Telstra's new T-Box is a combination Personal Video Recorder and streaming media box which looks rather impressive, until you scratch the surface.
What is the T-Box?
In a nutshell, the T-Box is a twin-HD tuner PVR with an HDMI port for connecting to a widescreen panel, along with legacy connectors for old televisions. The T-Box also offers access to movies and TV rentals along with Bigpond's online TV channels - news, music and several sports channels including AFL, NRL, motor racing and horse racing. Unfortunately the footy channels don't screen live games. Be warned, the online features and Electronic Program Guide only work if you're using Bigpond as your ISP.
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. It features two high-def TV tuners, but can only record one channel at a time. While it's recording you can watch another channel (with the ability to timeshift), a previous recording, a downloaded movie or a Bigpond TV online channel.
Like competing streaming boxes such as the Apple TV and TiVo, the T-Box lets you start watching a rented movie while it's still downloading. The picture quality is very impressive, on par with the Apple TV. The streamed Bigpond channels also look great, although you might need to throttle them from 3Mbps to 1Mbps if you're on a slow broadband link. Even on a 4Mbps Bigpond DSL connection, the online TV channels choke if you're downloading a movie in the background. We also experienced audio-sync issues with TV recordings while recording, timeshifting and downloading at the same time.
The T-Box's strength is user-friendliness and its onscreen EPG is the best we've seen on any Australian PVR. It offers easy access to the Series Record feature, which automatically records your favourite shows each week and checks the TV schedule for changes (but can't detect when shows are running late).
This is where the T-Box loses its shine. It only holds 100 hours of SD recordings or 30 hours of HD, with a capacity meter tucked away in the menus. The T-Box pops up a warning when it hits 90 percent capacity, which means you've got room for roughly another three hours of HD content. If it hits 100 percent, it just stops recording until you delete things.
Admittedly this is how many PVRs work, but the TiVo , Foxtel iQ2 and Windows Media Centre are smarter. They include an auto-delete feature with the ability to nominate which shows shouldn't be deleted. The TiVo and MCE even let you nominate how many episodes of a Series Record to retain, while the TiVo also lets you prioritise Series Recordings in the event of a clash.
The T-Box does let you manually transfer recordings to a USB device, although these transferred recordings can only be played on the T-Box. You can't expand the actual recording capacity using external storage, as you can with a TiVo and many other PVRs.
As a streaming media player the T-Box is an impressive alternative to the Apple TV, albeit with a smaller range of titles. Yet as a PVR the T-Box falls far short of a TiVo or Foxtel iQ2. All three are targeted at the "Mums n' Dads" market, yet the T-Box is far more likely to leave family members disappointed - it can't record two shows at once, lacks advanced Series Record options, doesn't let you expand recording capacity using external storage and seems to choke if you do too much at once.