Freeview TV has expanded recently into high-definition broadcasts. But there are several important catches about receiving free-to-air terrestrial HD programmes. First, you need to live in the right place. Currently, HD broadcasts are only being aired in certain areas, starting December last year with Crystal Palace to cover much of London, and Winter Hill for Manchester. The Freeview website currently shows ten transmitters broadcasting around the country.
Only three stations are being broadcast in high definition: BBC HD, ITV 1 HD, and Channel 4 HD, with BBC 1 HD and possibily one other within the next two years. Yet the biggest gotcha is that you’ll need a wholly new tuner to pick up these three stations. Where existing Freeview TV uses the MPEG-2 video codec, HD in the UK uses a wholly new standard called DVB-T2, utilising MPEG-4 video compression.
The first Freeview HD tuner in the UK was the Humax HD-FOX T2 set-top box. It’s a compact unit which serves as a regular Freeview digital terrestrial tuner, but with the extra capability to tune into the new-style DVB-T2 transmissions. There’s no internal hard drive, so it won’t serve as a self-contained PVR solution.
The Humax HD-FOX T2 sits between your aerial and televison like any other set-top box, with the choice of two SCART, composite video and HDMI connectors to connect up to your TV. Audio outputs are provided through SCART and on stereo phono sockets. Digital audio is available through the HDMI link or a separate Toslink optical output, the latter ideal to connect to an AV receiver or hi-fi digital-to-analogue converter (DAC).
Setup of the Humax HD-FOX T2 was easy, with a clear and highly legible graphical interface which closely copies the friendly look-and-feel of Apple’s Front Row media-centre app. Once the Humax HD-FOX T2 has scanned for available stations, we found a mix of 75 standard-definition TV channels and digital radio; plus the three HD stations, on channel numbers 50, 51 and 52.
To cruise around the EPG was a doddle, with an active thumbnail of the currently tuned station showing in the programme table’s top left corner. Unlike some set-top boxes, switching between stations on the Humax HD-FOX T2 is quite fast, if not truly instant. A large remote handset allows easy control of all the unit's functions.
Picture quality on most SD channels was good, limited more by the low bitrate of many UK stations which can fall below 1.5Mb/s for their MPEG-2 transmissions. Premium channels such as BBC 1 use a more generous bitrate of around 4Mb/s which preserves picture quality better.
Viewing the HD channels on the Humax HD-FOX T2 meanwhile showed the benefits of a 1920x1080i-resolution broadcast, with live TV looking very crisp on a Samsung 32in LCD TV. As well as the obvious increase in clarity, the improved definition also lends a better sense of depth to the video, bringing TV closer to a look into reality.
Sound quality from the HD broadcasts was not so clearly better though. We tried the HDMI audio output directly into the Samsung TV, but the limited quality of the TV's built-in speakers didn’t tell us much.
Using the Humax HD-FOX T2’s Toslink digital output connected to an outboard DAC and stereo hi-fi system was not a complete upgrade though. We thought the DVB-T2 audio (courtesy of a Dolby Digital stereo track at a miserly 128kb/s) was a little grainy and hard sounding.
Other features of the Humax HD-FOX T2 include an ethernet port, to allow it to stream audio and video media from other devices on your home network.
We’re looking forward to seeing tuner cards and USB adaptors to turn a media centre PC into a Freeview HD-viewing platform; but until then the Humax serves as a good entry point as a standalone set top box with networking potential.