Freeview Play has its first set-top box, the slickly named Humax FVP-4000T. The new service - that went live in October 2015 in the UK - is designed to combine regular broadcast Freeview services with connected catch-up services.
If that's sounds familiar, that's because Freeview Play sits in the same space as YouView and there's a lot of similarity between the services. You wait for a subscription-free Freeview TV service with a scroll-back electronic programme guide (EPG), and two seem to come along at once.
With Humax on the box, however, there's the chance for this set-top box to offer a little more than the standard service. Anyone who has owned a previous Humax box will know that the company doesn't shy away from giving you extra.
So how does the Humax FVP-4000T fare on the first outing of Freeview Play?
Humax FVP-4000T review: Design
The Humax FVP-4000T set-top box isn't just your normal black box. To make it stand-out, there's been some coffee house styling applied, so the top has a leather look, the Mocha version pictured here in our review.
It reminds us of the sort of thing that Samsung was doing on the back of its tablets and phablets in 2014, with faux stitching around the edges of the top to add a little interest. Many will just slip this into place in a TV stand, so the finish is perhaps inconsequential, but it's a curiosity, that's for sure.
The Humax FVP-4000T measures 280 x 200 x 48mm, tapering for a footprint that's slightly smaller than the top. A metal-coloured band runs around the top of the edge, carrying the Freeview Play branding, before joining the glossy plastic lower section. There's something quite gregarious about this design, but as we’ve said, once you've set it up, it's just another set-top box.
There are some controls across the top, with volume, channel and standby buttons raised and ready to press, should the remote not be to hand. There's also a single coloured LED on the front, blue during normal use and turning red when recording.
Sat next to our similar-spec BT Ultra YouView+ box (ignoring its 4K support anyway) the Freeview Play box looks a little larger than it perhaps needs to be and we're guessing that most of the additional space inside is just air.
There's a remote control supplied in the box that's universal, so you'll be able to control basic TV functions after programming. The remote offers a full range of functions and we found it easy enough to get to grips with, even if it feels a little cheap in the hand because it's so light. It also uses some big square buttons and we're still trying to decide is these are cheap and cheerful, or more retro chic. The action is a little insubstantial, so it's probably the former.
The FVP-4000T is a little noisy and we found it got hot, especially when streaming content. There's a mechanical drive inside that will account for some of the noise and we struggled to tell whether the other noise was from a cooling fan or not. Because this box gets warm, we'd advise you give it space and don't put anything on top.
Humax FVP-4000T review: Connections and set-up
Around the rear of the FVP-4000T are all the expected connections. There's aerial in and out in case you need passthrough, analogue audio and video, optical, Ethernet, HDMI and USB. There's a second USB on the side of the box too.
In the box you have an Ethernet cable and HDMI cable, and set-up is as easy as hooking up the required connections and connecting to the power. The box then runs through a fairly standard set-up process: set the language, establish a connection to the internet and it'll then scan for channels. Once that process is complete - it took us about 10 minutes from start to finish (excluding the software update) - you're ready to enjoy this new world of Freeview TV.
There's the option to connect to the internet via cable or Wi-Fi. The former will always be the most attractive option to avoid the vagaries that wireless connections can introduce, and Humax says that you should have at least a 2Mbps broadband connection to be able to use the catch-up services. Wi-Fi means simplicity, however, and fewer restrictions on placement.
There are an additional range of settings you might want to tinker with, including the option to change audio settings between stereo or Dolby Digital on the optical and HDMI, as well as the output resolution. We found it defaulted to 1080i, but a peek into those settings offered up 1080p and 2160p.
Humax has confirmed to us that there's no 4K UHD output (fitting as there's no UHD content), but the option appears if you connect to a UHD TV, so you can safely ignore that 2160p setting as it will only be 1080p.
Humax FVP-4000T review: Freeview TV and recording
The 4000T has three Freeview tuners onboard, meaning you'll be able to watch and record multiple programmes at the same time. You get the full Freeview HD+ services you expect, with the ability to series link programmes, set reminders and so on.
There's a 500GB hard drive on board and that will give you about 300 hours of SD content, or 90 hours of HD recordings. As we understand it, there will be 1TB and 2TB options too, although so far we've only seen the 500GB version on sale.
You'll get the full range of standard Freeview channels and this will vary depending on your region, meaning we got 14 HD channels, and Freeview has already said HD is going to be a focus moving forward.
You don't get quite the number of channels that you'll find on Virgin Media or Sky - there's no ITV2 HD for example - but then Freeview Play isn't asking you to pay any subscription after the initial outlay for the box.
Humax FVP-4000T review: Integrated catch-up services
Aside from the fairly regular functions we've mentioned, the real purpose behind Freeview Play is to bring you a seamless live and catch-up TV experience. That's the reason you need to be connected to the internet.
Freeview Play offers BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4 and Demand 5, so you get the full range of UK catch-up services on this set-top box from the off.
Like YouView, the EPG blends both sides together, so you can browse live, future, as well as past programming. When you scroll forward you get the option to set a reminder or record, and when you scroll back, you get the option to view those programmes via the relevant catch-up service, if they are available.
The players you get for each of the main services are the same you'll find elsewhere - on YouView, on smart TVs, Xbox and so on. That means that each is differently styled and navigated, but accessing through the EPG at least leads some consistency: you find the programme you want to watch, hit "watch now", the player opens and you get to watch it. Simple.
