A few years ago Netgem's iPlayer caught the attention of multimedia enthusiasts for offering Freeview reception, media streaming and web browsing/emailing in one.
Evesham's own iteration of the iPlayer has added more than a few bells and whistles to the idea, being both a Freeview PVR and a media player capable of receiving and displaying both standard and high-definition video and TV. If you're hoping to watch BBC HD with it, however, you'll be disappointed. Although our test machine was specially configured by Evesham to enable us to watch the BBC's DTT test transmissions, the trial remains restricted to a permitted few in the London area.
The iPlayer will record both high-def H.264 (again, when/if they become available) and MPEG-2 DVB broadcasts but remains somewhat handicapped in that it only has an 80GB hard disk - enough for 60 hours of standard def or 30 hours of HD. And it only has one tuner - restricting you to recording one channel at a time.
Compact and curvy
The case retains the curvy design of the Netgem box and is small considering what's inside. Along the left-hand side are a card slot for the Top Up TV CAM and card (the iPlayer is not compatible with Top Up TV Anytime) and a USB port, suitable for plugging in external music and video players or a flash memory stick, and playing the contents through the device.
The rear panel has an HDMI output, twin Scarts with RGB and S-video support on the TV Scart, a UHF loopthrough and an optical Digital audio output with 5.1 support. The distinctively tapered remote control is a black variation on the Netgem original and is blessed with sensibly organised and adequately sensitive buttons.
As a Freeview PVR, the iPlayer is competent if not outstanding. You can create favourites lists and there's a 7- day EPG which can be resized to include more channel. Recordings can be scheduled via the EPG and there's a manual timer option with once, daily and weekly repeat settings.
You can watch a programme from the start while it's being recorded and smoothly fast-forward and rewind it at up to a rather excessive 600x normal speed. Recordings can also be exported to your PC via Ethernet and we had no problem playing them back on our PC using VLC.
Timeshifting is possible as the iPlayer keeps a constant cache of the channel you're watching. Using the central direction button lets you skip back and forth through this cached material in 15-minute chunks.
On larger screens in particular, DTT pictures look rather poor across the board when using via the Scart connection, even with the RGB option enabled.
However, the iPlayer has a neat trick up its sleeve in that it is able to upscale DTT pictures and output them via the HDMI output. The result is a noticeable step-up in sharpness and an improved richness to colours - even the Seventies-apeing muddy browns of Life On Mars.
Even with the signal meter hovering just above the 50 per cent mark, when ramped up to 1080i on our 50in Sony Bravia rear pro TV BBC HD looks almost as good as its cable and satellite counterparts when seen from a reasonable distance, though there was picture break-up when simultaneously recording a standard-def channel.
The iPlayer can handle an impressive range of formats including MPEG-1/2, MPEG-4, AVI and WMV video files, MP3 and WMA audio and jpeg, gif and tiff images, excluding those protected by Digital Rights Management.
External content is accessed via the 'Mediacentre HD' portion of the menus and our sample had no trouble reading AVI, video and jpeg images and MP3 from our memory stick via the USB input. However, it initially failed to read content from our home network's test laptop using Windows Media Player 11's built-in connect feature leading us to resort to using a 'back-up' laptop with our Linksys router.
Pleasingly, the audio and video quality of streamed material remained faithful to the source but we managed to stream the freely downloadable open source HD animation Elephant's Dream with no discernible loss in quality.
The iPlayer also supports the online TV Max service. This is confined to emailing, web browsing, podcast/internet radio listening; the promised streaming catch-up TV service is yet to appear.
Until then, and until terrestrial HD goes public, £300 seems expensive for a single-tuner PVR even if it does have multimedia and streaming capabilities. You could buy a more flexible budget twin-tuner Freeview PVR and a dedicated streamer like the Netgear EVA700 for the same money. Grant Rennell