Technomate TM-Twin-OE

There was a time, back when Pocket-lint was still in school, where satellite TV was just about the most exotic technology you could use. If you ever got to go to someone's house, who had a massive dish and analogue satellite receiver, you could access a world of, mostly free, TV channels that were beamed from all over Europe.

Things started to change with the arrival of Sky, although there was still some considerable excitement about getting to watch TV that came from a lump of technology in space above South Africa. With digital, Sky went from being a niche product, to something 20 per cent of the country owned, and it sort of lost a bit of its mystique.

But now, there's a way to get excited about satellite TV again, while at the same time getting access to functionality that you can't with either Freesat or Sky boxes.

Why Linux?

It will come as no surprise to Linux fans that a lot of cool stuff is possible when you use a bit of hardware built around the open-source operating system. If it all sounds a bit much, consider that Android uses a Linux foundation, and you'll see it's not all that much to be scared about.

Practically speaking, what Linux allows is a lot of flexibility, we'll get to the nuts and bolts of that within this review, but the core is you get a flexible filesystem, the ability to use plugins and apps to increase the usefulness of the box. You also get a degree of openness that you don't tend to see with other set top boxes.

In this case, Open VIX is the operating system, it's used in several different makes of set-top-box, and has a lot of good third-party plugins available, and a handy user community that is happy to help you learn how to get the best out of your box. 

Inputs and outputs

As you'd expect, there are two LNB inputs - and an output too, to send a signal to another receiver. You get HDMI and optical digital audio outputs along with HD component video outputs. For standard definition, there are scart sockets and composite RCA jacks. 

For adding hard drives, or other accessories, there are a pair of USB sockets, along with the Ethernet socket, to give the TM-Twin access to your network, to allow streaming. 

On the front, there are two CI sockets, which can take PC cards for conditional access modules, and a single card slot. 

Two tuners and then some

Like most freesat or Sky boxes, there are two DVB-S2 tuners in this receiver. To use these, you'll need two cables coming from your dish to the box. If you only have one, you can add another if your dish LNB can support it, or you can buy a new LNB that can have as many as eight outputs. This is very handy if you have a lot of rooms that you want to feed TV to from satellite sources.

Two tuners mean you can record two channels at the same time, and actually, there's a lot more you can do here, because if you're recording two things on two different transponders, you can still watch the other channels that are on the same transponders you're recording from. This gives you options, even if you're recording a lot of stuff. In fact, if you're using the permanent timeshift - allowing you to pause live TV - then you can record up to six channels at once, or seven with it switched off. Of course, those channels need to be on the same transponder, and polarisation as each other. 

But perhaps the most impressive trick, is if you have a compatible DVB USB tuner, you can connect this to your reciever, download a driver, and have access to freeview channels as well. This is incredibly clever, and a smashing idea for full-on telly nerds. We didn't have a compatible stick, so couldn't test it, but there's information online about getting it all working.

Add your own storage

When you buy the Technomate TM-Twin-OE, if you do so from the company's own website, you'll also be given the opportunity to add some hard drive space. This is essential if you want to use the box as a PVR, but you can also open the box and pop your own drive in. This is what we did, and it worked a treat.

It's important to remember though, that most hard drive are not designed for use in set-top-boxes. This isn't really a problem, there's no incompatibility, but it's worth bearing in mind that a lot of PC hard drives are very loud. Those installed in set-top-boxes tend to be clocked a little slower, and a little less loud as a result.

Adding your own storage is a really great way to have control over your recorder too. Want a lot of space, no problem, just buy a bigger drive. You can support at least 2TB here if you need to, and there's no reason beyond cost that you can't go higher.

Great for moveable dishes, multiple LNBs and European TV

While Sky and Freesat offer you a good number of channels, there are lots of reasons you might want to look elsewhere. Across Europe, there are multiple broadcasters all offering different channels, and some of them are even free. Some might be pay TV like Sky, but you might also be able to buy a CI module, and subscribe if you want.

Aside from that, the Technomate can move a positioner too, so if you have a motor on your dish, it can align it for the correct satellite with no hassle at all. This is a simple system to implement, and the box does all the necessary switching and controlling.

