With the arrival of the Humax Foxsat-HDR there is finally a subscription-free rival to Sky+, the de facto satellite TV PVR in the UK.
Previously, recording a Freesat broadcast meant resorting to antediluvian methods such as using a separate DVD recorder or VCR in conjunction with a Freesat receiver.
Freesat is subscription-free and it gives you an ever-growing selection of TV channels and radio stations including the BBC and exclusively, ITV, in high-definition. Freesat expects to find customers among ex and current Sky subscribers, no longer prepared to pay a monthly fee. It also offers a lifeline to many TV viewers who can't get a decent TV signal, analogue or digital.
Freesat also has one over its terrestrial alternative Freeview in that it offers HD programming, albeit limited just to BBC HD and ITV's occasional HD effort (eg Champions League and international football).
However, by the end of 2009 hi-def Freeview boxes will be available (spoiler-warning: no current model will be compatible with Freeview HD). Let's get on with checking out and installing the box.
Size-wise, the Humax Foxsat-HDR is much slimmer than Sky's HD box and its blue-ish reflective fascia wouldn't look out of place on a Blu-ray deck. In the centre is an LCD window that clearly displays the channel and other information while the fascia drops down to reveal some manual control buttons and a CI slot, which isn't needed here.
Overall, it's a classy looking machine that's reassuringly well built. Inside is a 320GB hard disk that can store about 80 hours of HD programming or 200 hours of standard-definition (or somewhere in between for a mixture of the two formats).
Round the back is an impressive array of sockets including an HDMI for hooking up to an HD Ready TV. Like Sky HD, the box can output its high-def pictures in 720p or 1080i, which you can choose according to the type of programme. A digital optical audio socket delivers Dolby Digital from suitably encoded HD transmissions.
Two LNB inputs are provided (plus one output) for the satellite connection while an Ethernet port offers the potential of IPTV services (eg BBC iPlayer) in the future. A USB is intended for making service updates but there's another USB round the front that can be used for connecting to other digital media devices. Good news, as this means that the Foxsat-HDR is effectively also a media hub that can store and playback MP3 tunes and JPEG photos.
Just like the non-PVR version of this box, installation is a breeze. It took all of about two minutes to screw in the LNBs, discard the cheapo ugly Scart lead, connect the supplied HDMI cable and hook up the digital optical output to a Denon home cinema receiver.
Booting up time is painfully slow but the attractively-designed menu system guides you through the step-by-step process (TV aspect ratio, postcode, output resolution, etc) and had us up and running within minutes. It tuned in the 140-odd TV and radio channels very quickly and the channels were all in the right order.
The menu system shows how outdated Sky's system is now. The EPG is a revelation with high-resolution graphics and icons and as it's overlaid you can carry on watching a show whilst navigating the EPG.
Easy EPG navigation
You can navigate the EPG by selecting the genre of your desired programme, which can then be viewed as a table, a list or a schedule of selected shows. You can also find a show by inputting the name.
Sky's EPG only allows you to enter the first letter of a programme, which is about as welcome as a Woolworth's gift token.
Humax is rather proud of its 'i-plate' programme information banner which is packed with icons that tell you every detail about the current programme, including the signal quality and strength, picture resolution, presence of Dolby Digital audio, channel number, if audio description is available, if text is available and even the broadcast time and progress. We're surprised they don't include the name of the director's granny.
We haven't had time yet to delve into the media file manager (watch out for a more in-depth review appearing here soon) but first impressions of watching and recording with the Foxsat-HDR are excellent.
The system works almost flawlessly and can deliver top-quality broadcast images and sound. Directly comparing simultaneous broadcasts on Freesat, Freeview and Sky (using my third LNB) show that this system is on a par or sometimes better than its rivals.
Standard definition BBC broadcasts and most other channels look as good on the Humax as they do on Freeview and Sky.
ITV, however, is a problem. Its broadcast bit-rate is often much lower than the BBC's and it frankly looks dire in standard-definition on Freesat. We haven't seen an ITV HD broadcast yet in the few hours since installing the Foxsat-HDR but previous broadcasts viewed on the non-PVR version were superb.
A quick word about Teletext. It's much quicker to load here than on Sky but that's because there are no video streams, just text and images.
To access recordings you press the Media button on the remote. Playback is straightforward with options to fast forward or rewind at 2x , 4x, 8x, 16x, 32x, 64, 1/2x, 1/4x and 1/8x normal speed. You can create bookmarks as you view, which is a handy function not found on Sky+.
Does Freesat+ live up to our hopes and expectations? In terms of ease of use and performance, certainly, which also make it decent value-for-money. However, what Freesat+ desperately needs to make it an unarguable proposition is more HD programming than the rather paltry selection currently on offer.