AZBox ULTRA HD

AZBox has fused an HD sat PVR with a broadband-enhanced media server with reasonable, if imperfect, results

To truly take centre stage as the home’s AV hub, a receiver must do more than just receive and record broadcast channels. Playback of AV files on removable storage is a must, access to media on the home network is highly desirable, and the ability to scour the internet as well is cream on the cake.

The AZBox UltraHD does all this – and it has a programmable card reader and is Linux-based too, so there’s scope for third-party plug-ins. A proprietary Linux system is used, but you can replace the firmware with a downloadable unoffi cial Enigma2 image to open up Dreambox plug-in compatibility. For £250, it’s not cheap but the Ultra HD can cause a bit of a stir.

Build and connectivity

Considering its range of functionality, the Ultra HD is small – partly because the power supply is in a small, separate box. Understated and robust, the Ultra HD has only silver cursor keys and a power button to break up the uniform front panel. A fold-down flap on the left conceals the front-panel USB socket and a smart card slot in the left side of the machine.

There’s no common interface and no front panel display; only power and network LEDs illuminate a darkened room. On the top of the receiver is a hatch for access to the SATA disc drive bay. No drive is supplied as standard, which makes the £250 price for this receiver a bit steep – but it’s easy to fi t storage in here as an internal drive, or an external unit connected to the USB sockets.

The Ultra HD’s remote control handset is also relatively small and doesn’t lack buttons. It sports dedicated pads you don’t see elsewhere – a Home button to return to the main menu and a Check button to select an item in the computer-like tick-box menus.

Around the back the Ultra HD shows its HD capabilities with no Scart sockets to be seen but both HDMI and component video TV outputs, and composite video, S-video, and analogue audio for SD recording. An optical S/PDIF socket looks after digital audio output. A second USB socket provides for more permanent connections to external storage and the all-important Ethernet socket connects the Ultra HD to your network and the world beyond.

Perhaps because it has ready access to alternative sources of media, the Ultra HD boasts one satellite tuner only, with one LNB socket (and loopthrough). This will drive DiSEqC 1.1 switches and DiSEqC 1.2/USALS motors, and there’s a traditional 0/12V switching output too (often used for C-band selection) so you won’t be restricted in the satellites the box can reach.

Setup

Setting up the S1500C is easy enough – once you have switched on the HDMI output so you can see the reception and menus on an HDMI TV (it’s absurd this isn’t the default) and have found the Antenna Setup and Satellite Scan menus hiding in the TV Channel section of the main menu. Each LNB connected is defi ned, selecting the DiSEqC port, 0/12V, LNB local oscillator, power, and 22kHz tone, with pop-up menus for a motorised antenna.

Several satellite search modes are provided. The scope of the normal database scan can be altered with a tick-box menu of TV, radio, FTA and scrambled channels, and the database edited in a separate menu (the provision to download channel lists from the internet is not yet implemented). It’s pretty fast, scanning Astra 19.2°E in under four minutes.

The Ultra HD can also scan an individual transponder from the database and in ‘Advanced Scan’ mode a single transponder enabling all the parameters (including PIDs and modulation) to be altered. The Ultra HD’s blind search is eff ective and fast too. The range of frequencies searched can be set, as can the polarisation covered, the symbol rate lower limit, and the frequency increment size. The blind search fi rst looks for active transponders, adds them to the database, and then scans them.

Setting up the Ultra HD’s network connection is also simple. Provided it’s confi gured for DHCP, the process is automatic once initiated.

Basic use

The Ultra HD uses a carousel menu with 11 sections displayed with the Home key and run across the bottom of the screen. Selecting an icon switches to that function or brings up the full-screen menu, as appropriate. It looks pretty but is less convenient than a simple list.

Watching TV (or listening to radio, if toggled from the handset) is just one main menu item. The channel list is displayed in two columns with icons to show encrypted channels, and tuning details and now-and-next information for the highlighted channel. The channel list can be limited by satellite (or IPTV), genre, provider, country, encryption (strangely, including HD) or favourite channels, and within each list the channels can be sorted by name or broadcast frequency. Channels can be locked, skipped or deleted from the list – but only moved in the favourites lists.

