The IP Vision FetchTV SmartBox 8000 is a £180 Freeview personal video recorder with a 60GB hard drive and access to catch-up TV services from the BBC, Sky and Fetch's own on-demand service. It promises an awful lot, but what exactly does it deliver?
The SmartBox 8000 isn't a good-looking device. It's forged from a fairly cheap plastic and weighs next to nothing. The SmartBox's shape is also slightly strange. It's not uniform and the front has a depressed area that seems to serve no real purpose. It's also strange that this depressed area is reasonably transparent, allowing you to see inside the unit. A stylistic choice, or just cost cutting? We're not sure.
On the back, there are a reasonable amount of useful outputs. Although it's not a high-definition Freeview receiver, there is an HDMI socket. The purpose of this is to allow the playback of HD media files as well as HD movie and TV downloads from the FetchTV store.
There is also an aerial input and output as well as optical digital for audio. There are two USB sockets for viewing video, music and photos, and backing up the TV shows you have recorded on the box.
Tiny record capacity
The built in hard drive has a capacity of just 160GB. In our opinion, this is really mean. It will certainly make treasuring your favourite shows totally impractical. The box has one saving grace, however -- you are able to back-up recordings to an external USB device. This means you can effectively increase your capacity by as much as you want. It's still annoying that there isn't a larger hard drive (even the HD version of this box only has 320GB), and with hard drive prices at an all-time low, it seems especally churlish not to include a higher capacity disk.
EPG and menus
The menu system on the SmartBox is a little confusing. Access to the BBC's iPlayer, for example, is hidden behind FetchTV's own interface. We don't like this, especially when Sky Player has its own menu item. We suspect this is down to Sky demanding a top-level menu placement, but we're cross that iPlayer is being bundled as part of FetchTV's premium content area.
We found the electronic programme guide quite cluttered. While it's good to have channel logos on screen, we don't like the fact that Fetch continuously tries to flog you things. There are two large banner ads at the top of your screen, which attempt to sell you pay-per-view movies.
We like that the SmartBox 8000 has the ability to use Wi-Fi to connect you to the net. Even now, with wireless Internet access ubiquitious as it is, most companies don't include Wi-Fi. It works well here, and the set-up process is very straightforward. If you don’t have a wired Ethernet port near your TV, this is the ideal solution.
iPlayer and Sky Player
One of the major selling points of this box is its ability to access catch-up TV services from Sky and the BBC. But there's a major issue with this functionality. Namely, to use the BBC iPlayer you must first register an account via the FetchTV website. This account set-up asks for a number of personal details, including your full address and a phone number.
Tedious as this application process is, you might thing there's nothing too offensive about setting up an account. If you're a privacy hound, you could just give fake details, right? Wrong. You can't include false contact information because, in addition to collecting a whole bunch of unnecessary details, FetchTV also demands you provide a credit card number.
We think this is totally unacceptable, especially with regard to accessing the BBC's public service iPlayer. We're also quite certain that this wouldn't please the corporation, either, as it could give people the impression they must pay for iPlayer.
When we questioned Fetch about this, it was unrepentant on the subject. It claimed the credit card information was used to ensure that customers were 18 or over. When we remarked that we couldn't see the relevance of this, it told us it provided security against minors viewing unsuitable content. We think this is nothing more than a smokescreen to disguise the truth of the company's strategy. That is, it's simply trying to get your credit card details in order to persuade you into impulse pay-per-view purchases. While we're not surprised by this decision, we still don't think it's appropriate, nor do we think it's fair that it hides the BBC's free iPlayer behind this paywall.
We've raised all of these issues with FetchTV, and it remains unrepentant. The sad truth is, the final score of this project has been severely damaged by its decision, and it invalidates the good things this box does.
It's also worth noting that iPlayer on the box works superbly using the BBC's large-screen interface. Programmes play quickly and the quality is actually very good. There's no HD yet, but that will change in the future, and the box can certainly handle HD video. Compared to Virgin's on-demand iPlayer, the FetchTV system is lightening-fast, and it takes almost no time at all to buffer and start playing the feed.
Not always a smooth picture
The cornerstone of a Freeview PVR is the quality of the picture it outputs. Often, stand-alone machines can't match the quality of your TV's built-in tuner because of the high-quality processing the TV is capable of. This certainly seemed true of the SmartBox.
The first problem we noticed was that, when set to 1,920x1,080i60, the picture suffered from deinterlacing artefacts. This is noticeable on text, or with objects that move across the screen, and shows as jagged lines. This is a symptom of the upscaling hardware in the SmartBox 8000 not being up to the job. Turning the resolution down to 720x480 pixels improved things, giving a smoother, albeit softer, image. The problem with adjusting the resolution in this way, though, is that it will also affect the resolution of everything else you watch on the box. Stream an HD movie from the SmartBox, and you won't be getting the best out of it unless you have the resolution set to at least 720p.
We noticed that, on 1,920x1,080i60, the picture juddered during moving shots. This is because the TV standard in the UK uses 50i, not 60i -- 60i is a US standard, derived from their historical use of 30 frames per second, as opposed to our 25 frames per second. Our obvious advice is not to select this mode, but most people are going to want to use the maximum mode they can. Indeed, the box encourages this by walking you through a set-up routine that determines the top resolution and frame rate your TV can accept. In most cases, modern TVs will all do 1,920x1,080i60, which will lead to poorly set-up boxes across the nation.
Scaling problems aside, the picture on the Fetch varied a great deal depending on the resolution. 640x480 pixels looked far brighter and more colourful than 1920x1080, but unaturally so. Again, we found that the best mode was 720x480. It had more realistic colours and was largely free of other picture problems.
At no point were we blown away by the picture quality of Freeview images. These were worse quality than other competing products we've tried.
We very much welcome the inclusion of remote record on this box. Like Sky's service, this allows you to log in to the FetchTV website, search through channel listings and set your box to record, simply by pressing a single button.
Our only criticisms of the feature is that the site doesn't seem to know what box you have. So, if you select an HD channel, it will confirm that a recording has been scheduled, but your box will have no way to record the channel. The other problem was that we couldn't find shows that we knew were going to be on in the next seven days, which was frustrating.
Media centre functionality
Another of the FetchTV's impressive features is its ability to stream video over your home network. It can cope with quite a diverse range of video formats and file types. For example, 1080p video in MKV containers present no problems for this box at all. Its Achilles heel, however, is soundtrack audio. We gave the device two files: one with Dolby Digital audio, which it played okay, but didn't pass to our receiver as a Dolby bitstream. The second file was a 1080p MKV with DTS audio, which the device refused to provide sound for. This is a shame, because all it would need to do is send the bitstream audio out via the HDMI for our AV receiver to do the hard decoding work.
The IP Vision FetchTV SmartBox 8000 isn't without merit, its place in the market is clear and we really love the idea of catch-up TV delivered over the Internet. Access to Sky via its Sky Player is also a real boon for people who can't otherwise get satellite.
However, the need to enter credit card information just to access BBC iPlayer is totally unforgivable. This box is sold on the basis that people will be able to access the service, and no mention is made about the need to register first when you're buying the product. The company's response to our questions on this subject lead us to believe that it knows full well this is unacceptable, and the flimsy response it gave proves it can't really justify its decisions, aside from them being an extra way to make money.
Edited by Emma Bayly