AB-Com AB IP Box 250S £160
29th Nov 2007 | 00:00
Might this little box bring the joys of Linux to the masses?
The IP Box 250S, from Slovakian satellite wholesaler AB-Com, joins the growing band of set-top boxes to adopt the open-source Linux operating system - as opposed to proprietary internal operating software ('firmware').
The main advantage of opting for Linux (and its cute puffin logo) is that you're no longer restricted to the manufacturer for the firmware updates that fix bugs or add new features. Enthusiasts with knowledge of the product's hardware design and limitations obtain the source code and modify or rewrite it to reflect their needs. These, more often than not, coincide with the 'wish-lists' of other users.
As with most Linux-based boxes, it's a PVR design - our review sample was equipped with an 80GB ATA/IDE hard drive, but we've seen 400GB models for sale (it is, by the way, easy to install and initialise a bigger drive should you outgrow an 80GB model).
Which brings us to a major advantage that the IP Box 250S has over the competition - price. The 80GB version sells for around £160 - which takes it close to the asking price of an ordinary budget satellite PVR. But there are caveats.
Most obviously, the IP Box 250S only incorporates a single tuner, so recording one channel while watching another is strictly forbidden (sadly, even if they're on the same transponder). As a single-tuner design, the 250S is equipped with only one LNB input, which is combined with a loopthrough output for driving slave receivers.
There are Scarts for TV (RGB/component/S-video/composite) and VCR (composite-only), plus phono sockets for stereo audio and composite video. Digital audio is catered for by an optical TOSlink output. The only other connectors are the all-important Ethernet, and an RS232 port for upgrading firmware the conventional way.
The box itself is mid-sized and of unpretentious design. In addition to a four-digit LED display are a standby button in the shape of a horseshoe and an array of buttons for channel selection, volume and menu access.
There are no pull-down flaps and, as a result, no hidden goodies like a USB port or CI slots. But then again, do you need the latter if your receiver is capable of emulating CAMs anyway? Instead, the 250S gives you a card slot for use with whatever CAM your chosen firmware is emulating, which is arguably more useful.
In order to maximise the available internal volume, the standard 3.5in ATA hard drive is attached to the top lid. One cannot fault the rest of the internal construction, which is tidy.
In addition to the main board (based around a ST Microelectronics tuner and embedded 350MIPS PowerPC processor) is a switch-mode power supply that's also capable of supporting the hard drive. Despite the high-ish hardware density, the 250S doesn't run at a temperature that gives cause for concern.
The remote handset is rather nondescript in appearance and contains buttons that do nothing. On the plus side, it's acceptably organised and will also control many TVs. There are, however, some specific firmware-related oddities. With the pre-installed Enigma, the record button didn't work. And with the official IP Box firmware, pressing teletext brought up the DiSEqC settings for some reason.
The review unit was supplied with an early 'port' of the Enigma firmware, which will be familiar to Dreambox users. This was provided as an alternative to the 'official' AB-Com firmware which, alas, doesn't support the onboard card-reader - certainly in its original incarnation.
After connecting the 250S to a broadbanded home network and enabling DHCP network auto-configuration from the setup menu (in the case of Enigma, one of several in a 'carousel' that also includes PVR playback, TV and radio modes), we were able to upgrade the firmware from an internet FTP site that had been pre-programmed into the unit.
There were two more recent versions - the first updated without problem, but the second was hurdled by a CRC error and so we were unable to proceed further.
Unfortunately, this Enigma version left a lot to be desired. It behaved erratically when selecting channels, wouldn't let you start recording by pressing the remote's 'record' button, took a half-hour to complete a search of the Astra 1x cluster and failed to drive a DiSEqC dish properly.
DCM acknowledged that 250S firmwares have moved on since then, and pointed us to others that better reflect the capabilities of the unit. They can be directly transferred from FTP sites, provided the 'network update' settings are filled in with the relevant parameters. As an alternative, they can be downloaded from various websites to a PC, and transferred to the box.
A freely downloadable program called 'PCEditor' is involved. This will also back up and modify channel/satellite databases.
We then installed an official firmware, downloaded from the AB-Com website. This has a menu-driven user interface of conventional design; the look and feel of the various firmwares may vary, but some themes are common throughout. Setup parameters (other than network settings) include the usual - TV standard, aspect ratio, parental control, LNB type, and so on.
