Set-Top Boxes Awards – Q1 2013

3/18/2013 9:16:01 AM

Buy one of these and you’ll get to more high-def, 3D, and on-demand content than you could ever dream of. Bye bye, social life…

Product of the year

Best subscription service

Sky+HD: $375

It’s not, as a famous man once observed, rocket science. If your satellite TV subscription service offers an industry-leading selection of content, absolutely impeccable ergonomics and enough storage space to keep a whole family in high-def heaven for weeks on end, critical and popular acclaim must surely follow, closely followed by huge sales. And, even more importantly, a coveted What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision Product of the Year Award and the kudos that goes with it, can be yours.

Sky+HD, the best subscription service

Sky + HD, the best subscription service

If you decide to go for the full whistles-and-bells subscription (of which sport and movies are by far the costliest elements) there’s no doubt that Sky + HD doesn’t come cheap. But no one ever claimed that the best equated to the most affordable, and for those who take their TV seriously (by which we mean those with an interest in the standard of broadcast, the accompanying audio, the possibility of watching 3D content, and access to the increasingly essential Sky Atlantic HD channel among the 50-odd HD channels currently available) it’s worth every penny.

Everything about the Sky + HD box is beautifully judged. The most recent upgrade to the EPG has made the best on-screen menus around even better, the remote control is logical, and as a piece of hardware it’s as robust and reliable as any nominal competitor.

It’s still number one

And where sheer convenience is concerned, Sky+HD bows to no rival. By the time this magazine is published there will be a two-terabyte variation available, but for now the 1TB box is able to record around 240 hours of high-def programming (or the thick end of 750 hours of standard-def stuff – that’s a calendar month’s-worth). That sort of capacity means it’s ideal for archiving and time shifting – even storage-hungry 3D broadcasts are no problem. And there’s 400GB available for Sky Anytime, complete with online video-on-demand for Sky broadband customers.

What more do you want jam on it?

Best Freeview HD recorder

Humax DTR-T1000: $720

It wasn’t a huge shock that the first taste of YouView we got came via established PVR hero Humax product, not only does it incorporate all the catch-up and on-demand services you want (BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand 5) but it has twin Freeview HD tuners and a 500GB hard drive, too.

What’s YouView? This new service combines linear TV with online catch-up and on-demand services including, imminently, Sky’s Now TV

What’s YouView? This new service combines linear TV with online catch-up and on-demand services including, imminently, Sky’s Now TV

The DTR-T1000 is a doddle to set up, is ergonomically sensible and has pretty much all the functionality you’d need (the Ethernet only design seems churlish at first, but there’s no getting around the fact that streaming is most stable via wires. If your router’s in a different room, a power-line system works well).

The YouView menus look fresh and inviting, and the restyled Humax remote features large, finger-friendly buttons – a big, blue ‘Y’ button takes you to the main home-page from where you can access live TV and on-demand content. The guide shows both seven days ahead and seven days back, and if shows are available through any catch-up TV service it’s indicated with a little ‘play-button’ icon. Select it to be taken to the corresponding catch-up service, where you can start playback.

The DTR-T1000 is doddle to set up, is ergonomically sensible and has pretty much all the functionality you’d ever need

Fantastic picture quality

We viewed everything from a high-def rerun of EastEnders via iPlayer to a standard-def stream of The Hotel Inspector via Demand 5, and the picture remained overwhelmingly stable with only the merest hint of judder and/or noise. Detail levels are good, and the overall image quality is punchy, colorful and bright.

Switch to one of the Freeview HD tuners and quality goes up a notch, especially with the BBC’s HD channels. Picture quality is, broadly speaking, excellent, with outstanding detail, smooth edges and fine motion handling. Standard-def doesn’t quite hit these heights, but the Humax’s basic strengths remain.

Ideally there would be a few more content providers (YouTube, maybe, and perhaps one of the movie-streaming services but Sky’s pay-per-view Now TV should arrive soon), but there’s an appeal to the YouView concept that’s made only more concrete by the all-round strength of the DTR-T1000.

Best Freesat recorder

Samsung SMT-S7800: $300

Meet the new, boss, same as the old boss. For the second year in a row, Samsung’s SMT-S7800 is our favorite Freesat recorder. And for those who are outside Freeview HD’s reach, or for those who crave the extra scintilla of detail and subtlety we think Freesat offers over its Freeview HD equivalent, it’s a beautifully built, simple-to-use and brilliant-to-watch delight.

How do I get Freesat? If you have a working dish on your house, possibly from a previous resident, all you need is a box. Otherwise it’s ladder-time…

How do I get Freesat? If you have a working dish on your house, possibly from a previous resident, all you need is a box. Otherwise it’s ladder-time…

It’s a beautifully built, simple-to-use and brilliant-to-watch delight. You can’t buy a better Freesat box than this Samsung

Fantastic all-round

Initial glitches in operation having long since been ironed out by some judicious firmware updates, the Samsung is every bit as easy to live with as any putative rival. Its EPG is crisp, clear and logical, its remote control is up to the standard of the class, and its 500GB hard-disk drive offers sufficient capacity for all but the most sedentary of users.

The SMT-S7800 can also stream a decent range of audio and video file formats over your network or via USB, plus it has access to some (though not all) catch-up TV services. Crucially, the Award-winning BBC iPlayer is on board.

Most importantly, though, the Samsung is a thoroughly enjoyable performer. HD broadcasts are a treat: the most testing transmissions (sport, inevitably – football, Formula One, tennis and so on all combine rapid movement with testing depth of field and, often, huge and uniform swathes of color) are handled with complete confidence. Motion is tracked doggedly, detail is high and the color palette is convincing. Sound, too, is impressive, the SMT-S7800 making the difference between a so-so soundtrack and a sorted effort obvious.

So as far as your Freesat options go, we don’t think you can buy better.

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