First thing you'll notice about the Vantage HD-8000S is that no hard drive is supplied.
But rather than relying on external storage, the HD8000S flagship accepts an internal SATA (Serial ATA) drive. We successfully tried a 750GB model, but we've been told that 1TB drives will also work.
The other key addition, twin tuners apart, is hardware blind search – which is superior to the software-driven equivalent of the 7100S.
In most respects the HD8000S is a dead ringer for its smaller brother. The styling is a case in point.
We're impressed with the glossy piano-black finish, informative 13-character fluorescent display and plenty of blue (rather than red) illumination. Behind the swing-down front-panel, you'll find a USB 2.0 socket, two CI and two card slots capable of emulating various CAMs.
The receiver's control buttons – standby, menu-access, volume and channel- change – can be operated whether the front panel is up or down.
The remote is solidly built and its buttons have a positively tactile feel. Learning from its mistakes of the past, Vantage has 'coloured in' the four buttons (known as the 'fast-text' buttons, for historical reasons) that are frequently used for sub-menu access and other functions.
Each tuner has independent LNB inputs and outputs; these could be fed from a dual-LNB or separate dishes. An alternative is to 'loop' the output from one tuner to the input of the second, although this decreases flexibility (you're stuck with one satellite and channels of the same polarity).
There are two rear-panel USB 2.0 ports. One is for external HDDs, while the other allows the HD8000S's internal hard drive to be seen by a PC. Transfers via the latter would be considerably faster than using the Ethernet port, although the PC needs to be in the same room as the receiver.
You can also back up and restore channel databases to and from USB storage devices, which is helpful when upgrading firmware. The HDMI port and component ports are complemented by Scarts for TV and VCR, plus composite/S-video outputs and analogue/digital audio outputs.
Thankfully, HDMI and standard-def Scart video can be output simultaneously.
Turn on the receiver for the first time and a series of wizards take you through language, tuner setting (independent dishes/looped-through/dual-LNB) and scanning. The latter is fine if you're using fixed dishes, but if you have a freshly installed motorised system additional setup is required.
And so to the main menus. Borrowed from the 7100S, the menu that configures DiSEqC (1.3/USALS and 1.2 mounts and positioners are supported, in addition to 1.0/1.1 'switchboxes') seems less than intuitive at first. But you'll soon realise its potential and find that sequentially finding and storing satellites is quite fast.
You'll find it in the 'installation' menu, where you'll configure your LNB/dish settings and scan for channels – manually, automatically or 'blindly'. Up to 20,000 channels can be stored.
For auto-scanning you can specify all or just FTA channels – network searches are also permitted. A wide variety of C and Ku-band transponders are pre- programmed into the receiver's internal database.
If you choose manual searching entry of frequency/polarity/symbol rate is possible, as is the ability to specify PIDs. Less than intuitively, the latter has to be selected from the manual search's 'scan mode' option.
To find everything, especially on a new and unfamiliar satellite, the blind search is the best option. Blind search steps through the band, hunting out signals as it does so. The frequency interval can be modified between 1MHz and 5MHz in 1MHz increments. You're more likely to find obscure signals with the 1MHz setting, but searches are slow. Blind searches will find HD/H.264 channels.
Searching multiple satellites is also possible, motorised dishes automatically-moving to the next satellite in the list. Sensibly, scanning doesn't start until the dish has arrived at the relevant satellite, ensuring that nothing is missed.
Unfortunately, blind searching is not allowed in this automated mode – a lost opportunity, as it was with the 7100S. Other submenus deal with system configuration, channel organisation, parental lock, two games, the conditional-access hardware and 'multimedia' (including USB/HDD and network configuration).
Within the system configuration group are language options, AV settings (TV system, aspect ratio and time- shifting), the clock and timer. From the channel organiser, radio and TV services can be deleted or edited – favourites can also be defined from here. Nine favourite groups are available, although they're not presented in list form.
The Ethernet port has been provided mainly for firmware upgrades – an FTP option accesses the Vantage server.
It should also allow transferring recordings to a PC, or the streaming of TV channels to compatible devices (including other networkable Vantage receivers). Fortunately, the DHCP (auto network-configuration) settings of the review sample worked. The firmware upgrade option also proved reliable.
Trying to access the receiver via FTP was a partial success. Although you could log into it, the folders containing recordings couldn't be opened. And so the only current way of transferring recordings (which are in transport-stream format) is to use the USB port, selecting the multimedia/USB menu's 'connect to PC' option.
Control of the receiver from a web-browser isn't yet possible.
