Lovefilm is on a charge. Having eclipsed its mail order competition and spent a year streaming its wares to games consoles and every web-connected TV going, the movie monster has joined yet another platform.
Lovefilm’s latest appearance is on the Onyx media browser, a newly refreshed interactive service from London-based Oregan that here powers Digital Stream’s DPS-1000 IP set-top box, though we’ve seen it grace other UK-centric products from the likes of Cello. The UK-specific angle is all-important, because essentially Onyx is a media-rich browser that tries to bring similar services to those currently being offered on mid-to-high-end TVs from the likes of Samsung, LG, Sony and Panasonic. The trouble with those is that they often bring “international” clutter in the shape of news services from Europe or, worse, provincial content websites from the USA. On this Digital Stream box - Freeview HD sister of which we’ve come across before - Onyx adds Lovefilm to an already stellar cast of streaming services and widgets.
Stored in a right-hand window that takes up about a third of the screen is the widget screen, which shows content from whatever is toggled to. That’s limited to weather, news, sport, Twitter and Facebook - the latter of which can obviously be logged-into to show the latest feeds. As well as Lovefilm, the BBC's iPlayer - the missing link on many a connected TV platform - is present on an attractive, fast-working interface alongside three leading icons for BlinkBox , “web TV” and “home media”.
The excellent, no messing iPlayer interface is identical to those found on any connected TV or smartphone, with the usual “just in” tab alongside “highlights” and “last played”. A setting is available for video quality - high or normal quality - depending on the speed of your connection, and though it’s a much simplified version of the website, there’s a good search option and BBC HD versions are offered where possible.
“Web TV” leads to a list of widgets for some common online hubs (YouTube and Flickr) as well as some more unusual services (Funspot Games, CNN Daily, Jamie’s Ministry of Food Recipes, Delicious TV Veg and Diggnation alongside video podcasts for the Disney Channel Movie Previews, Larry King, the Discovery Channel, UEFA.com and Sesame Street). A thumbnail image for each is presented as you hover over it, and like a posh RSS feed, a nicely designed list of available episodes is presented if you select it. These videos play instantly and can be paused/scanned, though none are in anything approaching high-def. In fact, most are pretty ropey in pure picture quality terms.
BlinkBox is almost as good, at least in design terms. A catalogue of TV and films searchable by genre, latest and even by price (from a bargain £1 to rent Syriana or Happy Feet to around £2.99 for newer titles like Red or Due Date - or £10.99 to buy them).
A poor man’s Apple TV? Perhaps, but you're sure to find something to take your fancy whether it be Smallville (£1.89 per episode for £12.99 per series), West Wing (£1.89/£12.99) or House (£15.99 per series).
The Lovefilm service contains few surprises, and though its slick presentation is a cut above BlinkBox, it’s only a slight lead. Film information for the 70,000-strong collection includes the available formats - DVD, Blu-ray and streaming, though only a portion of films can actually be streamed. Non-digitised content can be ordered on DVD or Blu-ray, to be posted later, with the latter being a crucial weapon; there’s no option to stream movies in HD. Prices range from £5.99 for 2 hours of online viewing to £15.99 for unlimited access to posted discs and online material; the options within these outer limits are myriad.
Digital content can also be streamed across a home network from a PC (using DLNA) or Mac (Twonkymedia), but here’s the first hurdle: there’s no built-in Wi-Fi. Third party dongles can, at least, be used, though Digital Stream can provide one for £19.99 (call this number to make an order: 0845 519 2367).
The DPS-1000 is also stuffed with just enough codecs. Accessed under the “home media” icon, we shoved a USB stick crammed with digital files of all sorts into the DPS-1000, and it failed to play some listed files including H.264 MOV (but not QuickTime) files from its rather rudimentary-looking file list. Generally it refuses to display files it doesn’t like, which in our tests comprised only AVCHD files - typically found on high-def camcorders - though in all flavours (M2TS/MTS, etc). It did, however, play VOB, ASF, MP4 HD, MKV (DivX HD), AVI (DivX), WMV and WMV HD files. At any time during playback - which is done using the fiddly buttons on the bottom of the remote - the red button can call-up your widgets.
Music files supported don’t extend beyond the usual MP3 and WMA, but a simple “now playing” bar across the bottom of the screen is welcome. Photos welcomed include JPEG and BMP only; they’re nicely presented as thumbnails, which load in under 10 seconds.
That “home media” icon also shows a link to any computers or NAS drives on the same home network, with the same file support in action. The same basic file list exists when exploring content on a PC, though the files recognised differ; this time, MOV, DivX, MP4 and, oddly, AVCHD files were listed, though the latter played only with blocky pixilation.
We like the idea of a search engine that’s not source-restricted, but this box doesn't quite each those heights. Instead it searches for text terms both on a networked computers and, oddly, YouTube. So a search for an artist quickly brings up links to music stored in your iTunes and videos on YouTube; this simple merging of internal and external sources is well presented, and a step in the right direction.
An icon on the (extremely fiddly) remote - and information in the instruction booklet - both advertise open web surfing on the DPS-1000, but that function wasn’t enabled on our sample.
Fancy a “connected TV” without buying a new telly? A lack of integrated Wi-Fi is troubling and could limit the appeal of the DPS-1000, but it’s almost the only blindspot on this otherwise impressive streamer-cum-online content hub; the breadth of the content and the quality of the user interface are both excellent. Those without a “connected” TV, a PlayStation 3 or Wii that are desperate to get BBC iPlayer and/or Lovefilm streaming on their telly should look no further.