Monday, 24 August 2009

PVR and Freeview Woes

Sounds a bit like I'm an old git when I say things like this but I'll say it anyway, "They don't make consumer electronics like they used to".

A few weeks ago we started to have issues with our Freeview TV reception, certain channels kept blocking and the audio was popping. I took a look in the diagnostics in the Humax PVR9200T box we have and it was reporting bad signal strength and quality on some of the channels. If I tweaked around with the RF cable round the back of the box sometimes the reception would improve and sometimes it got worse, this of course made me think it was the cable so in the first instance I replaced that, unfortunately it didn't make any difference, Now the Humax box is 2 years old and just recently it has started randomly crashing and freezing up (also the series link functionality seems to randomly not work) I had a look at doing a software update on the box but this involves having a null modem cable and a Windows PC with an RS232 port neither of which were easy for me to lay my hands on.

So I decided to replace the Humax and drew up a list of requirements.

1. Freeview only twin tuner PVR
2. Pause and rewind Live TV.
3. Ethernet connectivity (for copying recorded programs off)

After scouring the Internet for products I found only two that satisfied these, firstly was a Dreambox (German company) these are linux based boxes so very configurable but also quite expensive for the features I wanted (400ish pounds) so a no go really.
The second opton was fetchtv ( this is a freeview PVR which is coupled to an online on demand TV service that streams films/programmes over your broadband connection, mostly these are on a pay per view basis but it does offer free access to BBC iPlayer. The fetchtv box also allows the export of mpeg2 copies of any programmes you have recorded and will also play videos you have on your PC. This seemed perfect it satisfied all my requirements and although quite expensive (220 pounds) it was only 20 pounds over what I was expecting to pay. After a little further investigation I found that John Lewis sold them so surely they must be reputable and a good quality product, I took the plunge and ordered.

So next day the fetchtv box arrived and I plugged it in, to my dismay the freeview channels that were suffering interference were still having the same problems, seems I was going to have to investigate that issue even further, I ploughed on and tried all the other features of the box anyway, initially I was quite impressed it was easy to setup, minimal cables fuss, used dhcp and picked up an address on my network straight away, sign up via the fetchtv website was relatiely painfree and once I had done that and upgraded the firmware accessing BBC Iplayer was 5-6 button presses away, hey presto it worked, the interface is a bit clunky (The Internet is designed for full kb's and mice but not TV's and remote controls) but the quality although certainly not HD was pretty good and certainly watchable. I had a browse around the fetchtv pay per view stuff and there is quite a lot of content but it is mostly fairly dated with the exception of a handful of quite new films. Oooops hang on box crash, in true Consumer Electronic of the new millenium style the box hung and needed a power cycle to get it working again, oh well this is hardly unusual these days so I won't hold it against the box. I rebooted and everything was fine again, next I tried playing Video I have stored on my PC at the other side of the house, here I was really impressed the fetchtv box found my pc on the network and was able to play about 80% of the content I had stored on the network, pretty impressive really (I use my xbox 360 for playing this content currently but having everything in one box would certainly be a good thing)
So end of the first evening with fetchtv and we had one crash but lots of positives so was thinking that despite the fact it wasn't the cure to my reception problems I would keep it anyway.

The next day I had a look at the export facilities of the fetchtv box and again I was pretty impressed the box stores all tv shows it's recorded in .ts format this is an mpeg2 transport stream and is a fairly common way to store this kind of content, files are very large though (30 mins was about 700mb I think) there are from what I could see two ways of extracting content from the fetchtv, plug a usb harddrive directly into a port on the box or use a web browser directed at the boxes IP address where you are given a list of recording and the option to subscribe to an RSS feed, pretty intuitive and useful.

So that evening I decided to put the box to more of a test, I set it to record two channels at once and then started browsing the user interface to play a program off the drive, this box must have a way underpowered cpu as when it was using both tuners to decode and record video to the HDD it was so sluggish that it was almost unusable. Ooops another box crash then stopped both my recordings in their tracks. After restart I tried recording one show and then using BBC Iplayer to watch a second, nope this wouldn't work, again the CPU just couldn't cope with this amount of work, Iplayer was all judders and stops and basically impossible to use (at the same time my MAC laptop was having no issues with Iplayer). Ooops then another box crash in fact 3 of them in less than 10 mins. That's when I lost my patience, and put the Humax back in the TV cabinet. The fetchtv has now been packaged back up and is going back to John Lewis for a full refund tomorrow.

As for the freeview reception issues they were almost solved by installing a signal booster but we still have problems with BBC1 and BBC2 (along with CBBC and BBC3 which we don't really watch) these channels are all on the same freeview Multiplex and it appears something changed to reduce the power a few weeks ago. It seems the solution is a new aerial so that is getting fitted shortly.

So I am back to thinking that Humax make the best PVR's although I wish my 9200T would not crash periodically and the series link would work properly, if there was an easy way to extract shows from it and play network content like on the fetchtv it would be a massive improvement. A basic improvement would be to add folders to the directory structure for browsing shows so at least we could file all the kids tv in one place.
Maybe someone from Humax will see this and make notes for their next product release :)