As more of us buy large screen HDTVs, the more demand there is for quality content to go on that big high definition display to properly show it off to its full potential.
Fortunately, there is a cheaper option and that is to look at getting a digital HD set top box to give you access to the best Freeview HD experience currently possible.
Humax HD-Fox T2
The first of what has become a lucrative line of products. The Freeview HD service was perhaps one of the most anticipated arrivals on the TV scene in recent years. That could simply be due to the fact that those eager to get their hands on it had to wait so long to get their hands on one. But along came the Humax HD-Fox T2.
With HDMI and Scart connectivity the box allowed those who at the time hadn’t invested in high definition to purchase a ‘future-proof’ product in that it was compatible with the old style SDTV’s, whilst all the while being ready for the HD investment.
The box, although no storage capabilities for your movies, acts as a decent media streamer with compatibility for formats such as DivX, XviD, MP3 and JPEG which can be accessed remotely through the receiver. The built in Ethernet port allows you to connect the box to your home network and access media stored on PC’s etc. Unfortunately for this model, there is no Wi-Fi although that is hoped to be brought in with an upgraded model later this year. Instead, you can always whack a USB drive into this thing and access files on there, although be warned, HD movie files are a little troublesome in that they can’t be read.
On the plus side, it does provide good HD quality TV picture, which begs the question of why there is no compatibility with HD movie files. However, whilst watching TV the viewer will enjoy what is recognised as one of the best graphical user interfaces around. And lastly, the set up is a doddle. Some devices which are capable of both SD and HD can be complicated initially when connecting via HDMI. However, this thing recognises from the first boot up whether you’re connected via Scart of HDMI so you can be up and running immediately.
The price is a bit steep at around £150, but the box is aesthetically professional, functional and has a lot of promise which can be achieved via firmware updates, perhaps it might get access to Sky Player since it’s being added to Humax set top boxes. Although whether or not these capabilities will be exploited are in doubt with this box being around for quite a while now.
Grundig Freeview HD (DVB-T2)
The Grundig Freeview HD (DVB-T2) has a lot of the features found with the Humax, although that is to be expected considering they offer pretty much the same service of Freeview HD. Again, a professional looking glossy black box which would appear to fit into many if not all home environment as well as access to all Freeview channels whether it be SD or HD.
Connectivity is the same as above, with a Scart connection as well as HDMI, although whilst the Humax has 2 Scart sockets, this has one. Not sure why the second is necessary at this point though. In addition to that there is a LAN port for internet services which in this case include BBC iPlayer built in. Whilst the Grundig offering doesn’t appear to have access to remote storage, there is a USB slot which allows playback from connected media.
A nice feature of this box ahead of the others though, is the upscaling capabilities whilst connected via HDMI. This means that although you will not get the crystal clear picture of the HD channels whilst watching SD, the resolutions will be altered so they don’t look out of place on your HDTV.
The price of this box is identical to that of the one above, which comes as no surprise as feature wise they are almost identical. The addition of more interactive and internet services though do enhance the potential of this box, although the lack of access to remote media is something which would definitely make me think again.
Sagemcom RT190-500 T2 HD
The Sagemcom RT190-500 T2 HD offering is a little different to a lot of its competitors. Although it comes with pretty much all the same features as those above, it does have recording capability found in services such as Sky+ and Virgin. Hence why I hold this in higher regard than the others. Although, like anything you get what you pay for, which in this case doubles the price when compared to the Grundig and Humax offering.
The boxes offer unlimited access to all SD and HD Freeview channels. This box allows functionality as close to Sky+ as I have come across with a Freeview box. The ability to pause, rewind live TV as well as record 2 channels in tandem are obviously the main reason behind this claim. In addition there is also the capability to record an entire series rather than just each installment of a regular show.
In terms of aesthetics, the box is small and compact as well as having a nice, black, glossy finish just like the others. It is extremely plain with no overpowering flashing or glowing LED’s which are just a distraction from the actual TV.
The box comes in 2 varieties. The cheapest being the 320Gb version allowing 160 hours of SD recording. The second is identical apart from the upgrade to a 500Gb internal hard drive allowing 250 hours of SD recording. The price difference being all of £50 with the base model being a modest £249.
The Philips DTR5520 is “superior sound and picture quality of Freeview HD services for a one-off price”, or at least that’s how the manufacturer describe this device. Although what this is, is a receiver only Freeview box which provides both SD and HD playback of all Freeview channels that are currently available. In other words, no different to the first 2 in the list.
Although what this does, is add £10 to the price in order to create a box which in my opinion looks a little bit sleeker than the others. The black glossy finish is becoming a bit of a tradition with these boxes, but this one has legs!
Other features are very similar indeed to its competitors. 1080p upscaling with USB connectivity for access to external media. In addition, an ethernet port for potential access to services such as BBC iPlayer.
Fortunately, this box also has a big brother. The Phillips HDT8520 which contains a 500Gb internal hard drive for up to 125 hours of high definition recordings or twice that if you’re a fan of standard definition still. Other than that the boxes are identical internally, only the latter is a lot bigger and has sturdier legs.
Toshiba have put a lot of emphasis on football with this release of its Toshiba HDR5010 Freeview HD Digital TV Recorder. The device is promoted as allowing you to record the entire World Cup in high definition with a 500Gb hard drive packed in what can only be regarded as a compact box.
The receiver also has a very impressive HDMI switcher feature built in. This means that whilst using one to connect your Freeview box to the HDTV, you can also use the others, if you’re running short, to connect games consoles or a Blu-Ray player. This is something that none of the others featured in this list can boast that’s for sure.
Other connectivity includes USB for playback of MP3 and JPEG, as well as a few different video codecs including DivX. Unfortunately, there is still a distinct lack of MKV file support from any device which is a shame if you’re a fan of downloaded or ripped HD content.
As expected you have access to all SD and HD Freeview channels with this device which in my opinion is the best of the bunch. With rewind, pause, recording of live TV built in it has the lot. Interactive services as well as media streaming. It appears to me to be a collaboration of all the alternative devices as well as being from what is in my personal opinion, a more favourable and trusted manufacturer.
The only problem with this box, as you might have predicted, is the launch cost of £350 as will certainly put a dent in your wallet and would more than pay for a subscription to Sky+ HD. However you can now pick this up for just £200 online, which makes this a much better proposition, especially if contracts aren’t your thing, then this is definitely the ultimate in High Definition Freeview at the moment. Due to be released in May in plenty of time for this summer’s football World Cup in South Africa.