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(Pocket-lint) - Sky’s subscription stranglehold on high-def broadcasting means that many people simply can’t afford to experience HD TV for themselves. But thanks to Freesat – a joint venture between the BBC and ITV which offers over 80 TV and radio channels via satellite, including HD channels from the BBC and ITV – a greater number of people can have access to pin-sharp pictures. You pay a one-off cost for a set-top box (and installation if you don’t already have a dish on your house) and away you go.

There are four standalone Freesat receivers on the market, and the FOXSAT-HD from Humax is one of them. Bear in mind there’s no hard-disk on-board like Sky+ – it’s a standard receiver built for viewing only, but Humax is bringing out a PVR version very soon.

It’s an attractive, if not breathtaking unit, with pleasingly compact dimensions and black styling interspersed with streaks of silver. There’s an information panel in the centre, which displays the current channel number, and a flap on either side, which hide a selection of buttons for up-close menu control.

Around the back the unit offers a useful array of sockets, including an HDMI output which you’ll need to connect to your TV if you want to enjoy high-def pictures. It offers a choice of 1080i or 720p (selectable in the set-up menu), and standard-def Freesat channels can be upscaled to these resolutions.

The HDMI is joined by HD-capable Component output, an RGB-capable Scart and Composite video output, plus a second S-Video/Composite Scart output for hooking up to an external recorder. On the audio side you’ll find an optical digital output, which supports Dolby Digital (used by BBC HD). Rounding up the socket selection is an Ethernet port for accessing IPTV services in the future and a USB port for making software updates.

If you’re paying to have a new dish installed with the Humax then set-up is a breeze – just get the bloke to do it for you. But rigging up an existing dish is also a doddle – it’s just a case of screwing in the cable to the LNB input on the back of the box then running through the initial start-up screen, which asks for your TV aspect ratio, preferred HDMI output resolution and postcode, in order to find the correct regional variations when tuning the channels.

Once that’s done, general operation is a breeze. Most of the praise for this should go to the outstanding on-screen displays, which have a really snazzy, welcoming feel and respond instantly to commands from the remote. And if you’re one of those people that needs to know every little thing about the programme you’re watching, then you’ll love the iPlate info display – it’s packed with a comprehensive range of details, such as the broadcast resolution, available audio tracks and interactive services.

The digital TV viewing experience is very much like that of a Freeview box, as are the features, which include a 7-day EPG, digital text, subtitles, audio description and over-the-air software updates. The EPG is a good one too, presenting the channels in a horizontal timeline layout (like Sky+) and using the same snazzy graphics found elsewhere in the menu system. Programmes can be searched according to their genre.

Another feature that adds to the unit’s appeal is the ability to access the full gamut of free channels available on the Astra satellite (the same ones you get on Sky digital), and not just the Freesat ones.

High-definition picture quality is sensational, particularly with BBC HD – the channel’s mix of wildlife documentaries and beautifully shot period dramas serve as the perfect showcase for the FOXSAT’s skills. Detail is sharp, colours ooze warmth and movement is smooth, making for a top-notch viewing experience.

If only all channels were high-def, then we wouldn’t have to endure the disappointment of having to switch back to standard-definition. But thanks to the HDMI output and decent upscaling, it’s not quite the huge drop in quality we expected, although the quality varies from channel to channel and most of them suffer from a touch of shimmering noise. Sound quality is solid, particularly if you run the optical output through an AV receiver.

To recap

A smart, hassle-free box that gets you high-def channels for a one-off payment, with a magnificent operating system and decent pictures

Writing by Danny Phillips.