Monday, March 13, 2006

StarHub - Smart TV Digital Set Top Box

StarHub is rolling out a trial of its new set top box and directory service which they are calling Smart TV. I managed to get one of the first sets which was installed today.

First impressions. The blurb says that it is a DVR, (recording to a hard disk) and somehow I just assumed that it would also have a DVD burner. It doesn't. The unit is advertised as being able to record 60 hours of TV, so I am guessing that means a 160gb hard disk. The manufacturer is Thompson, which means, like most everything else, made in China.

On power up, there was a perceptible whine from the hard disk getting up to speed, but then it was quiet. There was about 30 seconds of firmware loading, then a normal picture appeared. The overall look and feel is pretty cheap, with somewhat dated styling and cheesy buttons.

The remote is much larger than the one with the old digital box, and uses a clamshell design. The keys are similar to the old remote, with the addition of the record and play functions.

The size increase comes from the addition of a QWERTY keyboard which is inside the clamshell. The installer said this was not operational now, but would allow the use of iMail in the future. I thought the idea of doing email on a chicklet keyboard in front of a TV, was one of those "I could, but why would I" ideas that had been buried. Apparently StarHub wants to spend money learning the lesson again. In the meantime, what had been a really nice and comfortable to use remote is now an ungainly monster.

One of the really irritating failings of the current digital box is the lack of decent outputs. The new set fixes this with composite video and optical audio outputs. This should be a cause for celebration, except for the fact that the signal broadcast by StarHub is so highly compressed that is close to unwatchable on normal TV's. When displayed on a 43" plasma, it is a PhD in the art of recognizing digital artifacts.

The installer went through his spiel somewhat nervously, and I discovered I was only his second installation. He gave a reasonable intro to the features, but got lost trying to delete a recording. That was just a reminder that the user interface is the most important aspect of devices like this. Pioneer has done a wonderful job of creating an intuitive and easy to use UI for their range of DVR's.

Pretty much all the features have to be accessed through the menu key, which means everything is 4 or more keystrokes away. Since the whole point of an intelligent set top box is to have directory functions and recording, it seems odd that some of the vast real estate on the remote was not dedicated to keys allowing direct access to those functions.

Recording can be done by time or program. The same on screen program guide that is currently offered for digital subscribers is used to select the material to be recorded, which means lots of scrolling and clicking. Although the box displays a clock in 24 hour time, the schedules and recording are all in AM/PM. This seems to be a carry over from the old digital box, and is an unnecessary annoyance. I don't know of any other consumer electronic device that does not allow the user to set his preference.

The ability to have chase play is included, which is a really nice to have feature. You can have a program start recording, but then start watching from the beginning while it is still recording. A great feature for time shifting one's life.

As I completed the paper work, the installer was calling back to base to ask about the clock setting. I pressed the mute key but nothing happened. After some discussion, it was agreed that this was a fault, and they would get back to me.

UPDATE: The installer called back to say that he had incorrectly attached the AV cables to the VCR out instead of the TV OUT, which is why the mute wasn't working. The VCR output is not muted so that recordings are not affected.

The box costs S$399 during the early release program, plus an ongoing monthly fee of S$5 presumably for the directory service. I will hold off deciding if it is worth it until I have had more time to use it.

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