There seems to be a problem, however, in serving up catch-up services from the HD channels. Scroll back from a BBC HD channel and BBC iPlayer would offer the programme. Scroll back from ITV HD or 4 HD programmes and there's no content, because these don't offer HD catch-up. Switch to the SD channels, and all the content is in place to watch. Additionally, Demand 5 isn't yet integrated, so it's something of a mixed bag on Freeview Play's first outing. It's almost an identical experience to Freetime on Freesat+ boxes.
The FVP-4000T user interface gives you the option to filter for HD channels only when browsing the EPG, but doing so might leave you unable to directly access the content on catch-up. It's also a little irritating that you can't see whether the content is on catch-up until you click through and find it's not there, whereas on YouView it's obvious from the EPG what's available and what isn't at a glance.
There's also an "on demand" button on the remote that will take you through to the hub for all of these services, as well as other apps included by Humax. The current star outside of the standard catch-up services is YouTube, although there's a full run of junk channels too. Humax has promised that Netflix is coming via an update, but this is strictly Humax business, rather than being part of the remit of Freeview Play.
The current range of offerings sets Freeview Play behind the options you get on YouView currently - there's no Now TV for example - but we suspect that many will just be after those main catch-up services. There's also no option for pay movies, something that other TV providers (Sky, Virgin Media, BT, TalkTalk) all offer.
Freeview Play review: Exploring the user interface and EPG
Unlike YouView, Freeview exists in different formats. The EPG you get is subject to the interpretation of the manufacturer, so the Panasonic take on Freeview Play looks different to Humax, for example. That's in stark contrast to YouView, where the EPG is the same across Sony, BT or TalkTalk offerings.
Humax has opted for quite a bold approach to the user interface - based on the company's Prism design - and there are a number of approaches to accessing each of the different aspects. In one sense that means you can arrive at the same place through a number of moves so there's the potential for confusion and we don't feel it's quite as cohesive and consistent as YouView's offering.
Starting from the live TV window, you can use the remote left and right arrows to view programmes on the same channel on a horizontal axis, skipping back in time, or moving forward. Using the up and down arrows you can move vertically through channels to see what else is on.
Each channel is represented with a thumbnail, making it quick and easy to see what's on. It's good in theory, but we found that not all HD channels reliably offered up these thumbnails - BBC always did, others didn't, leaving you with blank holders instead (we suspect this is related to the missing catch-up content mentioned above, as it doesn't happen on SD channels).
Press the guide button and the EPG opens properly. Everything so far works on overlays, so you can see and hear the channel currently tuned in in the background. The EPG is fairly standard, filling the screen and quick to navigate, be that up and down channels, or forward or back. Visually it's a little basic, perhaps, but at least it's easy to see how far through a programme you are.
Scrolling back or forward through the EPG and selecting a programme will offer details on it, with relevant actions. If it's a past programme covered by catch-up services, you'll have the "watch now" option. If it's in the future, you'll have the record/remind options instead. One thing that's slightly irksome is that you don't immediately get a series link option when you hit record on a programme - you have to select the programme and view the information before the series link option presents itself.
There are additional buttons on the controller too. There's a home button that takes you to a menu offering the main sections - on demand, EPG, recordings and media centre - the last of which allows you to access DLNA content elsewhere on your network, or through a connected USB.
Scrolling down again takes you to a "recently watched" section, although sadly this doesn't include anything you were watching on demand, only the live channels, which is a surprisingly disconnected approach to a connected experience. There's also a search function although it's a little basic. It's slow, especially compared to YouView's searching, only returning results after you've entered a number of characters.
Humax FVP-4000T review: Additional services and apps
If you're looking for a route to viewing your own content on your TV, then the FVP-4000T has that USB slot we mentioned previously, as well as DLNA support. This is USB host, allowing you to connect devices to view. There's a basic file browser and we found it happy to playback common file types, like MP4 videos. As with all these things, you're subject to file compatibility, although the list runs to MP4, VOB, AVI, ASF, MKV, MPEG-TS, JPEG, PNG, BMP, GIF and MP3.
The same applies to DLNA devices. It found our media server, but then ground to a halt trying to identify the content so wasn't a success. If you've DLNA sharing from your smartphone, this is a route to showing your content on your TV.
Additionally, Humax has a selection of apps: Humax Remote, Humax Media Player and Humax Live TV (iPhone and Android). Expanding the range of viewing options, again this is separate from Freeview Play, instead being a Humax initiative to give you smartphone controls.
The apps are a little crude, but if you want to watch content on your smartphone or tablet, you can. This includes watching live TV, as well as content you've recorded on your Humax box which we found worked well enough, as long as both devices remain connected to the network.
The first Freeview Play box is here, bringing a taste of Freeview's future. It's a future that wants to offer a service similar to YouView or Freetime Freesat and that will be welcomed by many, with core UK catch-up TV services integrated into the electronic programme guide, so it's simple to view the content you want when you want it.
Navigation, recording and the overall performance of he Humax FVP-4000T has been strong, presenting few problems, but we can't help feeling that YouView has the edge, in terms of visual design, intuitive navigation, as well as offering more connected services. It's also better integrated currently.
Housing three tuners brings a benefit against YouView rivals, but the USB and DLNA functions are rather more unique and might have less appeal.
While the Humax FVP-4000T is our first real glimpse at Freeview Play, this is only the beginning of the story and this platform and box is likely to expand in offerings in the near future. However, it's difficult to recommend right now, given that it's £199 and the more fully-featured YouView equivalent set-top box (minus one tuner by comparison) is £159 and currently offers the better TV experience.
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