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Hands on: Freeview EPG and Bush BVR501FV

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Freeview EPG.

Freeview EPG.

The first Freeview PVR makes promises it can't always keep.

It's taken several years, but Australia is finally seeing the first Personal Video Recorders which are compatible with the Freeview-endorsed Electronic Program Guide.

Until now Freeview has been little more than a branding exercise, with a not-so-hidden agenda to stamp out ad-skipping by insisting manufacturers disable the feature if they want the Freeview logo. You can still fast-forward the advertisements on a Freeview device, just as you could with a VCR, but you can't jump by 30-second increments as you can with many other PVRs.

I've been one of Freeview's harshest critics, labelling it as little more than a cynical marketing campaign to dress up what we already had as something new and exciting. But with the new EPG coming to Personal Video Recorders, Freeview actually has something to offer so I think it deserves another look.

The new Freeview EPG relies on the same program information included in the standard EPG that's embedded in the broadcast signal and is available to all digital TV devices. The difference is that the Freeview EPG uses CRID data to detect when a show actually starts and finishes rather than when it's supposed to start and finish. Some people believe the Freeview EPG actually relies on the standard Now and Next data to know when to stop recording, but Freeview's engineers assure me the CRID data is calling the shots.

If the schedule says your show has finished but it's still running, recorders using the Freeview EPG will check the CRID data and keep recording. In theory you should never miss the end of a show again. Freeview goes as far as making this promise on its website;  "If you have a Digital video recorder (DVR) the next generation EPG is so smart that you will never miss the beginning or end of recorded programs". That's a big promise.

Another shortcoming of the standard EPG is that each network only broadcasts its own program guide. So if you stay on one channel your PVR doesn't receive EPG updates for the other channels. The Freeview EPG solves this problem by including the program guide for every channel. 

Freeview ensures that only authorised devices can access its EPG by running it on the MHEG-5 software platform (not to be confused with MPEG-2/4). Unfortunately most early Freeview boxes aren't MHEG-5-compatible and thus can't be upgraded to support the new EPG. Check with the manufacturer or look for gear with the "Freeview EPG" logo rather than the "Freeview" logo.

Truth be told the free-to-air networks have lifted their game when it comes to EPG accuracy, after threats from the Australian Communications and Media Authority. The networks still let shows run late to discourage you from changing channels -- a practice known as "bridging". But they're now issuing up-to-the-minute EPG data which indicates if a show really runs from 7:03 to 7:34. It's a nice idea, but even this supposedly up-to-the-minute data can still be wrong sometimes and sometimes it seems deliberate.

So we come to Bush's BVR501FV, one of the first Personal Video Recorders to support Freeview's new EPG. It's been around for awhile, but Freeview upgraded the EPG recently so I thought it time to test it out. At $349 with twin HD tuners and a 500 GB hard drive it would seem like the perfect PVR but unfortunately my review unit was far from rock solid.

The BVR501FV actually crashed three times in my first few hours of testing, which is a cardinal sin when it comes to PVRs. It also takes around three seconds to change channels, with another few seconds to load up EPG data. On top of this the remote control can be unresponsive and the menus slow to update. At times I fought with it for more than a minute just to call up the onscreen guide. Considering the PVR is mission critical infrastructure in many households, this box would soon find itself on the nature strip.

After speaking to Bush's tech support I reformatted the PVR's hard drive but it didn't stop the box from crashing. It's not just my review unit at fault, as I've seen similar complaints in online forums such as Whirlpool. Bush's Technical Project Manager and Freeview engineers assure their BVR501FVs are rock solid, but clearly your mileage may vary. Bush offers a 1800 support number along with a 1902 "Gold Technical Support Line" which charges a brutal $2.95 per minute.

It's usually the all-singing, all-dancing PVRs which tend to be flaky, but this is just a basic recorder. There aren't even any streaming media player or online video features, as the Ethernet port is only for downloading firmware updates. My review unit was running Boot Software Code v12.34, Loader Software Code v56.78 and Applicative Software v0.45.

Putting aside the instability of my review unit, let's take a look at the Freeview EPG. Considering that Freeview had the chance to reinvent the EPG interface from scratch, it's disappointing that the onscreen guide looks like the bog standard guide. When you look at the impressive onscreen guide employed by new devices such as Telstra's T-Box, it's disappointing that Freeview couldn't do better than rehash the existing format. A cynic might think the only reason to use MHEG-5 is to lock out non-Freeview devices.

Looks aren't everything, but unfortunately the BVR501FV's ugliness isn't just skin deep. Press record while watching a program and the PVR only records for 30 minutes, regardless of how long the show has to go. Most recorders are smart enough to keep recording until the current program is scheduled to finish. Freeview isn't to blame for this, as such decisions are controlled by the box maker.

