You might not believe it, but digital terrestrial TV in the UK is well over ten years old now. First launched in 1998, DTT had services from the main terrestrial broadcasters and a pay-TV service called ONdigital. Eventually, ONdigital became ITV Digital, but there wasn't enough demand for pay-TV over the air in the UK, and the service folded in 2002. Since then, we've had Freeview, offering a free selection of channels for people to enjoy once they buy a digital TV or Freeview box.
High-definition TV has been about for a while now but, because the UK opted for more channels rather than following the US route of making digital TV a mostly HD proposition, we've not had access to it via an aerial. To get HD, we've needed to invent new transmission standards. That's where the £180 Humax HD-FOX T2 comes in -- it's one of a new generation of receivers that use the new DVB-T2 standard. Using this standard, Freeview is able to get more capacity out of its multiplexes, and make HD a practical possibility.
Cost of progress
The first thing to mention is the T2's cost. At first glance, the £180 asking price seems fairly steep. After all, this isn't a personal video recorder -- it's a standard, single-tuner, Freeview HD receiver. Surely it should cost £50? Well, normally we'd agree, but the HD system that Freeview is using requires entirely new receivers, which means that set-top boxes have had to be designed from the ground up. There was no way to avoid this and, while the national press seems to be enjoying whipping up the 'Freeview HD is a gigantic rip-off' scandal, we take the stance that innovation costs money.
Freeview HD bonuses
As a company, Freeview has become skilled at understanding what's good for consumers. To make Freeview HD better, it's laid down some basic guidelines that all manufacturers must follow. Boxes must, for example, have an Ethernet socket. This is designed to allow them to access IPTV services at a later date, like BBC iPlayer, 4oD and ITV Player. It's a great idea that, one day, will pay dividends to people who buys these boxes.
All Freeview HD equipment must also be able to output at 1080p. This means that all the electronic-programme-guide designs and menus can be rendered in HD, which means everything can look much more modern and slick than is possible with an old-fashioned Freeview receiver. It also means that the box can upscale standard-definition material to look as good as possible on your TV. People with very high-end TVs might choose to turn upscaling off, though, as their screens are likely to do a slightly better job of upscaling.
Advantages of upgradable firmware
Humax has made it quite clear that it doesn't see these boxes as just Freeview receivers. The IPTV options mean that the company can add extra features, such as YouTube playback, or even develop its own portal to bring together a selection of Internet TV content on the box. It's previously demonstrated this system with European channels, and we're quite taken with it.
The T2 also has another trick up its sleeve that will be unleashed at some point later this year. Using the built-in USB socket, the device will be able to record TV shows to external storage devices. While the initial outlay of £180 might seem extravagant, then, this box will eventually gain basic PVR functionality. Although it won't be as advanced as the full-on PVR that Humax plans to launch later in the year, it's still better than nothing.
Design and connectivity
As you'd expect, you get an HDMI socket to take the 1080p output of this box to your HDTV. There's no component video out, though, which might annoy some people with older TVs, or AV receivers that have run out of HDMI sockets.
An Ethernet socket is provided, as mentioned above, to allow for IPTV functionality in the future, in whatever form that might take. And the USB socket will allow you to watch video, listen to music and look at photos from compatible storage devices. In the future, the USB port will also allow you to record TV programmes to an external drive.
Scart sockets are provided for older TVs but, if you don't have an HDTV, we question the logic of buying an HD Freeview box, as we're likely to see TVs with the functionality built in very soon anyway, and £180 is a sizeable wad of cash to spend on a box that you won't be using to its full potential.
What channels do I get?
The Humax can now pick up ITV HD and the BBC's HD channel. By March at the latest, Channel 4 will launch 4HD on the platform, and, at some point later, a fourth channel will join the service. It's fair to say that Freeview is never going to be the best way to satisfy a deep craving for HD, because capacity limits the number of channels quite severely, but, for people who want to see content from the country's main broadcasters, it's a good starting point.
Picture and sound quality
Much has been written about the picture quality of the BBC's HD channel. Some people are distressed that it has, in their eyes, declined. The quality of a broadcast isn't the fault of a hardware manufacturer, though.
With standard-definition channels, the T2 does a very good job. The HDMI output means that pictures look about as good as they do via our TV's built-in receiver. How you use this device will depend on your set-up, but the HD EPG and lightning-fast performance of the T2 make it a good alternative to your TV's built-in receiver.
With HD material, quality again really depends on the broadcaster, and we have to say that we haven't seen much actual HD being broadcast so far. BBC HD runs on a loop all day, which looks fantastic. In the evening, there's much more programming on offer and, depending on the show, it looks terrific too. ITV HD, on the other hand, offers a relatively tiny amount of HD on any day. When it's not showing HD, however, it shows upscaled SD, which we really like, as the extra bandwidth cuts down on nasty compression artefacts.
Because of ITV HD's quite limited broadcast schedule, most of our testing was done on BBC HD. We tried a variety of different programmes, and it seemed to us that the quality of the channel was quite variable. Again, this can't be blamed on the box, but can make testing its ability quite hard.
The live Six Nations rugby match between Scotland and France looked pretty poor, for example. It was better than SD, but not at the level we would hope from HD. On the other hand, dramas like Lark Rise to Candleford looked stunning, as did Silent Witness. Certainly, we can't fault the box when it comes to providing an amazing-quality image with a good signal.
Sound from the T2 has the potential to be amazing too. SD channels have good-quality digital sound, but HD broadcasts can truly come alive with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. With movies and sports, this has the potential to make your home TV experience amazing.
Humax uses a dual-core processor in the T2, which means it's very nippy in use. The EPG loads extremely quickly and moving through the menu systems is a marvellously speedy experience. The appearance of the entire user interface is also top-notch. This machine looks like a very modern receiver, and it's a breath of fresh air.
One little bug
During our testing, we noticed that the HD output of the T2 had a green line down the right-hand side of the picture. This was only visible when using a TV in its 'unscaled' mode, often called 'dot by dot' or '1:1 pixel'. As this appeared on all channels, it's a problem with the output from the box. It shouldn't bother most people, but purists will be annoyed by it, as running the box in a 1:1 pixel mode is desirable for getting the best quality out of the machine.
We suspect this problem could easily be fixed with a firmware update. We hope Humax will address this. Based on past experience, the company takes glitches like this quite seriously and is keen to fix them as soon as possible. If the problem is fixed, we'll update this review.
The Humax HD-FOX T2 is a fantastic little machine, and we can't really fault it as a piece of hardware. Its price is high, but that's understandable, as this box contains new technology that isn't cheap. If you want Freeview HD, we think it's a great purchase -- and not just because, at the time of writing, it's your only choice.
But the question you have to ask yourself is: 'Do I really think Freeview HD has enough content to offer me?' Both HD channels have their gems, but we're far away from having every single show available in HD at the moment. Interestingly, some years ago the BBC pledged to have all of its TV production in HD by 2010. We think it's not going to make that self-imposed deadline. Whatever you decide, we urge caution when it comes to rushing to embrace Freeview HD. The hardware is amazing, but the content isn't as compelling -- yet.
Edited by Charles Kloet