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.
So how did the infallible Freeview EPG manage such an epic fail?
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