Review: UPC’s new DVR MediaBox

One paragraph review:

UPC‘s answer to Sky Digital‘s Sky+ service has finally been launched and it’s a considerable step forward for the company, even if it isn’t perfect. The box itself is considerable in size, owing largely to the built-in HDD and cable modem. The EPG is overhauled from the old NTL days and is vastly improved (for a start it goes 8 days into the future rather than one or two as before). The recording process is simple to manage, as are the live TV pause and rewind features. The downsides include a somewhat sluggish menu, a rather awkward process to find your recorded TV and an inability to record two progammes at once (which Sky+ can do). That said, all of these negatives are off-set by a well-needed new service delivered in a far more impressive way than old NTL might have managed. The promise that the new box will be Video On Demand and Interactive-capable over time is just the icing on the cake.

For an indepth review, click below to continue the article.

(Disclosure – UPC offered waive to the installation fee when installing the reviewed system; the additional monthly charge will still be paid.)

What the new service is, what it costs:
The new DVR (Digital Video Recorder) service is basically a modern successor to the VCR. Some may be familiar with what a TiVo does, others might know what a Sky+ box offers and UPC’s offering is in the same league if not a carbon copy.

UPC’s DVR allows users to record TV to a built-in HDD (160GB – around 80 hours of programming, give or take) – this can be done on the spot by hitting the record button and OK’ing the decision, or scheduling the recording on the EPG, just like you’d programme a reminder for a show. On top of this users can pause live TV and resume from the same point at any stage or can rewind the programme they’re currently watching without having to do anything in advance (although you can only rewind back as far as you’ve watched, so if you change the channel only to realise you’ve missed the start of a show it’s tough luck).

What it doesn’t do at the moment is allow users to “series record”, that is set the device to automatically record all episodes of a series over a number of weeks, nor does mimic TiVo in automatically recording programmes it thinks you might like based on what you already watch – that said both of these services are technically only a firmware upgrade away (although nothing has been promised, it should be said).

UPC are currently offering the service to new customers with free installation, or €50 if you’re an existing one – the latter includes anyone who gets any kind of UPC service, even their basic analogue cable. After that it costs €7.50 a month in addition to the regular digital package cost, which varies depending on the deal you’ve taken out.

To give a quick comparison Sky Digital currently has no additional monthly charge for customers using their Sky+ service, but it does charge a once off €149 fee for it in addition to the €45 installation fee. According to Simon Kelehan, TV Product & Content Manager at UPC, this is because Sky sell their box to customers where UPC have decided to rent it out instead – hence the monthly cost in favour of a large once-off fee.

The setup
Setup was relatively painless, although there were some problems with a number of channels not showing up – this was resolved a few hours later after a call to UPC Tech Support (who, it must be said, answered the call and resolved the issue within minutes).

The box itself connects in the same way as the old NTL Digital box with cable in and out leads, scart leads and room for phono cables. This box does have a few additional options, however, such as the digital audio out cable and the ethernet and USB cable – both of which are possibly for updating purposes.

The Hardware
The hardware in question is a Thomson 6000 series (called the MediaBox by UPC) and as has already been stated, houses a 160GB HDD and a modem.

It’s of considerable size, in fact it seriously dwarfs the last generation of NTL Digital boxes produced by Pace.

It measures 14 inches in width, 9.5 inches in length and around 3 inches in height, so if you’re expecting it to be a compact replacement for your aging VCR you may be slightly disappointed. (These pictures will give you an idea of how it compares to a standard-sized VCR player and the old Pace/NTL box.)

The reasons for this size are probably numerous. For a start, it houses a HDD, which adds some bulk by itself. The built-in modem is also an issue and may be taking up the same, if not more, space than the HDD. The main reasons, however, could be costs and consistency.

The Thomson box is pretty much the standard-issue box for UPC across Europe – this means they’re able to buy in bulk and can now begin to co-ordinate tech support across the continent. For the consumer it means very little, especially as other boxes aren’t likely to get much smaller but are likely to cost more.

In terms of interface and buttons the box itself is quite no-fuss; on the left are the LED lights, one of which notifies you if the machine’s in standby and the other two which are dedicated to some mysterious purpose not yet revealed – something to do with phones and messages. The buttons are all on the right, starting with the power one, then guide and then record. After that there’s your standard left and right arrows, and up and down arrows; all surrounding an ‘OK’ button. This ‘OK’ button will light up red to tell you if something is being recorded.

The remote is simple enough too – check here to get a snap of it. As you can see the power button’s at the top – although strangely the normal power button just turns the box off, you need to hit the ‘UPC’ button to turn it on.

Just a quick run through some of the less-obvious buttons. The DVD-R button (to the right of the ‘UPC’ button) will let you flick over to whatever you have connected to the Scart In jack in the DVR box (by the way it works with another Digital box,in this case a DTT one, and an Xbox so chances are it will work on most if not all devices).

As the issue with having a power-on and power-off button suggests, there’s something very inefficient about this remote. For example, Thomson/UPC seem to have avoided the ‘red button’ interactivity and given interactive features a separate button. The up, down, left and right arrows surrounding the ‘OK’ are only of use in the full-screen EPG, or for looking at stations without changing to them in the mini-EPG. Most remotes would use these as channel up/down and volume up/down, but in this case these functions are given separate buttons. There are also ‘page up’ and ‘page down’ buttons which only work in the full EPG – as they suggest they’re for jumping pages of channels at a time… Given this single feature it’s a mystery why Thomson/UPC didn’t make two of the colour buttons do this instead.

