Humax Foxsat-HD £150
28th May 2008 | 09:00
Freesat makes a welcome addition to the airwaves
What's in a name? Freesat doesn't come gratis, but it isn't subscription-based and provides an ever-growing selection of TV channels and radio stations, including the BBC and ITV in high definition.
Freesat from Sky is similar, except it doesn't currently offer ITV's HD channels, although it does carry some channels such as Five and Sky Three that you won't find on Freesat for some time yet. Both of these services require the installation of a dish, which should set you back around £80.
Currently there are no Freesat PVRs available (they should be on sale within in a few months), so recording these broadcasts means resorting to antediluvian methods such as using a separate DVD recorder or VCR.
Compact and connected deck
The box itself is not a thing of beauty, but it is compact - about a quarter of the size of a Sky+.
The fascia shows which channel is selected, while drop-down flaps hide control buttons for those annoying times when the remote mysteriously goes AWOL.
At the rear is a seriously impressive array of sockets that caters for every connectivity need, including an HDMI for hooking up to an HD Ready TV.
As per Sky HD, the box can output its high-definition pictures in 720p or 1080i, which you can choose according to the type of programme.
An optical audio socket delivers Dolby Digital from suitably encoded HD transmissions.
A single LNB is for the satellite connection while an Ethernet port offers the potential of IPTV services (eg BBC iPlayer) in the future. The USB port is for making service updates.
If you've got a Sky dish already in place you'll find installing the box about as challenging as opening a packet of crisps. When you buy the box, expect the retailer to ask you whether you have a dish already.
The menu system guides you through the step-by-step process (TV aspect ratio, postcode, output resolution, etc) that had us up and running within minutes. It tunes in the 56 TV and 18 radio channels very quickly and the channels are all in the right order.
The only annoyance is the 30-second wait for the box to power up, but the menu system makes Sky's system look rather outdated in comparison.
The easy on the eye electronic programme guide (EPG) is a revelation with high-resolution graphics and icons. And it's also overlaid, which means you can carry on watching a show while navigating the EPG. The provision of a 'Back' button for menu navigation also enables you to quickly swap between two channels. Very handy.
The EPG is more versatile and slicker than Sky's, which is being overhauled and relaunched in the autumn. You can edit (ie delete) the channel list (so long then, to Parliament) and create (and name) a number of favourite lists. Some channels can be customised so that you get another region's local news shows if you so wish.
Finding a specific programme is a simple case of entering the EPG and selecting the genre, which can then be viewed as a table, list, or schedule of selected shows or you can find a show by entering its name (there's an SMS-style input option for people more used to texting than writing real words).
Sky's EPG only allows you to enter the first letter of a programme, which is about as helpful as Gordon Brown in a credit crunch.
One element that has been over-designed is the programme information banner (called the 'i-plate').
It's packed with icons that tell you every detail about the current programme, including the signal quality and strength, picture resolution, presence of Dolby Digital audio, channel number, if audio description is available, if text is available and even the broadcast time and progress. Too much information thanks.
Mixed quality pictures
Hats off to Humax, for really coming up with the goods here. The system works almost flawlessly and can deliver top-quality broadcast images and sound.
Directly comparing simultaneous broadcasts on Freesat, Freeview and Sky show that this system is on a par with, or sometimes better, than its rivals.
All BBC standard-definition broadcasts and most other channels look as good on the Humax as they do on Freeview and Sky. With ITV it's a different story.
On a Sony 32in LCD the Freeview transmission of a Euro 2008 match is only just about acceptable (and certainly inferior to an analogue transmission on a CRT or a BBC broadcast from the same event).
On both Sky and Freesat in standard-def it is as awful as looking through a smeary window or a layer of water. One press of the red button on the remote and the hi-def picture bursts onto the screen in all its glory and simply blows the standard-def one out of the room.
Everything else on Freesat falls between these two extremes, with the quality very much dependent on the source, which begs the question, why is ITV allowed to serve up such poor quality fare?
Generally, there's very little to choose between Sky and Freesat in terms of performance although watching Teletext is different. It's much quicker to load here, but that's because there are no video streams, just text and images.
Currently, there are some serious omissions in the Freesat EPG including Five, E4+1, Dave, Channel 4 HD, Sky Three and Sky News and the only radio stations are BBC offerings. But the situation will improve over time and the roster is predicted to reach around 200 channels by the end of the year.
It's great to be able to watch high-definition without the subscription and to watch ITV HD at all, for that matter. Despite the awful below standard-definition ITV, we can't wait for the PVR version to come out.
For now though, the Foxsat-HD box is a very compelling proposition if you're not bothered about built-in recording.