The Elgato EyeTV Netstream 4Sat is something that offers some real advantages to people who already have a satellite dish. The idea of the product is simple: you feed it between one and four satellite inputs, which it bundles up into a package that allows you to stream channels to as many as four devices in your home.
There's some truly fascinating technology in the Netstream 4Sat that could point to an interesting future. As much love as we have for over-the-air broadcasts via DVB-T, the bandwidth available terrestrially is far smaller than that of satellite television. It occurs to us that perhaps, one day, there will be no over-the-air and then we'll all get our signals from satellites.
A new system for satellite TV
The nuts and bolts of the Elgato are interesting, but at the core of it is one thing: SatIP. This simply allows you to stream video around your home direct from satellite broadcasts.
The idea is that it creates a standard, against which any company can create hardware that can view these streams. That means buy one streamer, such as the Netstream, and you can then add any number of devices that can connect to it and stream TV channels.
It's this that makes the Elgato interesting, because it's something that brings new functionality to satellite TV and adds in some hassle-free streaming to mobile devices.
Getting up and running
The Netstream 4Sat needs to be connected to your home network, so you'll need it to live near a plug socket, your satellite cabling and, of course, access to Ethernet. You could use homeplug if you don't have Ethernet near your TV. Or you can do as we did and use an 802.11ac wireless bridge.
Once all this is set up you'll need to connect to your dish. The LNB, which is a bit like the satellite version of an aerial that comes into your home, plugs in just like it would a Sky box or similar. If you have multiple satellite inputs for multiple sources then you'll have more wires - two wires means your dish has two LNBs, three wires is three LNBs and so on. This information might sound like overkill, but it's useful to explain some oddities that we'll come to later.
The concept of the Netstream 4Sat might be a little complex for all users, but using it is a breeze once set up.
There are apps on both the iTunes store and Google Play, and there are also several free and pay-for apps for Windows and Mac. The first time you connect the app it will prompt you to tune. It's also very clever, because rather than forcing you to scan for channels, it can just download a list of channels from the internet.
The apps for both Android and iOS are what we'd expect from Elgato. The interface is lovely and the apps are brilliantly designed. You can move between channels by swiping left or right and the whole process is really smooth and pleasant. You can also record within the app, although this is probably not the best way of recording TV because it means your phone will need to be on with the screen illuminated for it to work.
The difference between satellite and terrestrial explained
Usually we wouldn't be interested in explaining the technology behind a product we're reviewing in detail, but for the Netstream 4Sat it's sort of essential, because all of the questions you have about satellite are likely to be relevant to how this system works.
You might wonder why it takes as many as four inputs. This is one major downside to satellite and a problem that doesn't affect aerial-based systems in the same way. With Freeview, a tuner is all you need to receive from an antenna. The antenna itself can send all the broadcasts down one cable and you can connect a virtually unlimited number of tuners to it, as long as the signal isn't degraded.
With satellite, each tuner must be connected to an LNB. This is a bit of technology that's hidden in the thing that protrudes on an arm from your satellite dish. On a modern Sky dish, you'll find either two or four LNBs on each dish, although six and eight are possibilities too. This is needed, because Sky+HD or Freesat+HD need to be able to record one channel while you watch another. So any Sky+ system needs at least two LNBs.
In this system, a voltage is sent to the LNB which changes the channel and polarisation using electronics. A satellite dish isn't a dumb receiver like a Freeview aerial is, it's a device that needs power to operate. This also means that an LNB cannot be split and fed to more than one tuner.
Which explains why the Elgato has four inputs, because to support four devices it needs to be able to change channels for each device, and that needs four LNBs. Although, there is an exception to this, which is that you can access other channels on the multiplex at the same time, on the same LNB. That's a little bit relevant for what we're going to talk about next.
Strange limit on the number of devices
One thing we don't understand is why the Netstream 4Sat can't send video to more than four devices, or use one input to drive two devices watching the same channel, or a channel in the multiplex. We connected an iPod Touch and a Nexus 5 to the same stream, but only one device could receive at any one time. We think that's a bit odd, and while we understand that it adds clarity, we think there would be some value in removing that somewhat artificial limit.
On the plus side, if you connect up all four LNB inputs, then you're unlikely to ever have that problem. If you were considering SatIP receivers to put around your home, this would be a nice solution to drive that.
Encrypted channels are theoretically possible
One thing that we learned about SatIP is that, in theory, you could offer encrypted channels over the network, and as long as the receiving box has the right smartcard and conditional access module, you could stream, say, Sky to other boxes in your house. Sky doesn't usually allow this, but as it turns out it has been involved in developing the system.
What's more, the SatIP literature also claims that many existing satellite receivers could be upgraded, through software, to be able to use the protocol. Perhaps the future for Sky is one of these boxes connected to a dish, then a simple receiver in every room that allows you to watch Sky.
It's a long shot, but it's very interesting to learn that Sky, a fairly rigid firm when it comes to hardware, might have some interesting plans for the next generation of receiver.
We found that streams from the Netstream 4Sat were pretty much perfect when viewed on either a mobile device or PC. It's important to note that Android devices can't handle HD streams for some reason, so the box only passes a standard definition feed when you watch an HD channel. Apple devices can pick up and handle HD content and will display it as such.
Computers and hardware receivers can handle full HD too, so there's a lot of flexibility. With most mobile devices, there's no real need for HD, although we admit we would like to see it. The box does a great job of down-converting the video though.
One further bug we uncovered was that on some channels that had a Dolby Digital soundtrack the receiving mobile devices would sometimes hear the audio description channel. There was no way to turn this off, so you'd be stuck with it. We raised the issue with Elgato, and it told us that it's aware of the problem, and it will be fixed very soon. It's a third-party issue though, so they are waiting on another company to fix the underlying problem.
The Elgato is a truly great product. It's put together like a piece of professional hardware, although for £260 you might argue that is to be expected.
But there's a lot going on here - and SatIP offers a lot of potential for the future too. Expensive satellite decoders can be replaced with much cheaper solutions that could, in theory, be built-in to everything from an Xbox One to a smart TV. But, of course, as with all these things, the technology will need to be adopted for this to happen.
On the plus side, there are software solutions right now, along with apps for Android and iOS devices, so if you want something to watch live TV when you're in a room of the house without a TV, then you're in luck, and this is the ideal product.
There are some minor kinks to be ironed out, but we've been speaking to Elgato about bugs as we've encountered them and they've been very straightforward about explaining what's going on. We think it's a shame that HD streaming doesn't work to Android devices, but we love the fact that it does on the Apple iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch.