Since its initial release in 2010, the Telstra T-Box has been the butt of many a home-cinema joke, with many users claiming to have been hampered by technical difficulties and poor hardware. In July 2011, Telstra quietly released new T-Box hardware, which increased its internal storage capacity from 320GB to 1TB, but didn't attempt to address any of its customers' complaints.
Compared with other personal video recorders (PVRs) in market, the T-Box is one big step behind. While many PVRs can carry connections from external drives via eSATA and USB, the T-Box is mostly restricted to playing content broadcasted to or previously recorded on the box. Outbound, the T-Box can connect to your telly via either an HDMI connection or a SCART socket, but there are no composite- or component-connection options, so those with older TVs need not apply.
It's also short on raw computing power, which not only makes using the T-Box feel slow, but also impacts the unit's ability to record multi programs simultaneously. The T-Box has two tuners, and, while this is common to most PVRs at this time, the T-Box can only record one show and watch another, but not record two shows at the same time. This is particularly frustrating when two favourite shows merely overlap, let alone when they are broadcasted at the same time every day.
Free-to-air TV is only one part of the equation, though, and Telstra is hoping to tempt you with its range of online goodies for rent and purchase via BigPond Movies. To that end, the T-Box is equipped with Wi-Fi connectivity, support for the 802.11 G and N protocols and a single Ethernet port.
Most baffling is that the T-Box comes with two USB ports, but neither really seems to work like you'd expect a USB port to work on any other PVR. You can connect an external drive and transfer recordings from the T-Box (in a proprietary format), but you can't access files located on the external drive, and you can't transfer content to the T-Box from the external drive to watch later. This severely limits the role that a T-Box could play in your home-entertainment system, requiring most tech-savvy film buffs to invest in yet more hardware to watch their digitised movies, like a NAS or a separate media streamer.
Of course, there is a reason for all of these restrictions. To Telstra, the T-Box is a storefront in its customers' homes, a hub to tempt BigPond internet subscribers to spend a little extra money on renting a movie or a season of their favourite TV show. As nefarious as we might make this sound, the connection to BigPond Movies is one of the best features of the T-Box. A rough count of the titles available suggests that there are over 5000 titles currently, and the service is updated on a frequent enough basis to give it an always-fresh feeling.
In addition to its rental service, T-Box customers can also watch BigPond videos for free. These videos are mostly short clips of web content, with news, entertainment and sports covered. While we appreciate that this content is free, it is hardly substantial enough to be a draw card. Lovers of NRL, AFL or V8 supercars are in the for the biggest treat, with around-the-clock replays from each sport, and music lovers get a look-in, too, with the BigPond Music channel on offer.
As you'll find on new smart TVs, the T-Box is also host to a small selection of apps. The YouTube app will probably get the most use in households, and we like the inclusion of TuneIn radio for listening to the thousands of internet radio stations.
Tying it all together is a great user interface. Using slick, glossy-looking gradients of blue, the UI looks clean, and is well signposted for new users. With an internet connection, you'll be able to see previews of channels in small picture boxes before you commit to buying them, and the program guide is uncluttered, easy to read and bolstered with graphics for each program where possible. It's just a shame that the computer powering this graphics-intensive system is so underpowered for the task that you will regularly find yourself waiting for the menu to catch up with your commands.
One of the main reasons for which you may consider signing up for a Telstra T-Box is as an alternative way of receiving Foxtel subscription-TV content without a long-term Foxtel contract. The service offered to T-Box customers is hugely different from the standard Foxtel service, though, with fewer channels to choose from and less freedom in how you watch it. Or, as Foxtel says on its own site, "Foxtel on T-Box is a great new way to enjoy a sample of Foxtel entertainment through your T-Box".