Combination PVR and movie rentals
Limited PVR features; standard definition movies rentals
$299 (plans are also available)
Telstra has thrown down the gauntlet to the Apple TV with its new T-Box PVR and streaming media player.
Telstra’s T-Box is basically a high-definition digital video recorder which also lets you watch streaming online channels as well as hire movies and TV shows. To use the T-Box to its full potential you need to be a Bigpond customer – you can’t hire movies, watch online channels or access the Electronic Program Guide (EPG) unless you’re connected to Bigpond broadband. All of the data consumed is unmetered for Bigpond customers, except when watching YouTube clips.
Obviously the T-Box outguns the Apple TV in terms of features, as the Apple TV is a one-trick pony unless you hack it using the easy guide at wiki.awkwardtv.org (you can’t yet hack the new model). The T-Box is actually what many people hope the Apple TV might eventually become.
For example, the T-Box features two HD tuners, letting you watch all the new standard and high-def digital TV channels. The new $129 Apple TV only includes HDMI, whereas the $299 T-Box also offers composite and component video – which might be essential if you’re wanting to connect to an old television.
As a PVR the T-Box lets you pause and rewind live TV, as well as watch the start of a show while you’re still recording the end. The biggest disappointment is that it can’t record two shows at once.
It also lacks intelligent storage management, so it won’t automatically delete the oldest shows to make way for new ones while letting you specify what to keep. When the T-Box is full it just stops recording until you manually delete shows or transfer them to USB (they can’t be watched on other devices).
Unfortunately you can’t use USB storage to extend the T-Box’s recording capacity. Nor can you play music and video files from USB, or stream files from nearby computers or network storage devices. The T-Box also lacks ad-skipping and the ability to remotely schedule recordings via a browser or iPhone.
As a PVR the T-Box might impress someone who was upgrading from an old VCR, but it still falls far short of the TiVo and Foxtel iQ2 – which both offer intelligent storage management with advanced auto-delete options. Of course they also offer movie rental services, so you really need to think about the big picture before you commit to any PVR or streaming media box.
The T-Box also offers access to Bigpond online TV channels – news, music and general and dedicated sport channels.
At 3 Mbps these channels look almost as good as SD free-to-air channels and the T-Box treats them like other TV channels (except you can’t timeshift or record them). They help the T-Box feel like a poor man’s Foxtel, but footy fans shouldn’t think they’ve stumbled onto a cheap pay-TV alternative, as AFL and NRL games aren’t shown live.
To be honest free-to-air is starting to look like pay TV anyway, with all its new channels.
Finally we come to renting movies and TV shows, where the T-Box competes head to head with the Apple TV. When you first set up the T-Box, you’re given the option to create a Bigpond Movies account and link a credit card. You can also set a PIN to be used when hiring movies and restricting access to content according to rating.
The T-Box lets you hire SD movies for $5.99, with old movies for $2.99 or $3.99 and TV shows for $1.99 (all 48-hour rentals). Expect HD movies by the end of the year for $6.99.
On the Apple TV, SD rentals start at $3.99 and HD at $4.99, with first-run movies priced at $5.99 and $6.99 respectively. You have 30 days to start watching and, once you begin, you can watch as many times as you want in 48 hours.
Unlike the Apple TV, the T-Box has no option to buy movies or transfer them to portable devices. Of course with the new Apple TVs you’ve lost onboard storage, so you’ve got the extra hassle of requiring a computer to watch purchased content.
The Bigpond Movies interface looks slick, but it’s cumbersome. Movies are divided into around 15 categories, but once you start browsing you’re forced to scroll through one movie at a time. It’s a far cry from the Apple TV’s ability to display 21 movies at once and flick through them seven at a time.
To make matters worse, the T-Box interface tries to auto-play a trailer for each movie as you scroll through. It’s a nice idea, but is quite annoying because it regularly causes the menus to freeze up. Sitting around with friends, trying to choose a movie to watch, would be far more painful and time-consuming on the T-Box than on the Apple TV.
Searching for movies is also very cumbersome on the T-Box. There’s no onscreen QWERTY keyboard, so you’re forced to use the remote control’s number pad to enter search terms SMS-style. The search process is both awkward and flaky.
Enter ‘sher’ and it tells you it’s found three movies, while also showing movies starring five actors – only three of whom have ‘sher’ in their name. Click on the list of three movies and you won’t find Sherlock Holmes, even though it’s featured in the New Release category. Of the three movies that are listed, none have ‘sher’ in the title.
Search for ‘jud’ and Jude Law is your second result – click on his name and you can flick through to find Sherlock Holmes.
Things are much easier using the Apple TV, which searches for both titles and actors as you enter a search term.
At launch the T-Box offered a choice of 1300 movies but only a few dozen TV shows. The movie range should expand to around 2000 by the end of the year. The Apple TV still offers a wider range of movies, even before you create a US iTunes Store account to tap into their offerings.
Like the Apple TV and most other movie rental boxes, the T-Box lets you start watching a movie while it’s still downloading. On our 4 Mbps Bigpond DSL connection, it was less than a five-minute wait. At this point we could play, pause and rewind.
The T-Box’s picture quality is excellent, with only the slightest trace of pixelation and loss of detail in the shadows. It’s certainly on par with the Apple TV and well ahead of the PlayStation 3.
Australian Macworld’s buying advice
Once you wade through the T-Box’s cumbersome movie rental interface, it does offer a viable alternative to the Apple TV for Bigpond customers. Even so, buying a T-Box locks you into the Bigpond ecosystem – a trick admittedly torn straight from the Apple playbook. If you live a Telstra-centric lifestyle then the T-Box is a good fit as a streaming media box (although still a disappointing PVR). If you live an iTunes-centric lifestyle, perhaps it’s time to consider switching to an ISP which offers unmetered access to the iTunes store.
This review originally appeared in the November issue of Australian Macworld magazine.