With Apple TV on the way, there's a lot going on in the world of the networked media players. The Evesham iPlayer allows you to access your Windows Media Centre PC and play files from USB memory cards, but that's not all.
The iPlayer is also a Freeview PVR with HDMI out. This is good news -- not only does this box upscale Freeview TV, it also allows you to play high-definition content off your network, portable hard drives and USB memory sticks.
The other plus point is that it supports high-definition content over terrestrial, which means if there is ever a terrestrial high-definition service in the UK, this box is well placed to pick it up. Not only does it support MPEG-2 (the system used for Freeview broadcasts), it is also capable of decoding MPEG-4, which is likely to be the coding used for any new hi-def services that are launched.
While it is very well specified, however, it costs far too much. With a list price of some £300, it needs a second tuner to make it worth the money. As it stands, you can't watch one channel and record another -- particularly annoying as PVRs that offer this can be bought for around £100 to £150.
The iPlayer is a stylish-looking machine. It's finished in silver and will happily fit into most living rooms with minimal fuss. When you pick the unit up, it's very light and feels a little cheap, although that's unlikely to be an issue most of the time given that the unit will be firmly lodged under your television.
There are no buttons on the front of the player, only three status LEDs. To the back of the unit there are the usual connections, including Ethernet, two Scart sockets, HDMI, optical digital out, analogue audio out and aerial input and output. To the side there is a slot for a Top Up TV viewing card and a USB socket, to allow you to watch video from a USB memory stick or external hard drive.
The remote control looks quite odd. It's narrow at the bottom end and fat at the top. In practice, this is actually a decent design -- it's very easy to hold, and you can even stand it on its base. On the downside it feels quite cheap, and the directional control in the middle feels pretty flimsy.
The list of things this box can do is staggering. For a start, it's a Freeview receiver, and it also promises to upscale Freeview images to fit your high-definition TV. Sounds good, but it's a bit pointless, as all hi-def tellies upscale anyway. On the upside, the box is capable of decoding 1080i material, should a full-time high-definition service ever be launched on Freeview.
The iPlayer also has other tricks up its sleeve. The most impressive of which is that it can read various files off USB memory sticks and external hard drives. We tested this with various high-definition clips from the Internet, including WMV hi-def content from Microsoft's Web site. The T2 trailer looked especially good. The player was able to read everything -- the only problem we had was getting the data off the memory stick quick enough. In the end, a Sony Micro Vault proved fast enough for us to watch hi-def content.
The iPlayer also allows you to connect to the Internet, read and write emails, subscribe to podcasts and listen to Internet radio. These services are all provided via the tvMax service, so it's this that determines which shows you can access. Most, although not all, of the Internet radio stations worked for us.
The Internet browser is a bit of a pointless addition. It doesn't support Flash and the browsing experience is a long way away from the one you get when using a computer.
The Freeview picture quality is as you would expect. The upscaling is all well and good, but doesn't offer anything that a high-definition screen with built-in Freeview won't do. We certainly couldn't see any improvement between the iPlayer and the built-in receiver on our Toshiba 26WLT66 LCD TV. Where it comes in handy is if you have a television without built-in Freeview, and there are still 'HD-Ready' screens that this applies to.
The built-in 80GB hard drive is small, with most other Freeview PVRs offering at least double that. It's not the end of the world, though, as the iPlayer allows you to archive your recordings on to a networked computer, USB key or portable hard drive. This is a fantastic feature, and it's simple to use.
You mark the recordings that you want to export, and once you connect a USB drive, the machine automatically copies the video over. These files can then be played on your computer or burnt to DVD. We tested it with, of all things, a recording of Deal or No Deal. Once copied on to a memory stick, we were able to play the file on our computer, but only after we installed a free piece of video playback software called VLC. While this isn't ideal, watching recorded files on your computer is only one of the intended features, it's handy simply as a way to conserve hard drive space in the machine.
The iplayer has the usual seven-day Freeview EPG, allowing you to book programmes to record up to seven days in advance. The good news is that the EPG is very quick and simple to use.
During our testing we noticed that the box became very hot. We also noticed that after being used for a while the HDMI signal would disappear for a second or so, and then return. Rotating the box on its side seemed to help clear this problem up.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield