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Freesat+ HD with free time review: Freesat+ HD with free time

The Humax HDR-1000S Freesat+ HD box with free time has an easy-to-use interface and impressive recording features.

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Niall Magennis
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Niall Magennis

Reviewer

Niall has been writing about technology for over 10 years, working for the UK's most prestigious newspapers, magazines and websites in the process. What he doesn't know about TVs and laptops isn't worth worrying about. It's a little known fact that if you stacked all the TVs and laptops he has ever reviewed on top of each other, the pile would reach all the way to the moon and back four times.

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9 min read

Free time is Freesat's answer to Freeview's YouView offering and the Humax HDR-1000S is the first set-top box to hit the market with the service on board.

orig-humax-hdr-1000s-freesat-freetime.jpg
8.3

Freesat+ HD with free time

The Good

High-quality user interface; Classy design and very quiet in operation; Good media streaming and digital playback features; Comprehensive recording capabilities.

The Bad

Search doesn't work with on-demand services; Needs more on-demand service providers; On-demand shows are slow to play; Won't skip adverts on on-demand shows.

The Bottom Line

The Humax HDR-1000S Freesat+ HD box with free time impresses with its easy-to-use interface and strong recording features. The backwards-in-time EPG works well but the on-demand services are not as tightly integrated as on YouView. It needs more service providers to come on board and I'd like to see the EPG populate faster and playback of on-demand programmes to start up quicker.

The box lets you watch all the usual channels available on the Freesat satellite service (as long as you have a dish), and adds a new EPG that allows you to go back in time to catch up on programmes that have already been broadcast.

It will set you back £280, which is a little cheaper than the Humax YouView box, but is it a better option?

Electronic programme guide

Thankfully, the new free time electronic programme guide (EPG) is completely different to that used on all standard Freesat boxes. I say "thankfully" because Freesat's EPG is diabolical. It forces you to go through a genre selection screen every time you open it and it lacks basic features like a video thumbnail window so you can continue watching TV while checking the listings.

Free time feels like it's been designed by a completely different team because it's just so much more pleasant to use. When you open it, the channel you're watching is shifted smoothly into a thumbnail window in the top right-hand corner of the screen. Beneath this you're shown 'now and next' information on programmes across seven channels. If you push right with the remote control past the now and next information, the EPG populates with a standard bricks-in-the-wall-type layout, showing around 3 hours' worth of data in one go.

The split between the now and next and full EPG data is a good idea, as most of the time you just want to quickly see what's on another channel rather than delve into the full guide. Naturally, you can also do the usual stuff like pressing the info button on the remote to view a summary of a show and set recording timers by hitting the record button when a show is highlighted. It's all very straightforward stuff. The clever bit is when you click to go backwards in the EPG though.

Humax HDR-1000S Freesat
The free time EPG is like a TV time machine, allowing you to scroll back in time to watch what's already been broadcast.

This is also where the free time EPG differs substantially from the YouView one, and in some ways manages to better it. On free time you can only go back in time on the channels that are linked to the supported on-demand services. If you select another channel, such as CBS Drama, the EPG doesn't do anything.

When you do pick a channel that's linked to an on-demand service, such as BBC One or ITV1, the EPG switches to showing a list view of the shows that you can catch up on from earlier in the day. Press the back button again and it'll switch to the day before and if you carry on pressing back you'll step through all seven days for which content is available. In many ways this is better than the YouView system, as it only shows you the stuff that you can actually watch, rather listing everything that has previously been broadcast, with many shows you can't actually catch up on.

However, there are some slight annoyances. With YouView, when you go back in time in the EPG, the shows you've recorded to the hard drive are also listed in the guide as watchable, whereas that's not the case on the free time EPG. For example, if you recorded a show on CBS Drama the previous day, and try going backwards in time in the EPG on that channel, it doesn't do anything because there's no facility to access recordings in this way.

It's perhaps a minor issue but it does make the box feel not quite as well integrated as YouView -- something that's apparent in other areas too, as I'll point out along the way. Overall though, the EPG is quite well implemented and is in some ways more straightforward to use than the YouView system.

Recording features

The HDR-1000S is, at heart, a dual-tuner Freesat personal video recorder (PVR), so as you'd expect, it's got all the recording features you'd find on normal PVRs. You can schedule recordings just by hitting the record button on a highlighted show in the EPG, and if the programme is part of a series, you're given the option of recording the whole series automatically. Cleverly, it groups shows together in a series in the recording library, so you access them like a boxset.

Two shows can be recorded at the same time on different channels. You can also record one show while watching another or watch on-demand programmes while recordings are in progress. Sometimes, if you're recording two shows at the same time, you can actually watch a third channel if it's being broadcast from the same satellite transponder as the shows being recorded.

Humax HDR-1000S Freesat
The recording features are pretty impressive, allowing you to record two programmes while watching a third, in some instances.

When you try to record a third programme while two recordings are in progress, the box will give you two options -- to stop one of the two other recordings or alternatively to schedule a recording of the show at a different time if it's being re-broadcast later, which is neat.

Chase play is supported too, so you can watch the start of a show while the end is still recording and it buffers the channel you're watching so you can pause and rewind if you've missed something.

The model I had in for testing had a 500GB hard drive, which provides enough space for storing around 300 hours of standard-definition programming. However, for £20 more, there's a 1TB version available, which is a better option, especially if you record a lot of shows in HD.

There's no way to set up recordings remotely, but Freesat says it will soon introduce iOS and Android apps to allow this.

On-demand services, searching and streaming

The box currently only supports two on-demand services -- BBC iPlayer and ITV Player. However, the on-demand menu does have placeholders for 4oD and Demand 5. Freesat says these will be added by Christmas.