But while the remote probably could have had 5 or so buttons shaved off it it’s still usable. It only takes a few minutes to get used to, is reasonably comfortable and easy to get used to using without looking – which is all-important!

One final point on the remote – it actually seems to double up as the TV remote too (like the Sky remote would, but unlike the last NTL remote). This means that you won’t have to be carrying a second remote just to get the volume right or if you need to switch onto analogue for whatever reason. A welcome change.

The new EPG and menus

New box, new service, new company name, new EPG. The new DVR box comes with a completely refined EPG and menu system; here are some of the pros and cons:

Pros:

  • EPG now goes forward as much as 8 days, compared to 1 or 2 on the last NTL EPG.
  • When browsing through the full EPG or menus, the channel you were last watching stays on in the mini-box at the top right – in the past this would always change to City Channel, which was very frustrating.
  • Setting reminders and programming records are both very easy – it’s just a matter of scrolling onto the programme on the full or mini-EPG and either hitting the OK button to remind or the Record button to programme.
  • It’s a fair bit more visually appealing than the old eye-searing NTL menu system
  • Cons:

  • The menu system is quite sluggish – hitting ‘menu’ or ‘guide’ usually results in a ‘Please wait..’ screen for a second or two.
  • The DVR menu is a little out of the way – especially your saved programmes. You need to hit ‘menu’, then ‘digital video recorder’, then ‘my programmes’ to get to them – it would be far nicer to have them a button push away, especially as it’s the main feature of the new service.
  • Radio stations are slightly awkward to get to too – they’re not at the end of the channel menu like before and there isn’t a dedicated ‘TV/Radio’ switcher button on the remote, so you need to go into ‘menu’, then ‘digital radio’
  • Oddly enough, the subtitles were ‘on’ by default and the parental lock was at its lowest setting. This meant having to go into the machine’s settings to make a change to both, although this was hardly taxing.
  • The slight delay when moving on the menu pages is an annoyance but it’s not something that ruins the experience in any way. Putting the saved programmes and the radio stations out of the way makes them that little bit more inaccessible than they should be too, but again they’re not critical, just somewhat badly planned. With all the cons in mind this is still an unquestionable step forward from the last EPG, which was clunky and awkward, and one that can easily be improved through remote software updates.

    The DVR and live pause/rewind

    So we come to the all important feature – the DVR capabilities.

    As has been covered already, accessing a recorded programme is a little awkward but recording one is not. At the bottom of the remote and six buttons mimicking your standard video or dvd recorder functions – rewind, play, fast-forward, record, pause and stop.

    If you’re watching a show you want to record, just hit the record button and then OK (unless you want to adjust the end time, but it is always automatically set to stop when the current show is over). If you want to programme a recording, find the show in the EPG and press record.

    When something is recording, you can freely flick around elsewhere, or you can even start watching the programme while it’s still recording. You can also switch the box to standby (but obviously not off completely!) so you can leave it to do its thing in the background. Pretty standard stuff.

    To stop a recording on the channel you’re on just hit stop and then OK. If you’re on another channel you can use the full or mini EPG to locate the programme (it’ll have a red down arrow beside it) and a quick stop, then OK will stop it without you having to switch back to the channel it’s on.

    The pause/rewind functions are easy to use too – if you want to pause the programme you’re watching just press pause; press play to start again. If you want to rewind it just hit rewind. The one downside to this feature is that once you change the channel you lose whatever content has been saved in the background, even if you had paused it and were subsequently catching up with the rest of the programme a few minutes later.

    The DVR does lack a dual-record function like Sky+ but it should be noted that if you record two shows at once on Sky+ you have to stay watching at least one of those channels – technically you can record two programmes at once on the UPC box (by recording one and leaving the channel on the other, then rewinding back through it), although it’s far from ideal.

    There is currently no way to programme recordings for an entire series of a show at once at the moment either.

    Final thoughts

    The UPC’s entry to the DVR market is strong, if a little rough around the edges. It lacks some of the features of its main opponent but pretty much all of these can be fixed through firmware updates, which are now made easier by the presence of a HDD and modem. Overall the monthly €7.50 addition isn’t too bad, although it must be a sore point for loyal customers to be forced to pay for the installation of something for which blow-ins get for free. Also in the context of a one-year contract the UPC offer becomes slightly less cost-effective than it may seem at first. With a €50 install and the additional fee for a year you’ll be paying €140 over 12 months – within 18 months you’re expenses will have caught up with the Sky+ service and from there it will become more expensive; that is unless UPC (or Sky) change their pricing by then.

    But overall it’s a small monthly price increase for a very useful tool – Once some of the patches are ironed out and the likes of Interactive TV and Video on Demand are brought on-stream (the latter of which we should see early next year) the package will get a lot harder to resist.

    A general observation now; DVRs seem to have the same effect as an mp3 player does on someone used to Discmans. That is that people will probably use the new technology once and find it very hard to go back to a life without it. That said, DVRs do lack in some ways, just like mp3 players do – for example there’s no way to transfer something from one player to another with any ease; at least with an old-fashioned tape you could watch it anywhere there was a player or loan it to friends.

    An ideal fix for this would be if UPC sent out some firmware that allowed their box to network with a PC or take on an external storage unit where files could be transfered back and forward. The USB slot is there, but it’s unlikely the will of the carrier or the copyright holders is too.

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