(Pocket-lint) - Since freesat launched, it's been assaulting our eyes with its capital letter - or lack thereof - lunacy. Now, with freetime, or, as the firm calls it we've got some angled brackets thrown in for good measure. What is this, algebra?
But horrors of English aside, this box represents a very clear move by freesat to offer a YouView-style proposition to those who want more channels than terrestrial can offer, and who perhaps can't get digital over-the-air for some reason.
Of course, one could ask why YouView and freesat exist as separate entities at all. Surely for the pennies it would cost, a YouView box could have both DTT and D-Sat tuners built in to one box, giving people a choice of what they use, and a one-stop solution with total access to catch-up TV. But that hasn't happened for some reason.
So, let's judge this machine on what it DOES do, and find out if it's worth you digging deep to pay for it.
We like and respect what Humax has done with the design of this box. Rather than go for the usual anonymous black rectangle, it has thought about making it look a bit different. There's a simple screen on the front that shows the channel name. It sounds a bit retro, but we really like it.
On the front, along with that display, there is a power button on the left, and programme up/down and volume up/down controls. There's also a USB socket, which is niftily concealed under a pop-out flap.
Around the back there's a pair of satellite inputs. You can opt to use just one of these, if you only have a single feed from your dish, but you will lose the ability to record one programme and watch another if you do.
Also present are analogue outputs, in the form of composite RCA connectors, and even a SCART socket. We wish Scart would just die, but it doesn't look like it's happening just yet. There's also HDMI, digital audio - via optical - and Ethernet and a second USB socket.
Switching the box on is all good too. The UI is incredibly slick right from the moment it starts, there are animated logos and the EPG and menus all look staggeringly well designed. It's not tacky, or needless, it's a really nice look and feel. Arguably, it's a little bit more sophisticated than the brilliant Pure Avalon.
Freesat's freetime is being sold on one basis, that it's a satellite alternative to YouView. The core of this is a very similar EPG which allows you scroll back through time, almost as YouView allows, although it's not quite that simple.
For one thing, the backward scrolling isn't very sophisticated. When you go back, you're presented with a list of shows that are available - or will be soon - through the channel's catch-up service. In fact, in some ways it's preferable to the YouView system, because it's just a list of what's available. It works well enough, and we've used it plenty.
Our big criticism of the catch-up is twofold. First, there's STILL only BBC iPlayer and ITV player available. We are publishing this review months after the box hit the streets, and there is still no 4oD or Demand 5 despite the box being sold as having access to these things. If you look at the freesat site, it clearly claims these are available with a small asterisk which contains the truth in a footnote - "coming soon". Except there is no indication of when soon might be. Tomorrow? A week? A year? Fifty years?
It's all very well offering an alternative to YouView, and we welcome it, but if you're going to play that game, then your service needs to be as good as the one you're competing against. And that's really not the case here.
Our second big bugbear with the on-demand content is that it's also quite arduous to use, and takes a while to get things playing. It's not awful, but nor is it as slick as we've seen on other devices.
Freesat's freetime has every bit of the potential YouView has - in fact, more so because of the streaming options for DLNA home media - but at the moment it's just not living up to its potential. How annoying.
Free-to-air and freesat
To be clear, freesat with its silly lowercase f is a product. It's designed around an EPG that's intended to give British viewers a channel line-up that's useful to them. It is, however, not the full picture of what is available on free-to-air - or even pay TV - in Europe and even beyond.
Should you wish, you can switch the Humax out of its freesat mode, and into a more general satellite receiver form. Here you'll be able to see channels from much further afield, although there are no promises you'll want to watch them, or be able to understand what's being said on them.
The freetime box has a CAM slot too, which means that, in theory, you could subscribe to pay TV in some form. How this is managed is up to the European broadcasters, but if you're living in the UK, but are from somewhere in Europe originally, you might be able to access TV from your home region, as long as you're able to legally subscribe. Sky, in the UK, doesn't sell CAMs for use in this way, because it wants everyone locked into its own hardware.