Tuning details, now-and-next info, and the programme synopsis are also displayed in an information banner on channel change or pressing the Info key. The EPG is displayed with the Guide button or from the additional ‘Detail Menu’ and shows a grid of programmes from seven channels over a couple of hours, or the shows on the selected channel (this display can also be accessed from the channel list).

The EPG can be searched for a text string and you can reserve a programme for display or recording.

PVR and multimedia

With an internal drive or USB memory connected, programmes can be recorded and played back, with recordings started manually from the remote control or automatically from the event timer (itself set manually or from the EPG). Playback provides Pause and fast-forward/ rewind at up to 32x normal speed. But there’s no way to jump to a specifi c point in the recording and – most bizarrely – the receiver would not fast-forward or rewind at all with any recording from BBC HD or BBC One HD!

Crucially, you cannot start to watch a recording until it is finished – one of the major features of a PVR system. Once timeshifting is initialised, live broadcasts can be paused, and you can fast-forward or rewind through a paused programme, but you can’t convert a paused programme into a recording.

The Ultra HD may have only one tuner but while one channel is being recorded you can watch another channel on the same transponder (the channel list shows which channels are available). But other AV sources are not available; you can’t watch any an IPTV stream, browse the internet, or listen to music while recording.

The Ultra HD is a lot more competent with media produced elsewhere, and it can act as a media player for photos, MP3 music and a whole host of video formats (including the likes of MPEG-1/2/4, MPEG-2 Transport Stream, AVI, WMV, ISO, ASF, MKV, H.264, and XviD, up to 1080p) from both the connected storage and via the network. Rather than stream media to and from a networked PC, the Ultra HD accesses workgroup shared folders on other networked PCs or network-attached storage. Combined with the built-in FTP client and server, it becomes simple to truly integrate the Ultra HD into a home-networked AV system. For further afi eld, the menu carousel includes icons to browse the internet (using the remote control), access and play back YouTube clips (but not iPlayer or Sky Player), and display RSS newsfeeds.

Performance

The Ultra HD produces excellent pictures and sound from live and recorded satellite broadcasts, internet video and stored AV fi les. Upscaled to 1080p, the pictures are detailed, with lively colours and excellent dynamic range (although, from the composite video output, even the onscreen graphics struggle to be seen clearly).

But in operational terms, performance is less impressive. The Ultra HD often takes too long to respond to remote control commands and all web page access was horrendously slow despite the reasonable broadband connection. The receiver also often froze during the test, suggesting that another update of the software (easily downloaded via the internet) is in order. Geoff Bains

Verdict

For its fairly hefty price, the Ultra HD is a little lacking in advanced PVR functionality and it can be frustrating to operate at times. But these gripes can be addressed with new fi rmware, and the promise of this machine is unmistakable. The pictures and sound that it produces are second to none, the (largely untapped) potential for third-party software plug-ins is huge, and the ease with which it binds together your TV, satellite dish, networked computers, and the internet is hypnotic – and a clear sign of the shape of TV reception to come.

Ratings
PLUS
■ Very versatile
■ Good picture/ sound performance and excellent networkability
MINUS
■ Operationally frustrating
■ Very poor PVR
Build ★★★★★★★★
Setup ★★★★★★★★★
Searching ★★★★★★★★
Navigation ★★★★★★★★
Performance ★★★★★★★★
Features ★★★★★★★★★
Value ★★★★★★★★

83%


Features
No LNB inputs: 1
LNB loopthrough: Yes
DiSEqC: 1.0/1.1/1.2/USALS
No. channels: 15,000
Selectable FEC: Yes
Symbol rate range: 1000-45000
Blind search: Yes
Linux: Yes
CAM: Embedded card reader
Common interface: No
Teletext: DVB decoded
EPG support: DVB now-and-next,
7-day
Timer: Unlimited time, unlimited
events
Hard drive: Via USB, internal SATA
UHF modulator tuning: N/A
Software upgrade: Internet, USB
Data ports: USB, Ethernet
AV outputs:
SD out: Composite video
HD out: HDMI (to 1080p), YPbPr
Audio out: Optical S/PDIF, stereo
analogue audio