately, automatic searching finds both DVB-S and DVB-S2 channels.
Organise your channel list
Once you've assembled yourself a collection of satellite and terrestrial channels it's time to organise them, courtesy of the 'channel manager' section. From here it's easy to delete or rename channels – or place frequently viewed services into one of eight favourites lists. In 'options', you'll find subcategories for language/OSD, parental control, time and AV setup.
The latter is particularly useful; from here you can specify the output resolution (576p/720p/ 1080i) of the component and HDMI outputs, choose aspect ratio/picture formatting and adjust brightness, contrast and colour saturation.
Unfortunately, you can't have RGB Scart and hi-def HDMI active simultaneously – a pain for those with both a DVD recorder and HD-Ready TV. If the 'RGB/YUV' output option is set to RGB the HDMI output delivers 576i - useful, I suppose, for viewing standard-def channels on a TV with high-quality upscaling.
For hi-def viewing, though, the option needs to be switched to YUV. The 200HD may not yet have USB recording, but you do get a seven-event timer that you'll find in the 'options' section. Unfortunately, this can't be set from the EPG.
A final section, 'accessory', deals with the USB port – disks can be formatted, and databases restored or backed up from here – and any CAM that may be present in the CI slot.
As is standard practice, pressing the 'enter' button accesses the channel list. There are two modes – a 'simple' (first-to-last) list, and a 'detail' mode. The latter is powerful; channels can be placed in alphabetical order.
There are also some cool search facilities here. In addition to a FTA-only mode you'll find one that displays only MPEG-4 channels. For now, the only channels using MPEG-4 (H.264 if you're pedantic) are hi-def ones. But you can't list by satellite, which is a pity not least because that's how DTT channels are treated.
Fotunately, a button on the handset allows you to choose a specific satellite (or the DTT channels). EPGs? For DTT reception, you get the full seven-day guide.
The same is also true of satellite. Unfortunately, it's DVB-S standard. The Freesat seven-day EPG isn't supported by the HD200 and so the best you can hope for from UK channels is the comparatively limited now-and-next.
Although not really a problem when watching channels, it could make setting the recording timer a more convoluted process as soon as the promised USB PVR functionality is added.
As far as teletext is concerned the HD200 has its own decoder. It's invoked – like the EPG, subtitles and soundtrack selection – by using one of those useful coloured buttons.
Other features are driven directly by dedicated handset buttons. These include the ability to switch between radio and TV mode, recall of the last-viewed channel HDMI/ component output resolution and a powerful zoom feature. An array of PVR-type transport buttons will presumably come into their own with the PVR upgrade.
For now, though, only the 'freeze' button works. Other features? In the 'options' menu, you'll find a calendar and a version of Tetris. Unfortunately, we couldn't get the HD200 to play MP3 files stored on a USB device.
Maybe this will also be addressed with newer firmware. JPEG still images proved compatible; but, alas, they're presented in nothing better than (upscaled) standard definition.
The 200HD can't be faulted in terms of search speed and general responsiveness. Changing between channels, even if one's hi-def, is commendably-fast. So too is the search speed; a full search of Astra 2x/Eurobird, including DVB-S2 channels, was completed within five minutes.
Hot Bird and Astra 1x searches took around four minutes. All of the FTA channels of these birds came through well, as did those on Thor and a handful of other more obscure satellites – thereby proving that sensitivity isn't a cause for concern.
Comparing the database supplied with the review receiver with the SatcoDX website revealed it to be somewhat out of date – we hope Turbosat will fix this. Video performance via HDMI is excellent, especially with the HD satellite channels.
It's crisp, clean, highly-detailed and capable of lifelike colour rendition. Upscaling of standard-definition channels – both DTT and satellite – was also good. It can't provide detail that's not there in the first place but 'news tickers' reveal that movement is smooth. The only problem concerned HDMI audio; we stuck with the default 'catch-all' PCM option.
Sometimes it was present, sometimes it wasn't. The component output also works well, providing you use shorter cables of high quality. A 2m cable – and a decent one at that – yielded obvious 'ringing', regardless of output resolution.
RGB Scart is also capable of delivering standard-defi nition pictures of a high standard. Sound quality, whether supplied to audio equipment via digital or analogue means, is also strong.
An impressive receiver
We're impressed with this receiver. It's easy to use and capable of good performance. If you can't wait for Freesat hardware to become available, then it does represent a viable alternative if you can live without the full Freesat EPG.
The USB PVR functionality will make it an even more attractive proposition, not least because it should arrive before the first batch of Freesat PVRs.
A model that combines the HD200's virtues with in-built hard drive, networking and twin tuners would be very welcome indeed!