Languishing on the shelves of Tesco is the Technika SmartBox 8320HD, a clever TV set-top box that promises to serve up a veritable platter of delights. Embracing the current trend for offering connected features, the 8320HD not only offers you Freeview+ HD tuners, but also a 320GB hard drive, access to a range of IPTV services and home network player features.
The Technika brand immediately calls it out as a “budget” offering. From a construction point of view it fits that billing, even if the wide functionality suggests otherwise. A plain black plastic 205 x 50 x 205mm box, the only sign of life is the whirring when in action and a weak white-ish LED on the front. Pick the box up and it feels flimsy, so this is one best tucked into your lounge discretely.
The lack of branding is perhaps understandable. Although it carries the Technika retail packaging, the SmartBox 8320HD is actually from a company called IP Vision and a segment of its feature set runs on their FetchTV service. The budget status - let’s not ignore the fact that this box will only cost you £200 - we can accept given all it offers and once in place under your TV you won’t be bothered that it feels a little cheap and flexible in the hand.
In an ideal world we’d have liked a little more from the exterior - a display, perhaps. A little more information, such as the channel number and whether you are currently recording would provide a little more engagement. However, we’ve seen displays done badly in the past, and we’d rather go without than have a horrific array of blue LEDs beaming out across the room at us.
In the box you get everything you need to get started. Besides the SmartBox itself, you get most of the cables you might need: HDMI, Scart, Ethernet and the aerial. With these connections you should be able to connect to most TVs without drama. The inclusion of an additional aerial cable means you can take advantage of the RF loop through and just set the box into the middle of your existing setup. You get the remote (which is a little small and not the best in terms of layout of buttons), batteries and power pack too.
Around the back is where the action is at. You are offered a single HDMI, a mini DIN that connects to your Scart lead (if you need to connect to an older TV), stereo audio, optical audio, the RF connections and a single USB. The front of the SmartBox also offers a USB connection. Connection to your network and thereby your broadband connection and FetchTV’s servers can be done via the Ethernet connection on the rear, or by Wi-Fi (b/g/n).
We found that the tuner worked perfectly well, scanning and finding the available channels and storing them in the EPG. IP Vision has equipped the SmartBox with an HTML-based EPG. The idea here is that it makes it more flexible, faster to navigate and gives the company the flexibility to include some of its own advertising as you move around.
It can be a little irritating too. Scrolling down the EPG, you’ll often find you get to the bottom of the page and see your highlighted selection box jump to the top on one of the promoted FetchTV offerings. It’s important to understand where IP Vision is coming from with this: it isn't just a hardware manufacturer, it sees itself as a content provider, hence the inclusion of highlighted paid-for content as you roam around. Informative yes, but with everyday inclusion as a live part of the EPG, we found it a little off-putting.
We also found that the EPG didn’t populate itself with future programmes anywhere near as reliably as we’d want. Despite being connected and in use, we’d often pull up a programme, opt for a series link recording and be told in information it wasn’t available. We’d also scan forward in days and find channels with no programme entries.
The EPG also lacks the attention that you’ll find on some other systems. The resolution is a little on the low side, so visually it isn’t as sharp as some rival offerings. Fortunately this doesn’t extend to the handling of content, with Freeview HD channels looking as sharp as you’d expect and the standard definition content looking good too.
It’s worth stating at this point that IP Vision is working on a new user interface for the SmartBox and is something that will be rolled out in the future. We’ve seen a demo and it does look much better than the current offering, but we don’t know how far it stretches and if it will improve the experience throughout. There is also talk of including widgets, like Twitter, so you can keep up with the social noise whilst watching your TV.
Recording is simply a case of pressing the record button, or selecting the desired show from the EPG. With twin tuners you’ll be able to record two channels at once. As a badged Freeview+ HD product, it also has some smart features available, such as being able to pause and rewind TV, series link programmes (already mentioned) and alternative selections when you have a conflict or there is an HD version of the programme you want to record. The 320GB HDD is a little on the small side, given that rival boxes usually offer 500GB and are moving towards 1TB.
There is also a new offering which is only available to Freeview+ HD and that is a new “green button” service. This lets you set a recording based on a trailer or advert. Whilst you are watching adverts you’ll be given this choice. You’ll also be offered suggestions when you set recordings, although we weren’t convinced the suggestions were really that linked to our chosen programme.
For those concerned about audio support, the SmartBox doesn’t yet support HE-AAC decoding to give you Dolby Digital surround sound over the optical connection from HD broadcasts, but IP Vision told us it was aware of the problem and working towards a solution. One of the neat things that the SmartBox offers is simple OTA updating, and during the review period of this box, we received a major upgrade, addressing some issues like lipsync on recorded HD content and some crashing issues.
