You might not believe it, but digital terrestrial TV in the UK is well over ten years old now. First launched in 1998, DTT had services from the main terrestrial broadcasters and a pay-TV service called ONdigital. Eventually, ONdigital became ITV Digital, but there wasn't enough demand for pay-TV over the air in the UK, and the service folded in 2002. Since then, we've had Freeview, offering a free selection of channels for people to enjoy once they buy a digital TV or Freeview box.
High-definition TV has been about for a while now but, because the UK opted for more channels rather than following the US route of making digital TV a mostly HD proposition, we've not had access to it via an aerial. To get HD, we've needed to invent new transmission standards. That's where the £180 Humax HD-FOX T2 comes in -- it's one of a new generation of receivers that use the newstandard. Using this standard, Freeview is able to get more capacity out of its multiplexes, and make HD a practical possibility.
Cost of progress
The first thing to mention is the T2's cost. At first glance, the £180 asking price seems fairly steep. After all, this isn't a personal video recorder -- it's a standard, single-tuner, Freeview HD receiver. Surely it should cost £50? Well, normally we'd agree, but the HD system that Freeview is using requires entirely new receivers, which means that set-top boxes have had to be designed from the ground up. There was no way to avoid this and, while the national press seems to be enjoying whipping up the 'Freeview HD is a gigantic rip-off' scandal, we take the stance that innovation costs money.
Freeview HD bonuses
As a company, Freeview has become skilled at understanding what's good for consumers. To make Freeview HD better, it's laid down some basic guidelines that all manufacturers must follow. Boxes must, for example, have an Ethernet socket. This is designed to allow them to access IPTV services at a later date, like BBC , 4oD and ITV Player. It's a great idea that, one day, will pay dividends to people who buys these boxes.
All Freeview HD equipment must also be able to output at 1080p. This means that all the electronic-programme-guide designs and menus can be rendered in HD, which means everything can look much more modern and slick than is possible with an old-fashioned Freeview receiver. It also means that the box can upscale standard-definition material to look as good as possible on your TV. People with very high-end TVs might choose to turn upscaling off, though, as their screens are likely to do a slightly better job of upscaling.
Advantages of upgradable firmware
Humax has made it quite clear that it doesn't see these boxes as just Freeview receivers. The IPTV options mean that the company can add extra features, such as YouTube playback, or even develop its own portal to bring together a selection of Internet TV content on the box. It's previously demonstrated this system with European channels, and we're quite taken with it.
The T2 also has another trick up its sleeve that will be unleashed at some point later this year. Using the built-in USB socket, the device will be able to record TV shows to external storage devices. While the initial outlay of £180 might seem extravagant, then, this box will eventually gain basic PVR functionality. Although it won't be as advanced as thethat Humax plans to launch later in the year, it's still better than nothing.
Design and connectivity
As you'd expect, you get an HDMI socket to take the 1080p output of this box to your HDTV. There's no component video out, though, which might annoy some people with older TVs, or AV receivers that have run out of HDMI sockets.
An Ethernet socket is provided, as mentioned above, to allow for IPTV functionality in the future, in whatever form that might take. And the USB socket will allow you to watch video, listen to music and look at photos from compatible storage devices. In the future, the USB port will also allow you to record TV programmes to an external drive.
Scart sockets are provided for older TVs but, if you don't have an HDTV, we question the logic of buying an HD Freeview box, as we're likely to see TVs with the functionality built in very soon anyway, and £180 is a sizeable wad of cash to spend on a box that you won't be using to its full potential.
What channels do I get?
The Humax can now pick up ITV HD and the BBC's HD channel. By March at the latest, Channel 4 will launch 4HD on the platform, and, at some point later, a fourth channel will join the service. It's fair to say that Freeview is never going to be the best way to satisfy a deep craving for HD, because capacity limits the number of channels quite severely, but, for people who want to see content from the country's main broadcasters, it's a good starting point.
Picture and sound quality
Much has been written about the picture quality of the BBC's HD channel. Some people are distressed that it has, in their eyes, declined. The quality of a broadcast isn't the fault of a hardware manufacturer, though.