Pure Avalon 300R Connect review
Selling your very first Freeview set-top-box in 2012 is the move of either a company that knows what it's doing, or the move of a company so adept at missing the boat that it has evolved into a fish to avoid further boat-missing agony.
The Pure Avalon 300R is, indeed, Pure's first crack of the Freeview box whip. Before, the company just did digital radios, and it did them well, but now it wants to bring its expertise, the expertise of its parent company and access to its online music services into one box.
None of that affects us, the normal person on the street. What we want is a box that records things, and that doesn't make us scream with rage when it forgets to record Peppa Pig.
You can see the radio influence
The Avalon looks different enough to be a nice change from the usual black box in your living room. It's still a black box mind you, but it's shorter than usual, and it looks great. The Pure logo is massive, but that puts us in mind of the transformation in car badges from a few years ago, sparked by VW and it's HUGE logo on the back of the Golf. It looked daft at the time, but now it's standard. If you don't like it, then chuck the box somewhere behind a screen, but the overall petite dimensions more than make up for it.
Around the back, there are four HDMI sockets, these are used to connect existing hardware you might have, to enable the Pure to act as a sort of "switch". There's a fifth HDMI, which is the output to your TV too.
There are stereo RCA jacks for audio, along with digital audio connectors - both coaxial and optical - which allow you to get audio to an external amp, or surround sound system. The number of connectors here is a great thing to see, and very typical of an audio brand.
One other point of interest is the external power supply. This means the PVR runs from a 12v transformer, which is external. Some might see this as a hassle, but actually, from a heat point of view, it means a lot of the extra warmth is already outside the chassis. If you've read our review of the YouView box, you'll know we had a huge problem with the amount of noise it made. Here, there is a fan, but we couldn't hear it in an environment identical to the one we tested the YouView box in.
Freeview isn't the most exciting service. It's still too full of dull and annoying shopping channels and the dumping ground for shows that Sky has had its full of showing 900 times a week for a million weeks.
That said, BBC One, BBC HD - soon to be BBC Two HD - ITV1 HD and 4HD all make it worthwhile. We'd love to see more HD on Freeview, and we're pretty sure it's coming, but there will need to be another rearrangement for that to happen. Right now, with money being tight in broadcasting and idiots being happy to keep shopping channels in business, we're sort of stuck with what we've got.
We have to say though, when it comes to picture quality, we have nothing but praise for the Pure. HD channels look terrific, and SD upscaling within the box is pretty decent too, it's certainly not noticeably worse than the scaler in our high-end TV. This means that even older shows, or those on non-HD channels should look pretty good. Although the low-bitrate of Freeview will seek to confound that.
One of the unique selling points of the Avalon is the graphics hardware. There's a story here that comes from Pure's parent company, which owns patents and such on a number of technologies that give Pure access to some pretty powerful hardware. In short, it's Imagination Technologies showing off, but it all looks so lovely we welcome its posturing.
The gloss is visible everywhere. The EPG has semi-transparent effects, and moving around the menus comes with the sort of slick, fluid effects that you'd expect from a PC, rather than a set-top box. But then, this box costs nearly as much as a laptop, so perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised. Our only complaint here, is that there's not much visible on the EPG at any one time. It's a reasonably small page, with lots of extra clutter. This doesn't bother us, but some people will hate it.
As part of this, you get a lot of picture-in-picture too, which is nice when you're in the EPG or menus. But there's also the option to preview another channel while you're watching something. To do this, you bring up the EPG search and scan bar, press an arrow key, and up pops the preview. It's stunning actually, and while it's of limited use, it's a nice showcase for how well designed the pure is, and how powerful the box is.
As much of the Avalon's skill lies in its internet connectivity, it's good to see that the box includes built-in Wi-Fi. Although to some, the initial cost of the box will be off-putting, it scores over YouView in that it has wireless out of the box. For us, this has more value than a large hard drive to some extent, because it makes the box more portable and more flexible.
And what's more, Pure hasn't just gone for some rancid and cheap wireless card, no, the Avalon has a 5GHz capable MIMO system. Technically, this means that the box can use the far less crowded, shorter range, 5GHz band. Of course, if your router doesn't support it, 2.4GHz is supported too, but it's a much more congested bit of spectrum. In our tests, the wireless was flawless. We even streamed 1080p video from our Plex server through to the Avalon. And it looked stunning.
One of the few areas where we're not entirely impressed with the Avalon is in catch-up TV. It's not that there's anything at all wrong with what it does offer, but the selection is very limited.