The PVR automatically keeps a buffer of what you're watching, so you can pause and rewind live TV, but when you press record it doesn't add what's in the buffer to the recording. One impressive trick is that it prevents you from accidentally changing the channel while you're time-shifting, a valuable feature that's rarely seen in PVRs.

Unfortunately the BVR501FV puts absolute faith in the Freeview EPG. There's no way to add pre- or post- padding to individual recordings, nor to set global padding which is automatically applied to every recording. I'm told this isn't a Freeview restriction, but once again is it the discretion of the PVR maker. Personally I think this is a mistake, as even one minute of post-padding could often save the day.

The Freeview EPG does pick up last minute schedule changes, yet it still manages to occasionally miss the final moments of shows including Nine's Top Gear. It also misses the opening moments of other shows. Each time it seems to miss less than a minute, but it's still a problem as many shows don't stick to the traditional format of long credits at the start and end. Some programs even run back to back, with no credits or advertisements in between, so you won't change the channel. If your recording is more than a second out, you can miss something important.

So how did the infallible Freeview EPG manage such an epic fail? It seems Nine is having ongoing technical difficulties with its CRID data and is "urgently working towards a solution". So we're back where we started; at the mercy of the networks. It's enough to make you scream. Like it or it, a generous dollop of post-padding still seems like the safest option when recording your favourite shows.

So despite Freeview's best efforts, it seems the networks can still spoil your big night in. Until the CRID data is completely reliable, Freeview PVRs won't always be able to keep their promises can still leave you in the lur

10 comments so far

  • "It's taken several years, but Australia is finally seeing the first Personal Video Recorders which are compatible with the Freeview-endorsed Electronic Program Guide."

    Then again, Windows media center has been capable of this for years, and has been running all the TVs in my house since, hmmm, 2005? Of course, the OTA EPG data hasn't been broadcast for that long, but still many years for that...

    Commenter
    sean
    Date and time
    March 23, 2012, 9:31AM
    • Please, PLEASE tell me how you got Windows Media Play to show EPG data I can't get it to work in Australia. Been trying for years.

      Commenter
      PC
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 23, 2012, 2:16PM
    • After my Topfield 5000 died of old age two years ago, I migrated to Windows Media Center 7 with four tuners and I haven't looked back. Use Xbox 360's as extenders and the flexibility is amazing.

      I only wish you could purchase fanless mce extenders cheaper than a second hand xbox360. Oh and DAB+ compatibility.

      Commenter
      SilverTail
      Location
      UpperNorthShore
      Date and time
      March 23, 2012, 2:21PM
    • I also use Windows 7 Media Center. I have two installed, both with dual tuners and networked.

      It is AMAZING! We couldn't live without it. No other system comes close. And the EPG has worked perfectly for the last two years. Never misses a program, even when the broadcast time changes.

      And Media Center also handles all my Music, Pictures, Movies, Internet Radio and more.

      Commenter
      Tony
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 23, 2012, 8:28PM
    • Likewise, I've been using Windows Media Center for nearly 8 years and absolutely love it. It sits nicely under the amplifier and big screen, does *all* media, and controlled with just one Microsoft remote (yep, tv + amp too).
      It's a wonder MS doesn't market their great technology more.
      Not sure what problem reader #PC has, because it works out-of-the box once you type in your post code.

      Commenter
      You
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      March 24, 2012, 6:07PM
    • Can anyone of you that have Vista Media Center with a working EPG come around to my place and show me how to get it working ill pay you $200.

      Commenter
      PC
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 26, 2012, 12:09AM
  • It's just pathetic. The whole "Freeview" thing simply isn't working. Right now something even as simple as a cross channel EPG doesn't exist! They wonder why people are download TV shows, well when you don't provide the basic information to record the shows you want to watch, how do you expect me to watch them? I just hope someone figures out how to access and get working the CRID data with HTPC PVRs, but given how bad that area of development is I wouldn't expect it any time soon (you'd think TV stations would be all over given this kind of information out to people, anything to get them watching their shows).

    Commenter
    Cameron
    Date and time
    March 23, 2012, 10:35AM
    • Why didn't you choose to wait to test a more robust LG or Panasonic PVR? Bush is in the same arena as Palsonic and TEAC.

      Commenter
      Mainstream
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 23, 2012, 10:48AM
      • Who cares? Far too late, years down the track. Anyone who could give two hoots about recording free-to-air programming will have made alternative arrangements ages ago.

        Commenter
        JohnH
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        March 23, 2012, 12:06PM
        • Is that PIP in the screenshot above or yet another place to be bombarded with ads? I understand ads pay for FTA, but there's a limit to how many ads are bearable.

          Commenter
          Harvey K-Tel
          Date and time
          March 23, 2012, 1:45PM

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