Likewise, if you have a big dish with several LNBs aimed at different satellites, you can run the feeds from those to a DiSEqC switch and then into the back of the TM-Twin. Sky boxes, obviously, don't support LNB switching in this way, but then tuning them to non-Sky channels is a royal pain anyway.

All of this is fabulous if you're originally from another country, and want to catch up with channels in your native tongue, but it's also good for people who want to have a hunt around and find some free sport or TV shows. There's plenty out there, if you're prepared to spend some money getting something better than a Sky minidish installed.

Plugins and media playback

As with a lot of set-top-boxes now, the Technomate can also stream video from your home network and get on-demand video from iPlayer and the like. These are not as slick as you might find on a smart TV, but they do the job, at least at a basic level. The good thing is, development is always going on, so these things get changed and improved all the time. There's a Plex app that can use out much loved media server too, so that kept us happy, although it's not very responsive.

Plugins can be used to do almost anything on the VIX platform used here, and the apps are installed either via an option on the box, or by uploading them via FTP. It sounds geeky, it's actually really easy to do.

Stream TV to phones and computers

This is our favourite feature, and it's the one you're never likely to see on a Sky box. If you connect your Technomate to your home network, you can browse through the channel lists, select a channel and stream it to your PC.

We used VLC for this because it's perfect for such use but there are other apps that can handle DVB streams too. HD streaming was no problem for us, and worked even on our 802.11ac wireless network. BBC HD was delivered to our computer with no problems at all, and through the web interface, you can change channels and even trigger recordings on your box.

When you've made a recording, you can also stream that straight from the box to your computer as well. The web interface that comes as part of the Linux VIX operating system is very easy to navigate, and even allows you to download recorded programmes to your computer. This is handy if you want to save them for later, or watch them on when you go on a long trip.

Mobile phones can access both the live streams and the pre-recorded ones. There's an app called Vu+ on Android that works very well, and some other originally aimed at another brand of boxes.

We found that HD channels were asking a bit much of either the decoder, or the 801.11n wireless network. They cut out at times, but were still watchable. Standard definition on the other hand presented no problems at all, and streamed brilliantly.

The mobile app also allows you to access EPG data, see signal strength - you could use it for aligning a dish if you wanted - and loads of other features. While it's not specifically designed for Technomate boxes, it works as the image is the same as the V+ machines it as designed for. You can also watch a different channel to what's being watch on the box itself of course, with similar rules to recording about accessing transponders that are in use already. 

No series link, but a great alternative

Lots of people are used to series-link now, which allows you to pick a show, and record all the episodes of that programme. This isn't an option on the Technomate, so there's no single button you can press to save a series.

This is replaced with an arguably better feature that allows the box to match titles on one or more channels, and record programmes with a name match. This is an incredibly powerful feature, and one that we comprehensively fell in love with.

What makes it so good, is the ability to find a show on any channel, or to restrict recordings to one time period. You can even tell the box to only record shows with a unique description, meaning you won't record the same show twice. Bear in mind when you use this though, that sometimes listings have broken descriptions.

Truth be told, we found this system to be far more reliable than any we've used on other boxes like Sky+HD and Freesat. Take for example our series link of Ben and Holly. On other boxes, it would fail quite a bit. This is usually because episodes are shown randomly, and a "series" link does just that, records shows in a series. So, if you linked an episode of Ben and Holly from series 1, but the next day's episode was from series 2, it more than likely wouldn't record. Cue screaming daughter. With the Technomate, you can get everything, and even record a show from multiple channels, like +1s or even channels with a different name.

While it's theoretically more complicated, in practice it's just a couple more button presses than a series link and a lot more useful.

EPG access

The EPG is something that's a little bit harder than usual, although you can access a full week long programme guide with few problems. Our TM-Twin came with a plugin installed called "CrossEPG" which is able to gather programme listings from Sky's platform. It can be told to do this on a daily basis, or even hourly should you be worried about late changes.

On our box, while the plugin was installed, it wasn't automatically getting listings. We need to re-install the plugin to get it working. You also need some form of device storage to store the programme guide - it's a fair lump of data, about 30mb - either internal, or external. While we had problems, it's perfectly possible we just caught a bug. The box has had its software updated about three times since, and one of those might well have fixed the problem. The other thing to consider is that this box is designed for multi-satellite use. It's not a Sky box, so it's pre-programmed to know about channels on every satellite available in Europe. There's some good reasons for this, but it can make for a confusing experience when you plug it in. For a start, you'll need to "find" the group of channels that apply to the satellite(s) your dish can see. Sky and Freesat live on Astra at 28.2 degrees.

