(Pocket-lint) - There was a time when we didn't really understand Freesat. And in a world where increasing numbers of set-top boxes and catch-up devices are available for as little as a tenner, we weren't sure the satellite-dish-provided free TV service could ever suit us.
Then we moved house and there was no aerial. Ah. Dilemma.
However, there was a Virgin wall box (well, NTL box to be precise) and some loose Sky cables poking through the wall as a relic of a previous contract. But we didn't want to fork out £65+ per month for a full-on package, so we picked up an old conversation with Freesat and landed a Humax HB-1000S Freesat HD box with Free Time and, bingo, all was well. It suddenly made sense.
Is Freesat our new-found saviour and just how well does the HB-1000S perform considering its affordable sub-£100 price point?
The many available options
We've used all sorts of telly service providers over the years, so we have a broad sense of what is available. Having just come from a YouView package (aerial required for that, so it's out of use), as former Virgin and customers (we now take broadband only to save on the bills), and with every friend under the sun (so it seems) with Sky at home, we know what's out there.
The deal, typically, is that you need to fork out a load of cash to have internet, phone and TV. We fight this notion because in the internet age, and with improving connections - save if you're out in the rural UK countryside, but advancing over-the-air bands will solve that eventually - and greater cost efficiency there are a growing number of ways to get TV without the monthly charge.
Freesat HD gives you all the "normal" channels: the spectrum of BBC, ITV and C4 options including 11 high-def options, alongside a smattering of other standard-def channels and radio to total 200 in all. CBS Reality, Food, Travel Channel, Viva, Film 4, a variety of news, shopping children's channels and more make up the total, not that you'll find all the channels of use.
You won't get premium things like Fox, Sky One or Discovery - but then they're all available via Sky's Now TV for just £4.99 a month. And all you need for that is an internet connection and the one-off £10 Now TV Box as a separate solution. So that's your Game of Thrones sorted.
The Humax HB-1000S box is really easy to set up. Screw in the F-connector to the rear LNB socket to source the signal from the dish, connect an HDMI from the box to your TV to deliver a decoded image and, for the purposes of catch-up, connect an Ethernet cable from your router to the box too. Switch the Humax on and it will search through all the available channels and that's it. All done.
If you don't have an HDMI-capable TV then the video and stereo AUX (combined the yellow, white and red connectors make up what's known as RCA) output could even be wired into an older TV set. You might need a SCART converter, but the options exist if you're looking for such a solution.
The time it takes to turn the HB-1000S on from cold is a bit irksome, however, as there's 30-seconds of graphics dancing around on screen, then the electronic programme guide (EPG) pops up and it'll take another 10-seconds to get a channel selected and presented in full screen. But what's 40-seconds of life? We can live with that.
A provided remote control gives you full volume and channel controls in addition to navigation. It's a decent remote considering the total £90 box cost, so no qualms here. We did find ourselves running a "dual volume" setup, however, with the TV set to one level and the separate Freesat signal to another. If anything that's useful as it makes it easier to level-off those potential big volume jumps when switching between sources.
Even though starting up from cold takes its time, once the box is up and running the EPG is quick to navigate and easy to understand. There's not much lag when jumping between channels - it's certainly faster than the Humax YouView box we also own - and the Free Time element means it's possible to scroll back through the last week of programmes that you've missed in order to catch up. More on that side of things later.
We've spent most of our time watching BBC in HD and it looks really, really good. There's no other way to put it. It's no quibbles, high quality stuff. Even the standard-def channels are delivered with quality and in the months we've been testing we've only had one dish outage which saw us "stuck" with the current channel only.
Content needn't just be limited to just what's coming from the dish, however. If you've got no other hardware to act as a media hub then the USB port on the rear of the Humax will accept files in MKV, AVI, MOV, MP4 and WMV formats. That's pretty much ever base covered, and content streams well in up-to-1080p resolution. Sound-wise there's Dolby Digital support with an optical (SPDIF) output.
When we were first using the Humax HB-1000S catch-up services we thought it was the box's Achilles heel. On one particular night we just couldn't get a decent quality signal despite a confirmed 30Mbps down from our Virgin connection. What made it all the more bizarre was that the PlayStation 3 running the same catch-up app over Wi-Fi - the Humax is wired only - provided a much cleaner image.
Fortunately that was just a one-off and ever since we've picked up quality catch-up direct from the Humax. It's here that the Freesat Free Time service comes into its own too.
It's possible to scroll back through what you've missed in the EPG in an easy-to-use fashion. Simply left click on a channel for a menu of what's available from earlier that day. This isn't available on every single channel, however, as not all channels offer catch-up facilities. For the major five channels the HB-1000S has you covered though.
There's a workaround though: spend more money. The HDR-1000S model comes with a 500GB hard drive to record programmes for catch-up later, something the HB-1000S doesn't offer built-in. But the HDR will cost you more than double the HB with a £199 asking price. Still, that's £200 and, assuming you have a satellite dish already on your property, then you're covered. It's even possible to auto-record entire series, and there's an app to schedule things too.
What you won't get
We've already touched upon the lack of some premium channels, but how much you truly need them will depend on your position.
The main thing that Freesat lacks, and the reason the pricier options from BT and Sky may be more appealing, is live sports. Sure the Beeb and ITV covers some of this, such as various tennis tournaments and some football, but it's not the likes of the European Champions League on BT or the full F1 coverage on Sky. If you need this then either pop to the pub or stump up the costs because, well, sport is expensive.
The Humax HB-1000S could be your perfect, cost-effective home solution for free live TV. If you happen to have a satellite dish in place - or you could install one if Freesat tempts you enough - then this affordable box is simple to setup and delivers great looking live and catch-up content, in high-definition where applicable. As we found in a new property where an aerial was absent, the Humax was the perfect fit solution.
As with any of these kinds of set-top box solutions you also won't get the more "premium" channels, most prominent being live sports. If that's no bother for you - and, frankly, we're happy to spend a few extra quid meeting some mates down the pub to watch a game instead - then Freesat has plenty of appeal and will save you a pretty penny in the long term. It can easily be supplemented by other services too, without the entire month in, month out cost.
From fledgling users perplexed about how Freesat might fit in to most users' setups, we've been taken in and totally transformed by what Freesat offers. It's proven cost-effective andthe ideal solution for our needs. For a one-off £90 payment the Humax HB-1000S really is a great TV solution. No contracts, no hidden costs, it's as simple as that.