Out of the box you get iPlayer and YouTube, and that's your lot. We've had a chat with Pure about the system, and we're told that it uses the HTML 5 players for both. That could mean that the firm is waiting on similar support from other broadcasters before rolling out their catch-up players on to the service. If so, the wait could be long.
However, iPlayer works well, as it has to be said, it usually does on third-party players. The real star here seems to be the Pure, and how quick it seems to handle network based things. This has impressed us a great deal, as we're using it on Wi-Fi.
Here's where the Pure smacked us in the mouth properly: with it's media playback support via DLNA, and even from USB. Although we knew the machine would have some support for this kind of thing, at the launch event, it wasn't clear what codec support we might expect. As it turns out, the codec support is impressive. There's HD video in MPEG-4 and MPEG-2 transport streams as well as support for the brilliant MKV container - which allows subtitles and chapters to be embedded into the file.
We mostly found ourselves using DLNA though, and there's a good reason for that - DLNA devices are becoming ubiquitous. Your phone is probably a DLNA device, your computer certainly is, and it's possible that your tablet is too. Put simply, if you have media on something, DLNA can help you get it onto another device very easily.
We're big Plex fans anyway. If you haven't used it, Plex is a program that runs on your computer, looks for media files like music, pictures and videos. It scans your libraries, works out what the files are, then builds a database around them. This means movies and TV shows can be presented in a logical manner, with no fussy filenames and can be played as easily as if they were just airing on the TV. Plex is very good, but the Pure seems to help things along with its rather brilliant networking. There are still some minor browsing frustrations, but overall, the way the box works is inspiring.
Consider that a separate DLNA player might cost a few hundred quid, this might not sell you the Pure, but it's another feather in its cap.
Aside from the DLNA aspects, there's also a range of services from Pure Connect. These are a managed set of audio services, including Pure's own subscription music system, live radio from all over the planet, and BBC on-demand radio, and a variety of other podcasts.
Pure sees it's music services as key to what Avalon does. If you're someone who lives in the Pure universe, then this will be true. Its digital radios are already great for this sort of thing, so by buying Avalon you'll be getting into a familiar ecosystem that you'll already be happy with.
We have some mixed feelings about the HDMI switch. For some, it will be brilliant and very useful, especially if you don't have a surround sound set-up of any kind, or you're using a limited 2.1 system with just a few inputs, and perhaps no HDMI sockets.
For those of us with home cinema systems though, the HDMI switch is less useful. There's some value to it, especially for those with so much equipment they've run out of sockets on their AV receiver, but it's a far less likely scenario.
The implementation is nice though. Simply switch to the HDMI menu, press okay and you'll see the list. You are able to rename them to suit you too, so it's all nice and clear. Arguably more so than it would be on a little home cinema system, and especially the dumb switch that you might be using if your TV was short of HDMI sockets.
The Peppa Pig factor
Here's a real problem that affects mummies and daddies the country over. Peppa Pig. If you've ever tried to record it on Channel 5 for your little one to enjoy when they awake from their graceful slumber then you'll know it's not that easy. Freeview boxes, Sky+HD, freesat+ and freesat freetime boxes all fail dismally, with recordings either starting too early, too late or cutting off too early. SkyHD was usually the best, getting it just about right.
Until now. Because in our test, the box recorded Peppa Pig perfectly, with the start of the recording happening at exactly the start of the programme. This is great news, and should keep the little-linters in our midst very happy.
It's an interesting point in general though, because programme record accuracy is usually governed by something called, predictably, "accurate recording" which is a set of flags which are sent by the broadcaster to keep shows recording without problem. Channel 5 has a long-held reputation for not handling these properly, so we have no idea how the Pure manages to record properly.
Years of disappointment in Freeview boxes is finally over, it seems. The Avalon is arguably a replacement for lots of other equipment in your home cinema. The HDMI switch means it can act as a central piece of hardware to manage things like your PS3 and other HD hardware.
Meanwhile it's also a brilliant Freeview HD recorder, with great menus and potentially unlimited access to internet TV content. This starts with iPlayer, but could build to include other players too, which would be amazing. If Pure got Netflix and Lovefilm on here, then it would go from being really good, to being nearly perfect.
But for now, the lack of 4oD, Demand 5 and ITV Player is a big disappointment. Perhaps not enough to temper our love for a really lovely machine, but certainly one that will make you consider YouView. That's a shame though, because in terms of pure potential, the Pure has it in spades and is the more useful, modern and media savvy box of the two.