The UK's subscription-free satellite service gets an overdue makeover with Freesat Freetime. Out go the lifeless listings we were lumbered with at launch and in come animated menus, streaming IPTV and a backwards looking EPG. Clearly, this is a spirited response to YouView. Trouble is using the service you can't help but feel it was brought to market with undue haste. Freetime has more bugs than the London Zoo Insect House.
This debut PVR, as with YouView, comes from Humax, now the go-to-brand when it comes to new platforms. And at first glance it's a typically nice piece of hardware.
The HDR-1000S sports rounded edges, so on point this season, and proffers a descriptive LED display, which shows either station or programme name. Connectivity comprises HDMI, phono AV, Scart, twin LNB inputs, an optical digital output, two USBs (front and rear) and Ethernet.
There's no integrated Wi-Fi although you can use it with a Humax branded Wi-Fi USB dongle. The HDR-1000S features a 500GB hard drive, enough for around 300 hours of SD, and sells for £279. The 1TB version is just a few quid more at £299 and therefore better value. The HDR-S1000 is relatively small at 352 x 55 x 238mm (W/H/D).
The supplied remote is large and glossy, but its D-pad makes a loud clicking noise which smacks of cheap construction.
Posh new user interface aside, the key selling point of Freetime is the integration of catch-up within the Freesat experience. To that end there's BBC iPlayer and ITV player onboard, with placeholders at the time of writing for 4oD and Demand 5. Freesat hasn't ruled out adding yet more services, including subscription VoD. Netflix would seem an obvious candidate.
The BBC iPlayer iteration here proves a lot more attractive that Sky's 'download' implementation, but the ITV Player is clunky. A request to watch The Saint from the ITV 4 listings, secured the preroll advertising but then barfed up an error message ('The Service Was Unable To Locate The Content..') before crapping out. Other show selections enjoyed more success.
One key area where this box differs from its terrestrial YouView rival is the way it delivers entertainment beyond the Freesat ecosystem. A Humax menu option promises some interesting extra diversions (they just don't happen to there yet); currently there's only Flickr and Picasa photo clients worth talking about, plus a Wiki search.
More importantly the box offers proper file playback and management support. You can peruse music, movies and photos either on the hard drive or a connected USB, as well as copy content from a stick to an appropriate media folder on the PVR's hard drive. Entomologists should note that the box spontaneously rebooted when a media-filled USB was removed from the rear port.
Supported video formats include MKV, AVI, WMV and MP4. The system also plays MP3s with album art. The HDR-1000S can even stream across a network. Select Media Share and the box will scour your network for compatible servers. It discovered my NAS without problem and duly played MKV and AVI files.
Usability and Performance
The Freetime UI is a forest of green menus, albeit it neatly arranged. It employs a lot of animation, but transitions have a slightly stuttery quality.
The main Home button offers selectable access to TV listings, On Demand, recordings and the Showcase, which comprises three screens worth of upcoming programme highlights. The My Recordings tab itself allows you to filter listings by HD, most recent, A-Z, series links, and deletion date.
The TV guide carries a live TV window with audio, but offers only a Now & Next display; you need to scroll right to get an extended time period. Graphically it's very smart, with channels depicted though numbers and logos. It's also quasi retrospective, but only for the two broadcasters with Catch-Up players onboard. You can look look backwards with BBC channels and some of the ITV offerings.
The EPG presents a listing of those programmes available for any given day over the past week. Unfortunately, the system proved a little unpredictable in use. It wasn't uncommon for the BBC iPlayer to load and then crash out, unceremoniously dumping you back into live TV.
The receiver can be set to power down automatically, or to wake up at a preset time, presumably so you don't have to twiddle your thumbs while it slowly boots.
Picture quality is excellent. The five Freesat HD channels look as crisp as week old sarnies and the receiver does a rather nice job upscaling SD channels to full-bore 1080p.