It's been three years since freesat -- the satellite equivalent of Freeview -- was first announced and the first freesat-compatible receiver has finally arrived. The Humax Foxsat-HD costs £150 and gives those who don't want to be tied into a subscription a way to watch high-definition broadcasts. Is it a day for glorious celebration or just more waiting?
The Foxsat-HD is surprisingly small. It's about two thirds of the size of an average DVD player. It has an all-black colour scheme, apart from the two mirrored strips that run across the top and bottom of the front channel number display. It's stylish, but not in a 'look at me! I live in Hoxton!' kind of way.
Most people will be introducing high definition into their lives for the first time, which includes the standard £80 freesat installation service. If you already have a Sky dish on your home, you can use that instead, saving you the extra expense of a new install. All you have to do is connect the satellite lead to the dish socket on the back and you're ready to rock.
For hooking the box up to your telly, the Foxsat-HD sports two Scart sockets, a HDMI port, composite output as well as red, green and blue phono sockets. The latter are linked to a manual switch that lets you change between outputting a standard RGB signal and a full component signal for HD. There's also an optical output so you can connect it to a surround-sound receiver for Dolby Digital. Humax rather generously provides a HDMI cable as well as Scart and composite leads in the box.
When you first start up the box, it checks for a software update and then asks you for your postcode. It uses this to work out which regional variations of the ITV and BBC channels to include in your EPG. The channel tuning takes under a minute and once it's finished, your box is completely set up. There are 80 channels available now, but this is expected to rise to 300 by the end of the year. Take at look at our forums for the full list.
Your foray into the world of digital currently begins and ends with BBC HD, as it's the only HD channel available on freesat right now. Happily, the picture quality of the channel is stunning, with bags of detail and really vivid colours.
This quality is to be expected from a HD signal, but some of the other channels, like True Movies, are heavily compressed and look pretty poor. In fact, you're really getting the same broadcasts that are received by Sky set-top boxes -- the only real difference is the freesat EPG over the top. Still, we can't fault the actual output from the Foxsat-HD, as when it's presented with a decent signal, it performs admirably.
What really separates this box from standard free-to-air satellite receivers is the support for the seven-day freesat EPG. When you press the 'guide' button, you're first presented with a pop-up box that divides the channels into areas of interest, such as entertainment, news and sport, movies and music. Once you select an option, you're dropped into the main guide, which is laid out horizontally.
The guide looks dull, but it does feel very responsive and has a neat Quick Navigation feature that lets you jump between days with the up and down buttons while moving the time slot with the left and right buttons. Pressing the red button switches to a vertical list view and hitting the blue button takes you to the 'find' function that lets you search for programmes by name.
Instead of using the full guide, you can switch between programmes with the channel list view or by using the excellent 'now and next' function that lets you skip forward and back through a whole day's worth of shows.
There are more free-to-air channels available than freesat has put in its programming guide; if you're feeling brave, you can do a manual tune to pick these up. Extra channels of interest include LUXE TV in high definition, Sky News, CNN, the Flaunt music channel and BET. These are placed in a separate EPG, but you can switch between freesat and non-freesat modes in the main menu.
All freesat boxes have to include an Ethernet socket on the rear for use with future IPTV services and the Foxsat-HD is no different. Currently this is unused, but the technical bods at freesat told us that they expect to have IPTV services such as the BBC's iPlayer running by the end of the year. They also confirmed that this box would definitely receive a software update to make it compatible with these future services, so your investment should be well protected.
We only have a few minor niggles with the box, although the first concerns the remote. The layout feels cluttered and we don't like the way the volume and channel change buttons are positioned horizontally. We would've preferred to have them mounted vertically like on most other remotes.
The other issue is over how the guide works. freesat has stipulated that when you open the guide it must first show a genre menu. However, on the Foxsat-HD, this is displayed as a pop-up box that sits on top of the main guide. The problem is that it looks more like an alert box you'd get in Windows. Thankfully, Humax has told us this is going to be changed to a standalone page that you will see before entering the main guide, bringing it into line with the other freesat receivers we saw at the launch of the service.
Not everything is rosy cheeks and candy floss with the freesat service either. The lack of Channel 5 is disappointing at launch and ITV HD hasn't gone live yet -- it's expected to do so soon. Also, because freesat has rewritten the interactive spec to speed things up, this does mean that some services aren't yet fully supported. So even though the Foxsat-HD is much faster than Sky or Freeview boxes when dealing with interactive content, you're currently left without some services, such as the multi-screen view on BBC News 24.
The Foxsat-HD may be one of the first freesat box to hit the market, but it already feels like a mature product. It's fast, user friendly and offers great picture quality, but manages to pack all this into a compact and stylish box. We just wish there were more HD channels available on freesat to take advantage of its high-definition capabilities.
Edited by Shannon Doubleday