In use, configuring satellites and finding channels involves a process that's no different to any other (non-Linux) receiver. You can search manually by individual transponder (frequency, polarity and symbol rate - in the related 'advanced' mode, PIDs can also be specified).
In all cases, signal strength and quality bars are displayed. As far as the 'automatic' alternative is concerned, searching by encryption status and network status are both supported. What a shame there's no blind search - this is seldom seen these days.
Multi-satellite searches are also possible, provided you're using a motorised dish and have set it up properly. Here, the dish moves sequentially from one satellite to the next until all of the available channels have been found.
Talking of which, the DiSEqC capabilities support Goto-X (USALS/1.3). What's particularly cool - certainly with Enigma - is that you can save to a specific DiSEqC memory location ('satellite number'), thereby ensuring compatibility with an existing DiSEqC receiver's database.
Unfortunately, this isn't possible with the 'official' firmware and, indeed, some of the third-party ones (most of which are very similar in terms of look and feel). These require you to reinstall every satellite.
Pressing the 'enter' button displays the channel list, which can be sorted by satellite, encryption status or alphabetically. As is usual, there's a dedicated handset button for switching between radio and TV modes.
It is also possible to copy often-viewed channels into one of five pre-programmed favourites lists (more such lists can be defined if need be). The channel list also permits channels to be deleted or PIN-protected.
Full teletext is supported, and the EPG - from which recordings can be scheduled - caters for seven-day listings, if present. These recordings are listed, with details such as EPG-derived programme name/details, time/date and channel, in a 'file list management' menu. Separate lists are provided for radio and TV recordings.
An array of handset buttons is provided for playback manipulation - cue, review and pause, for example. The same controls are available for 'timeshifting', courtesy of the receiver's ability to buffer the currently tuned channel to its hard disc.
Currently, though, there's no means of saving the contents of the buffer should you like to retain them as a permanent recording. Nor is it possible to edit recordings (beyond renaming, deleting or 'locking' them). But we're sure such features could be added through firmware - such is the power and flexibility of the Linux concept.
You can establish a FTP (File Transfer Protocol) session with the box - if you navigate your way to the /var/media/video directory, you'll find all of your recordings. These can be transferred to a PC for editing, conversion to DVD or storage on a home media server.
The recordings do not take the form of a standard transport stream, and cannot thus be processed by utilities like the excellent freeware demultiplexer ProjectX. Thankfully, another freeware program downloadable from the internet, MakePS, will convert these files into standard MPEG ones.
The 250S is capable of a good standard of audio-visual performance - certainly from channels that are capable of delivering it from the first place. Dynamic range, presentation of detail and colour fidelity all impress.
Sound quality, as demonstrated by a listen to some of the better-quality radio stations, is also good. Sensitivity, meanwhile, gives us no cause for concern. A 1m motorised dish with 0.7dB LNB brought in channels from a variety of satellites, including Hot Bird, Astras 1x and 2x, Thor and Sirius.
We tried a number of different firmwares (official and unofficial) and searching was, alas, equally slow in all cases. A complete scan of Hot Bird's 100 or so transponders, for example, took between 10 and 15 minutes.
Thankfully, everyday channel selection is more responsive. If you're conducting a multi-satellite scan, an annoying problem becomes apparent. It starts scanning before the dish has stopped moving - and so the satellite's first few transponders might be missed. Even the latest official software was not without its faults.
Periodically, it would display 'error' on the front panel display, and shut itself down. Ironically, the unofficial ones proved more reliable in this respect!
However, it should be remembered that the 250S is a work in progress. It hasn't been on the market for long and it will be some time before the developers are fully up to speed with this intriguing receiver. Similar experiences were reported in the early days of the Dreambox range.
If you can accept that the odd feature might not function correctly from the outset, then the IP Box 250S has a lot going for it.
Features are limited only by the desires and priorities of those writing firmware and plug-ins for it - but even now the 250S can do a lot more than non-Linux PVRs of similar price.
If you're a satellite enthusiast with IT experience (Linux users will take to the 250S like a duck to water) then consider the 250S as something of a bargain.