One year after introducing its digital service in Australia, Foxtel has unveiled a digital set-top-box/recorder that packs a 160 GB hard drive to let you record up to 60 hours of Foxtel programming.
Dubbed "iQ", it receives encoded digital information via cable or satellite, decodes this information and sends it to your TV, so its strongest point of differentiation is its integration with the Foxtel Digital Electronic Program Guide.
You can access the guide from the remote for 'one-touch' recording. You can then manage all your recordings through the iQ Personal Planner. It displays all programs recorded, whether or not they have been watched, programs set to record in the future and a reminder that the selected program is about to start. You can also use the Planner to create a playlist to sequentially play back selected programmes.
The Series Link button allows you to record all shows in a series that appear on a particular channel - say, all Simpson episodes on Fox 8 - but it will not record the show if it is programmed on another channel (unless you program a Series Link for that channel as well). Series Link is available on 20 of Foxtel Digital's 100+ channels.
Thanks to the built-in hard drive, iQ continuously records or caches whatever you're watching, which lends itself to two more fun tricks - you can pause and rewind live TV.
With all the controls cleanly integrated into the Foxtel remote, interruptions can be dealt with by hitting the Pause button. When you're ready to resume viewing, you simply hit Play, and the show will continue from the where you left off.
And if you forget to pause, you can Rewind at any of four different speeds to review what you missed. Sports fans will also appreciate a Slow Motion playback option, so you can second-guess the referee by immediately replaying the action as many times as you like.
The box contains two TV tuners, so you can record two programs that are being broadcast at the same time on two different channels, even while watching a previously recorded show.
Foxtel iQ is fully Dolby Digital capable and programs recorded are played back with the same quality as original broadcast - which remember is Standard Definition not High Definition.
There are also Parental Control settings to restrict or block the viewing and/or purchase of certain programs or channels. It does not automatically skip ads when recording, but it does allow you to fast forward through them during playback.
Limitation number one: it's only available to Foxtel Digital subscribers - it replaces the existing set-top unit, and incorporates all the Foxtel Digital functionality with the new recording capabilities.
Limitation number two: you cannot permanently archive anything you'd like to keep long term. Once your 60 hours are recorded, iQ finds space by progressively deleting the oldest recordings. You can mark programmes you do not want deleted with the Keep button, however you cannot copy them onto a disk or view them on another device. Of course you will not be able to Keep shows purchased through a Premium subscription more than the stipulated time frame, nor will you be able to record at all enhanced Foxtel features such as Sports Active, Sky News Active and Gamesworld.
Limitation number three: as iQ capabilities are only compatible with Foxtel Digital channels and the free-to-air channels Foxtel Digital carries (ABC, SBS and Nine), you will not be able to record shows broadcast by Channels Seven and Ten, who are still in negotiations with Foxtel over digital content.
Limitation number four: the electronic programming guide only lets you select shows up to seven days in advance - not good for those going away for longer periods. It appears somewhat cumbersome to plan ahead too, as you have to pick the channel your desired show is on, then scroll through hour-by-hour to get to your selection. There is no calendar or search type of functionality.
iQ is set to directly impact the DVD recorder market, but probably not to the extent that Foxtel envisions. Its live TV capabilities are cool, but there are many DVD recorders with hard drives already on the market such as the Pioneer DVR-520H, the Panasonic DMR-E500H, the Philips HDRW720 and the Toshiba RD-XS32 that have similar buffering,Time Slip or Chase Play capabilities.
More than 60 percent of Foxtel's one million direct subscribers have moved up to the Digital service and surely those folks are the most likely to find iQ attractive - presuming they haven't already invested in a DVR.
Foxtel is charging subscribers a one-off access fee of $395 for the iQ, plus a $100 installation fee for current Foxtel Digital subscribers, $169.95 for those new to the service. Then you will have to cough up a $5.95 per month service fee in addition to your regular monthly Foxtel Digital subscription. This service fee will be waived for subscribers taking Foxtel Digital's top Platinum package or for those who subscribe for two or more set-top-boxes.
Another consideration is that technically, the iQ remains the property of Foxtel. The good news in that is that Foxtel will always be required to service the box if there are any faults and they will continually upgrade the software to incorporate new technologies and features - something the company claims it will continue to introduce.
If you want to see a demonstration of iQ firsthand, Foxtel has a partnership with Myer stores, where they will be setting up special demonstration areas in 46 of Myer's metropolitan stores.