16 November 2009

Review: Humax Foxsat-HDR

We live in France, so normally UK TV is unavailable to us through the aerial. However, the satellite that feeds Sky TV in the UK also feeds most of western Europe with other channels, so equipped with a secondhand Skybox, we have been able to watch the FTV and FTA channels broadcast to the UK. This was fine in so far as it went, however, recording something was a bit of a palaver. First we had to set our DVD recorder with hard drive to record the AV1 channel, the one Sky came into the box on, at a specific time, then we had to make sure the Sky box was on the right channel and lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we had to switch off the DVD recorder, because otherwise it wouldn't record. Yes, you could record different channels at different times without supervision because you have the autoswitch of the Sky box and you could set up multiple recordings on the DVD recorder, but it wasn't exactly easy or intuitive. Our Sky box is on its last legs, it sometimes takes ages to change channel and it gets locked onto Channel Five at times so we needed something new and shiny. I had considered going the HTPC route with MythTV, but that might be the next tech refresh for now I am very happy with the Humax Foxsat-HDR.

Right, so onto the Humax and why it's great. To give you a better idea of what exactly this box is, it's a PVR (personal video recorder) designed for FreeSat, the UK satellite-based equivalent of the aerial-based Freeview. It gives you all available BBC channels, all ITV channels, Channel 4, E4 and more4 and Five, but not Five US or Fiver yet. It has twin tuners, so really benefits from a quad LNB setup (not that I have one, but more on that later). It has a 320 GB hard drive and a week-long EPG.

First up, getting it out of the box reveals not only the Foxsat itself, but a nice selection of cables - some AV CVBS cables; a SCART lead; HDMI lead. You get batteries for the remote, in short all you need. Well, all you need bar a loopthrough lead if you are going to one use it with a single LNB. With the Sky+ and Sky HD+ boxes these days you have multiple cables coming from your satellite dish because the receiver at the end of the arm in front of the actual dish (the LNB) contains multiple inputs, each of which travel down a cable, allowing to record one channel while watching another, etc. The FoxSat allows for this but doesn't force it on you. It has three socket F connections at the rear. Either you use connections 1 and 3 for your Quad LNB cables, or you just use connection 1 and a loop of cable between 2 and 3 for a single LNB. That's what we've got being an old Sky setup, so that's what we used.

You need to be careful to remove the plastic coating off not only the door at the front of the Foxsat, but also on the screen at the front of the box behind the door. Otherwise the remote has a hard time getting through. The remote that comes with is nice enough, but since we have a Logitech Harmony 525 I only used it for long enough to work out where the buttons that we'd use regularly were and then set up the Harmony.

When you first turn on the Humax, after you've screwed in the connectors for your single or quad LNB, there is a short set up period where the box reads the satellite and gets the channels it is able to. This read-through of available channels is extremely rapid in comparison with our old Sky box, but then it was over ten years' old. The Foxsat asks for your postcode to determine what BBC and ITV regions you should watch. Although we live in France, we still remember our postcodes for several of our previous UK addresses, so we only need to choose the one we wanted.

The Foxsat is obviously designed for the UK and is designed to watch UK TV, so the clock on the front, when shown, reports UK time - GMT or BST. This is not a problem and since recording is done merely by visiting the EPG and pressing OK to record the programme you want to (or the whole series), so the time is somewhat irrelevant compared to the juggling needed for recording previously.

The  EPG deserves a paragraph to itself. While it is supposed to be more technical than the SKY+ guide, I really don't mind, being of a more technical bent myself. The layout is clear and tabs across the top of the screen have different-coloured edges, and you hit the four coloured buttons to get to them. If you click OK on a programme you get a box pop up that offers you the choice of watching, recording a single programme or the series. If you choose Watch the FoxSat will switch over to your chosen programme when ready. If, however, you choose Record, the Foxsat won't necessarily turn over channels on you, it can record in the background. Best of all, even with a single LNB cable, you can record a second channel, and even watch a third simultaneously, the channels just need to be the same polarity and Graham Thompson, a user on the AV forum who has created a superb spreadsheet that shows exactly what you can record and watch simultaneously.

Recording/Playback/Time shifting
The real test is the way the FoxSat is able to handle recording and playback, but as yet, I've only had this machine a day or so so it's too early to tell, however, all the "synthetic" tests I've conducted have worked brilliantly, the real test comes tomorrow morning when I need to record Five in the morning and something on ITV1 that has a fifteen-minute overlap. The theory says that both should be recorded with no problem, if not my life may be at risk. If I don't post on this blog ever again you'll know that there has been foul play involved in my disappearance.

The DVD recorder we bought last year was okay. It does what it says it can do, pretty much. It has problems recording to DVDs now and the hard drive can "hitch" so I am happy to relegate it to purely being a DVD player. One of the best things about the FoxSat box (although untested as yet) is that I can send SD video out of the SCART on it to the DVD recorder, meaning that even if we recorded HD video, we can give someone a disc of it (in SD since DVDs don't support HD video, plus HD video is protected and cannot be copied). All in all, this FoxSat by previously-unknown-to-me Humax is an incredible bit of kit. If you live in the UK and still pay Sky a monthly subscription, this is a way out if you can afford the single outlay of 250UKP, and can give up some Sky-specific channels, like Sky One. If you live in Western Europe and want to watch and record UK TV this is ideal again. Right now at least, I am happy to give it 5/5