The capacity of the Linux-powered Dreambox DM800HD is determined by your choice of HDD.
Our review sample was equipped with a 2.5in 120GB drive. Something else the 600 and 800 models share in common is the external power supply.
An advantage of this approach is cooler running, and that the receivers could be powered from a suitable 12-volt DC source. Great for caravanners, who can then worry about the practicalities of trying to accommodate an HD-Ready TV.
That said, the 800HD makes provision for standard-def reception and connectivity too – and so will be just as happy with a Scart-fed 14in portable set, should you decide to take it on the move.
Compact but fully-featured
For proof that the design of this receiver is a triumph of form over function one need look no further than the front-panel display.
Despite the 800HD's small size – a mere 196x130x40mm – Dreambox's designers have seen fit to accommodate a miniature version of the front-panel status LCD that adorns its full-sized products; in this case, cutting-edge OLED technology has been specified. However, the text it displays is so tiny that a magnifying glass should be supplied.
Compounding its limited usefulness is a lack of any controls, other than standby.
On the opposite side of the front-panel, and hidden by a flap, is a card slot. This is only active if you're emulating a CAM with one of the numerous 'plug-ins' or third-party firmware. No CAM emulation is provided as standard with Dream Multimedia's pre-installed 'Enigma2' firmware.
Connectivity is fair, considering the limited rear-panel space available. It's possible to switch the (single) Scart output between RGB, composite or S-video – all accompanied by stereo audio. And that's just as well, given that the only other AV outlets available are optical digital audio and DVI.
The latter – the only way of getting hi-def pictures out of the receiver – is an odd choice as everyone else has moved over to HDMI. DVI doesn't normally cater for audio, but with the supplied DVI-HDMI cable our Sony HD-Ready TV yielded sound as well as pictures.
The single tuner's LNB input has a loopthrough and there are also Ethernet, two USB ports, an external SATA (eSATA) terminal for storage devices, an RS232 port and, surprisingly, a built-in analogue modem.
Plug and play
Fitting a 2.5in hard disc is easy to do as there's only one power/data connector, or you can attach an eSATA drive. These tend to be cheaper than the internally fitting 2.5in drives, and boast higher capacities – which is worth bearing in mind when the storage requirements of hi-def are factored in.
Unfortunately, you can't have internal and external drives working simultaneously; the well-made 300MIPS Broadcom BCM7401-powered 'motherboard' only has one SATA connector. If eSATA operation is required this connector is instead routed to the rear-panel port.
As with other Dreamboxes, the tuner module – in this case an ALPS BSBE1-401A type – is 'plug-and-play'. If the widest choice of hi-def viewing isn't essential you could replace the supplied satellite (DVB-S2) tuner with a DTT (DVB-T) or digital cable (DVB-C) one.
Our sample came with Enigma2 firmware pre-installed, the step-by-step wizards of which guide you through the process of installing the receiver. They cover language, TV system, time-zone, initial dish/DiSEqC configuration and searching for channels – all parameters that can be modified later on via the setup.
The DiSEqC capabilities are good; in addition to 1.2, this receiver supports simple switchboxes (1.0) and USALS. All of the usual controls for dish movement are supported.
We're also pleased with Enigma2's timesaving ability to accept the original DiSEqC memory locations ('satellite numbers') assigned to your motor by a previous receiver.
Searching can take place for single transponders or complete satellites. For some odd reason we could search Astra 1x, Astra 2x/Eurobird and the Hot Birds without problems, but we weren't so lucky with some other satellites – Thor, or Eutelsat W1/W3, for example. Here, there's no progress at all – after moving the dish, searching doesn't proceed beyond the first transponder and so obviously no services are found.
The receiver doesn't crash, though – you can exit the search mode and return to normal operation. But you can't tell the 800HD to home in on only FTA or scrambled channels. Also allowed are multiple-satellite searches, the dish moving automatically where necessary. As long, that is, as none of the satellites in your list are ones that the 800HD doesn't like.
As regards manual searching, Enigma2 doesn't permit PID entry for non-standard services; also regrettable is the lack of blind search. We hope these features will be added via plug-ins.
Something that is welcome is the 'satfinder' option, with its large signal strength/quality bar graphs and ability to select a specific satellite/transponder.
If you are used to more conventional satellite receivers, operating the 800HD can be bewildering – although you'll get used to it in time and the UEI-made handset can also control many brands of TV.
From the receiver's 'channel list menu', it's easy to delete unwanted channels or bouquets and add an unlimited number of user-defined bouquets (essentially favourites) to your liking.
The navigation joypad's up/down keys access the channel list. From here, the list can be switched between all services, the channels carried on individual satellites, service providers and the bouquets using the coloured buttons.
You can easily change channels with the left/right keys. If the relevant EPG data is in the machine, the name of the programme currently being broadcast by the channel is listed next to it.
The now-and-next/seven-day EPG is presented as a rather unexciting text list as opposed to the traditional magazine format.
One mode focuses on one channel's schedule; another allows you to see what multiple channels are offering in a given timeslot. The timer can be programmed from the EPG and manual timer programming is also allowed.
Interestingly, you can watch one channel while another records – provided that both are on the same multiplex. When a recording is in progress you can view either this or an existing one – the 'video' button displays the list.
Timeshifting is also possible. The timeshift files aren't shown in the recording list, but logging onto the receiver using a FTP client shows that they're present – and accounting for a fair slice of HDD capacity. Using this method they can be transferred to a PC if the programme's worth keeping.
Plug-ins/updates available at the press of a button or from the preset FTP site include onscreen e-mail and a multimedia player. This currently handles MP3 audio and MPEG files, but does not support images or DivX/WMV. You can view photos, but only with a different plug-in (the 'picture player').
However, the main advantage of the Dreambox approach is the ability to completely change the personality of your receiver with third-party firmware. This is easy if you've a PC with web-browser and the 800HD happens to be jacked into your home network. Holding down the receiver's front-panel standby button, you then enter its IP address into a web browser. You can then upload the firmware from a PC, via the 'bootloader' page that's shown.
Typing the receiver's address into the browser under normal circumstances presents you with Enigma2's web interface. Channels can be remotely selected from here – you can also invoke recording, access EPG info and schedule timer events.
If you have the freely downloadable VLC Media Player installed on your PC you can start viewing the current channel in a window – it's desktop TV without the hassle of installing a tuner card and dish feed. Yet the picture quality can be just as good and, theoretically, you can remotely stream live TV and playback and schedule recordings.
Great all-round performance
Searching speeds are average; a full search of the Astra 1x cluster took just under six minutes. The user interface and menu system are pleasantly responsive in use – it takes about a second to switch between channels on the same satellite.
Owing to the previously mentioned bug, setting up our usual test satellites (e.g. Thor) proved impossible. However, pictures from Astra and Hot Bird were maintained even during periods of heavy rain and so the 800HD's ALPS tuner must be on the sensitive side.
Sound quality and picture quality are both excellent, especially if DVI/HDMI is used. Thanks to the external power supply, the Dreambox DM800HD runs quite cool – even over prolonged use.