While this sounds like a nightmare, in reality there's a very good way to get around the problem. You can always delete the channels and satellites you have no intention of using. You can do this on the box, but it's about a million times easier if you use an app for Windows called DreamBoxEdit. What this does, is connect to your TM-Twin via telnet, download the channel lists and then allow you to edit them.

Although it sounds complicated, it's brilliant because it means you no longer have to suffer the channels that have no value for you. If you're most interested in news, then you can have your news channels on the first EPG positions. Or you can stick to a more traditional BBC1, 2, ITV, Channel 4 type arrangement. We opted to stop Mrs Pocket-lint from ignoring HD channels by deleting all the SD versions from the line-up.

The channel list stuff was, in the time we spent with the TM-Twin, the most fiddly and annoying. We understand why it's complicated, because there are a lot of potential channels here, but the tools for adjusting the channels aren't that easy to use. DreamBoxEdit does the job, but it's a bit of a pain to use. You also need to remember that updates to the box can reset the channel list, so make sure you keep a backup of the config files elsewhere.

Picture and sound quality

It has to be said, we were somewhat in awe of the picture quality of the Technomate. HD channels like BBC HD and 4HD looked utterly stunning. There were times when we couldn't believe the difference between this box and our SkyHD box, or most other systems we've tested. There are also plenty of adjustments you can make to the picture too, if the defaults don't look good to you.

Sound is good too, although we noticed that sometimes audience applause sounded a little hollow. We wonder if this is simply a problem with a audio on the broadcast, because it wasn't something that was consistently a problem, just occasionally. Overall though, audio was crisp and clear.

What about Sky?

A word of warning. Sky's terms and conditions prevent you from using its smartcard or service with any third-party satellite receiver. Generally, this isn't a problem, because Sky also doesn't offer a CAM that's compatible with its viewing card. A CAM, or Conditional Access Module is a system through which your smartcard talks to your receiver, and allows you to decrypt channels that are part of pay TV packages.

Unusually, Linux-based receivers have something called a soft CAM, which enables you to emulate and hardware device, and use a Sky card. You still need an active Sky subscription for this to work, and of course, these third-party boxes won't offer you access to pay-per-view content purchasing. There are also issues whereby the Sky card won't auto-update, and you may lose access to some channels. Putting it into a Sky branded box overnight usually fixes this.

Setting the box up for this is also quite a complicated process, and certainly not one for the non-techie. There are guides online, if you're really determined. And, as we've said, we can't condone using the Technomate for this, as it goes against Sky's terms, but it's interesting that such things are possible, for the time being. No doubt, as time goes on, Sky will be able to block third-party boxes, which we think is a great shame for those who subscribe, but want features not available on the Sky boxes.

Reliability

For the most part, we had no major problems with our box. It is a little bit more complicated than other receivers, so there are times when it crashes a little bit or acts weird.

One bug we noticed was sometimes audio would disappear from HDMI until we flipped the box to standby and back on. Sometimes too, we'd only see a black screen, but audio would be playing. This usually meant that something had gone wrong with the HDMI negotiation, and it could be something that's peculiar to our TV. It didn't happen very often though.

Sometimes, we'd have a little crash or something. This was often linked to a plugin though, and there are options to stick to stable builds of the OS, or to use the slightly more "temperamental" development builds.

Verdict

Certainly, the Techomate TM-Twin-OE won't be for everybody. There's lots of good things to say about Sky, from a simplicity point of view, but when it comes to letting you enjoy your TV in more exciting ways, we think there's a lot to be said for the Technomate.

For us though, with an interest in satellite TV and a will to get away from locked-down boxes that are restricted by TV companies, it was a breath of fresh air. We loved the plugin functionality, the ability to browse Plex and our network for media, and especially we valued the ability to stream TV from your living room to a PC on the network.

In terms of price, the TM-Twin-OE isn't actually all that much more expensive than a good Freesat HD+ box. You'll need to either add your own hard drive, or get one with the box when you buy it to get the PVR functionality, although USB drives and memory cards can be used too.

For the extras, it's worth every penny and it will honestly change the way you watch TV.