The two on-demand apps are the same as the versions you'll find on smart TVs from manufacturers like Samsung. They're pretty easy to use but aren't exactly lightning quick to start up. For example, from selecting ITV Player in the on-demand menu to being able to choose a programme to view took 13 seconds, which is pretty sluggish. However, it's similar to YouView in this regard.

Free time lags behind YouView when it comes to search features. Unfortunately, search doesn't work across the on-demand services at all, but instead only searches the EPG for upcoming shows. By contrast, YouView's search is one of its best features as it's fully integrated and works across on-demand, upcoming shows and your own recordings, so this is a major failing of free time and something that needs to be addressed by Freesat.

Humax HDR-1000S Freesat
The search feature doesn't work with the on-demand services.

On the plus side, this box does support media playback from USB devices and streaming across a network from DLNA kit like PCs and NAS drives. The streaming support is excellent too, with good navigation and almost instant playback once you select a file to play. Format support is also strong, as it played HD MKVs as well as standard-definition Xvid files without any problems.

Menu system

The Freesat free time menu system is based around the Home tab, which slides in from the left-hand side of the screen when you hit the Home button on the remote. It's a list that you scroll up and down through to access the various features including the TV guide, on-demand services, your recordings library and the search box.

As you highlight each option, a box at the bottom of the screen populates with the services available under each heading. It looks ace, thanks to the use of pretty graphics and smooth transitions between the various menu screens.

The Home tab also gives you access to some additional features. For example, there's an entry for Showcase, which is a list of recommendations from Freesat of the best shows coming up or available via the on-demand services. Generally speaking, the selection seems to be a good mix of populist and interesting choices. You can also set up recordings of shows you like the look of directly from this screen, which is handy.

This model also has a Humax entry in the menu where you can not only access the media streaming features, but also some of the company's smart TV apps. These are quite basic though. At present there are only apps for looking stuff up on Wikipedia, viewing pictures on Flickr and Picasa or checking deals on Teletext Holidays.

Humax HDR-1000S Freesat
The menu system is cleanly laid out and easy to use but there aren't many apps available.

Design, connections and picture quality

The HDR-1000S is a good-looking unit by the admittedly boring standards of set-top boxes. The design has gentle curves on the front and sides and the mixture of the polished black finish and chrome band that runs around the top half of the case looks quite sophisticated. I also like the large display on the front that shows the full name of the channel you're tuned to. As the box is very quiet when it's up and running, it is suitable for use in a bedroom as well as the lounge.

Around the back you'll find the usual line-up of connections, including an HDMI output for hooking it up to HDTVs, as well as Scart and composite outputs for connecting to older analogue TVs. There's also an optical audio-out for feeding sound to external amps that don't support HDMI connections.

When it comes to connecting the box to the Internet, a wired Ethernet connection is your only option as, like the Humax YouView box, this one doesn't have Wi-Fi onboard. Nor does a Wi-Fi dongle seem to be available as an optional extra at present. That's a big downer, but you could conceivably use it with powerline Ethernet adaptors if your router isn't positioned near your TV.

Humax HDR-1000S Freesat
Sadly Wi-Fi isn't built-in so you need to use a wired Ethernet connection to hook it up to your router.

Picture quality from the box was excellent though, so I've got no complaints in that department and there's a USB port on the front, hidden behind a small plastic flap to allow you to play back digital media files.

The remote control has an hourglass shape and feels fairly comfortable to hold. The buttons are a decent size too, and the layout is good with dedicated buttons to access your recordings, the settings menu and the search function. However, like the Humax YouView remote, the central D-pad clicks quite loudly when pressed, which is annoying if you're using it at night with the sound turned down low.

Problems

Free time does have a few issues that need to be addressed. Support for 4oD and Demand 5 are currently missing and need to be added as soon as possible. Freesat says these will be here by Christmas, so let's hope that timeframe doesn't slip. However, I'd also like to see more content in the on-demand section, including support for pay platforms like Lovefilm, Netflix and Blinkbox.

Secondly, by lacking the ability to view recordings in the EPG and not including on-demand services in its search results, the whole system just doesn't feel as well integrated as YouView. It comes across more like a collection of different bits that have been bolted together using a pretty interface. Hopefully this can be rectified in future versions of the system.

Also, although the EPG looks quite flash, thanks to its cute transitions and colourful graphics, it's also quite slow to populate with programming data, making it feel sluggish and slightly unresponsive. This is especially irksome when you're moving forwards in time through the guide to find a programme that's coming up in a few days that you want to record.

And like YouView, when you select an on-demand show in the EPG, there's quite a long delay as it loads the related on-demand player before you actually get to watch the programme. Why everything can't be handled by a single quick-loading player is difficult to understand.

It's worth pointing out, too, that you can't skip adverts when watching on-demand shows in ITV Player. This is the same situation as YouView, but is likely to annoy people who usually catch up with programmes via recordings on their PVRs where, naturally, you can skip ads.

Humax HDR-1000S Freesat
You can't skip adverts when watching on-demand shows.

And lastly, there have got to be some questions about how successful the platform can be over the longer term. YouView has a number of high-profile backers, including BT and TalkTalk, which are using it as the basis of their next-generation set-top boxes. That's likely to guarantee future investment and improvements in the platform. Free time, on the other hand, is only being developed by Freesat, so updates and additional on-demand content providers may not come as thick and fast.

Conclusion

The Humax HDR-1000S Freesat+ HD box with free time has a lot going for it. The interface is beautifully clean and simple, recording capabilities are excellent and there are good media streaming features.

However, the on-demand services are not as well integrated into the system as YouView, it needs more service providers to be added to the system and an extra lick of speed when populating the EPG. Access to paid-for on-demand shows wouldn't go amiss either.

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