The channel list can be sorted alphabetically or by provider, frequency or HD/H.264 status. A few SD channels (notably Noursat on Eutelsat W1/10°E) use H.264 and these are compatible with the HD8000S – though they're reported as HD.
When you're viewing a channel pressing the 'info' button brings up signal/quality bars and technical details like frequency, polarity, symbol rate and PIDs. Press it again, and a second screen reveals other information like video format/resolution and audio bitrate. This excellent feature is, to our knowledge, unique.
There's another nice touch. Pressing the remote's 'satellite' button displays the satellite list. From here, you can select a specific satellite and the corresponding channel list. If you're using a motorised dish it will move if need be.
As with the 7100S, the icon that denotes an encrypted channel isn't always a reliable indication; often we selected a supposedly free channel only to find that it was encrypted. But the receiver realises its mistake and 'updates' the database. The ability to sort channels by encryption status is conspicuous by its absence.
Pressing the remote's timeshift button starts recording to the HDD – pressing it again initiates the 'Vantage Media Player', from which playback can be started. You get basic rewind/forward, play, pause and the ability to jump ahead or back in 10 per cent increments.
The buffer, which resides in a 'timeshift' folder, is retained until timeshift is restarted, thereby wiping out the previous buffer. If you want to keep the recording copy it to a PC via USB before it's too late.
Removal of adverts is achieved with a 'cut' function. 'Bookmarks' can also be added to a recording. Thanks to the twin tuners, you can record two channels while watching an existing recording – or a third channel that shares a transponder with one of those being recorded.
Recordings can be scheduled from the EPG, which supports seven-day and now-and-next schedules. Regrettably, UK-based FTA satellite TV on Astra 2x/28.2°E only supports now-and-next, which is almost useless for timer setting. But the 40-event/1 year timer can be programmed manually.
When making a 'reservation', it doesn't do the sensible thing and assume that you want to record the channel currently being viewed. Instead, it defaults to whatever channel happens to be listed first.
You can't enter the desired channel with the numeric keypad and so you have to keep holding down the channel up/ down buttons until it is reached. With thousands of possible channels to choose from, this is wasteful of both your time and handset batteries.
Another limitation is that there's no one-touch recording (OTR) for manual recording.
On the plus side the HD8000S offers a versatile zoom, freeze, dedicated radio mode, sleep-timer, onboard teletext, picture-in-picture (only available on the HDMI output for some reason) and a 'mosaic' of four or six adjacent channels; highlighting one selects it.
Then there's the media player, which proved to be compatible with the DiVX/XViD and MPEG files we copied to the receiver's HDD from a PC. MP3 tracks and JPEG/BMP images can also be played, although uncompressed audio WAV files are not even listed!
Naturally, the media player will also handle the receiver's own recordings. Overall, it's a decent 'jukebox'.
With HD sources like BBC HD and the Astra test service picture quality is excellent. But we couldn't view ITV HD, although Vantage told us that reception should be possible.
The HD 8000S also does a better-than-average job at 'upscaling' standard-definition channels to hi-def. However, we would have liked the ability to pass SD video to the HDMI port in 576i form – some TVs have excellent onboard scalers.
The analogue ports are also good, as high-quality live studio broadcasts demonstrate. Pictures from these are crisply detailed, with true-to-life colour. Channels of lesser quality suffer (especially when viewed on revealing HD-Ready displays) because blockiness and other artifacts are only too apparent.
In HD mode the component output does a creditable job, although the HDMI output has a slight edge.
'Standard' automatic and manual searches are fast; a sweep of Eutelsat W2 clocked in at around four minutes.Blind searches are naturally slower. In the standard 4MHz 'step' setting, it takes around half-an-hour to complete. If 1MHz steps are chosen, though, you can expect to wait for over two hours.
Sensitivity is excellent if our positive 'feed-hunting' experiences are anything to go by. Switching between channels on the same satellite takes a couple of seconds or so – an acceptable wait.
But there are glitches. Sometimes the sample receiver – loaded with the most recent firmware available at the time of review (2.33T) – stopped responding. The only solution was to switch off the receiver at the mains and reboot. As the receiver can get warm in use we suspect this was due to overheating on our test sample but we are assured by Vantage that this is not a common problem.
An exciting receiver
Although far from cheap, this is undoubtedly one of the most exciting satellite receivers available. It is quite an achievement to pack in hi-def support, twin-tuner PVR upgradability, networking, blind search, comprehensive multimedia playback and strong AV performance into a single package.
We hope the bugs are fixed and that basic features like OTR and easier timer-setting will be added. Full FTP and a web interface would also be good. But for now this will vie for the attentions of those wanting a luxury receiver.