Here's the rub though, while the freesat mode is very good, the free-to-air non-freesat mode is utterly dreadful. You'll get access to some channels, but there are no tools her to manage it. There's no EPG, even a rudimentary channel list seems beyond the box, so while there are channels out there, you'll rarely get to see them as they're just too hard to find. The box basically begs you to be put back in to freesat mode the whole time too.
In short, it's great for freesat, but not ideal for other satellite-based use.
Stream to your heart's content
Another nice feature of the Humax freetime box is its ability to stream video from DLNA servers on your network. We've seen this a bit recently, although it's missing from YouView boxes, and we're always happy, because it means you can share video around your whole house. Although, in practice it hasn't really happened, the potential of DLNA to allow you to watch recordings on other boxes is really quite good.
To be honest, this functionality is the weakest of the freetime hardware's functionality. It does work, but it's very, very slow to do so. By way of comparison, our hardware was connected via a wireless bridge over 802.11ac, and didn't perform anywhere near as well, or as quickly, as the Pure Avalon did, with the same server hardware.
READ: Pure Avalon review
With that said, it does work well enough to be a useful addition. More so than the Humax apps, also provided, which don't have any meaningful content at all, beyond the usual Picasa web albums and Flickr support.
Peppa Pig, Ben and Holly and the missing minutes
Like most digital video recorders, there's a real problem with some recordings on the freetime box. These are mostly confined to Channel 5, which has a mixed attitude to the accurate recording flags which are so essential in getting programmes recorded without cutting bits off.
Peppa Pig and Ben and Holly are two programmes which we must record every day. Any parent knows this, and sadly the freetime box doesn't really deliver here. We've got dozens of recorded episodes, and almost none of them seems to start or end properly. Meaning we've either got the end missing, or it starts halfway through the show.
Although this disease is fairly common in recorders, we've recently looked at the Pure Avalon which somehow managed to do a better job. For most recordings, the freetime box works fine, but for short kids shows, on certain channels, it's less competent.
A word on reliability
Take a look around the internet, and you'll see some horror stories about problems with the Humax box and freetime. In fact, we want to assure you that in the time we've been using the box, we have not had a single problem of any kind. There have been no crashes, no weird behaviour and no performance concerns, beyond a bit of slow navigation in the media player for DLNA streaming.
We think that this is because we're using a late firmware, and the firm has clearly been working for a long time to fix the issues. Perhaps we got lucky with our hardware too, and perhaps problems will start the moment we publish this review - it's happened to us before.
But we propose a new start for freetime. It might have had a troubled start, but our extensive time with it has yielded no problems at all. We like using the machine, we think it's well-designed and reliable, so we're happy to recommend it - as long as you know its on-demand limitations.
Freetime could be one of the hardest things we've had in for review to score. On the one hand, the hardware looks smart, ticks all the right boxes and the software on the device is stylish and functional.
But none of that matters a damn when you haven't done the deals that mean you have all the main terrestrial on-demand services running at launch. And worse, when you sold your product as having services which it still, months after launch, does not have. This is especially mortifying when we all laughed so heartily at YouView, and how ridiculously long it took to go on sale. Either we're missing something about the complexity of on-demand service negotiations, or these hardware companies are just being very, very silly.
And, of course, there's a lot to be said for the fact that it's quite likely to be the stupid broadcasters who are making this whole performance so protracted. For evidence, look at who the stakeholders are in freesat, and YouView and you'll notice that the two companies that run freesat are the BBC and ITV. While all four of the major UK terrestrial broadcasters are owners of YouView, which has all the on-demand services. Perhaps the blame shouldn't sit with freesat or Humax, but with the pig-ignorant broadcasters who cling to power as their kingdom falls around them.
Freesat's freetime is a good product with good potential. Somewhere, it's being hobbled by either malicious intent, or plain incompetence. We think the former is far more likely so we'll send this message. Live it up while you can broadcasters, because your time is limited, you can only protect the status quo for so long before your audience gets bored, throw all their set-top-boxes out of the window and just get a Netflix subscription.