Things do feel a little disjointed at times when using the SmartBox. Because it offers a range of functions, you’ll find yourself roaming all over the menus finding your content. From the remote, “Guide” handles the EPG and broadcast television, whilst “Menu” offers up FetchTV, My Recordings, Media Centre and Sky Player. One of the headline features - BBC iPlayer - is found hidden in FetchTV, then CatchUp TV.
What the SmartBox seems to be calling for is a “Home” button or similar with a central menu to access all the media options (although there are some shortcut buttons on the remote that will take you direct to the services it offers). BBC iPlayer, strangely, finds itself mapped to channel 222 for instant access, but overall it pales in comparison to the menus offered by Sony’s connected TVs and Blu-ray players for example.
But, navigation quirks aside, we like what we find here. The network support is welcomed, and the SmartBox had no problem finding our DLNA media hub and streaming content. Navigation is relatively fast of the basic file folder system, but there is a good range of support for file types, covering all major file formats. It will serve up your common MPEG4, AVI, MOV and WMV videos, along with ripped TS files from DVDs, MKV, DivX an DivX HD and FLV. We found it handled network video files content with refreshing skill.
We did notice that the Wi-Fi connection was sometimes a little unreliable; occasionally the SmartBox would not be able to see our server and on some occasions it wouldn’t talk to the FetchTV servers to verify we had the rights to movies we’d downloaded. Swapping out for an Ethernet connection (using HomePlugs/Powerline) gave a much more stable connection. We also found this much better for streaming HD content across the network.
Moving over to the online offering, the SmartBox offers BBC iPlayer, but strangely there is a hole where BBC HD should reside. IP Vision promises that this is coming and we’re surprised when others have it in place already - Sony, for example. The BBC iPlayer offering uses its own interface and if you’ve seen iPlayer elsewhere, like on the PS3, you’ll know what to expect. You’ll also find Sky Player in place, giving you access to Sky programming (depending on your subscription status). Again this has its own interface and we never felt the quality was really that good - the resolution looks a little suspect.
That might be enough for many, as we start to move over to paid-for content. Okay, there is some free content on the FetchTV on-demand service, but the mainstay of the operation is paid for content. We suspect that many will be interested in the HD movie offering. With movie rentals over your home broadband becoming more common (Apple TV does it, various devices offer LoveFilm streaming). Less common is the offer of HD movie content. The range offered isn’t fantastic, but fortunately this isn’t a subscription service, so it fits the casual pay-per-view model, offering something of interest on a boring Saturday night.
Selecting a movie and buying it is easy and the download starts almost immediately. It will then download in the background, offering to play when enough of the movie is in place to act as a buffer. You get up to a week to view it and once started you have 24-hours before it expires.
There is also a range of catch-up TV offerings, although dedicated portals for ITV, 4OD or Demand Five don’t feature. There are plans to offer this content, but no hard and fast commitment to how this is done, with the company suggesting that something like SeeSaw might be a viable alternative route to offering this content.
Obviously there is a lot on offer here, but it isn’t all rosy. The problem with offering a lot of features is that you also have to support all those features. The SmartBox has seen a number of updates in the past and it is always a positive thing to see a company continuing to support a platform. But we did find the SmartBox also suffered from crashes and slow running, sometimes needing the power pulling to get it back to life. This did lead us to miss some recordings and periods of frantic button pressing with little response.
We also struggled with the USB connections, particularly with the archive to USB option, which seemed a fiddle to get working. There is a diagnostic tool which always reported a USB failure, even when it was working. At the moment, it isn’t quite as seamless as we’d like.
In some areas the Technika SmartBox 8320HD is a little rough around the edges. It won’t win any prizes for design and the user interface isn’t the best around - the previewed update is something that would make the experience just that little bit better, as would a competitive 500GB HDD.
But in terms of the breadth of features it covers, it’s difficult not to be impressed. We’ve been using the SmartBox for a couple of months and as a single box offering, it has plenty to get excited about, especially at a price of £200. Many Freeview+ HD boxes are retailing for £50 more (okay they have more internal storage) but they aren’t all as smart as this particular box. Equally, you aren't faced with an ongoing subscription cost like you are with Virgin Media or Sky.
The biggest problem, then, is supporting all these features. IP Vision has promised a lot - it wants to support all manner of online content and it’s great to have a single box to handle so much. We suspect that the offering is getting more stable than it has been in the past and for many, we think the Technika SmartBox 8320HD represents a great way of adding functionality to an existing TV. The danger is that you might be more drawn to some of the TVs appearing on the market that offer an equally impressive array of connected talents, with a good deal more polish.