Switching to Freesat

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to extricate myself from the clutches of Rupert Murdoch and ditch Sky. One of the reasons for this was I want to move to having HD input. My long term strategy is to get a bigger TV but I can’t do it all at once, and it makes sense to upgrade the source first and the display later.

So, my previous set up was: Standard Sky, via old-style UK TiVo (Series 1) box, into a 28″ Phillips LCD TV. The Sky is the most basic package. Even with this I don’t really get the time to watch much TV. So my goal is less but better quality TV.

The first part of my strategy was achieved by buying a PS3. This means I have Blu-Ray option for HD movies. I have now executed part two of the strategy and taken delivery of a Humax Foxsat HDR (500GB model, £280).

Set Up

This was incredibly easy. I already had a satellite dish for my previous Sky, and I had two inputs (the previous owners of my house had Sky multiroom). After plugging in the two satellite feeds and powering up, it was a few simple setup screens for language preference, postcode etc, and then a short scan for channels and that was it.

Picture Quality

To me it looks pretty good. Even the standard def channels seem clear and I realise now that my prevous picture was likely being degraded by having SD going through the TiVo (some compression). The HD channels (currently BBC1 HD, BBC HD, ITV1 HD, and from April Ch4 HD) look very nice, especially compared to what I was used to. Of course with my relatively small TV I don’t think I am getting the full benefit of the HD, but as I explained earlier this is a future proofing strategy and hopefully I will eventually upgrade to a larger TV.

User Interface/Programme Guide

The Freesat system has a 7-day programme guide. The UI is neat and tidy and professional looking. I don’t know if it is specific to the Humax box or is standard for Freesat in general. I suspect the former. It is pretty easy to change channels, either direct type channel number, use up/down or via guide. The guide is a little cramped. You have a list of channels down the left colums, and programmes on right. There is only enough room for about 2 hours worth horizontally so it is a little clunky to scan forwards in time to see what is on later in the evening. You can see about 7 channels at once vertically. The extra space at the top is used to display programme info. Overall roughly half the screen real estate is used to display actual guide data. It looks neat and clear, but you have to scroll a lot.

There is an alternate view called “List” that instead lets you focus on one channel at a time. It lists schedule for one channel vertically and you can see 7 programmes at a time which is a useful amount. You can scroll up and down one programme at a time, a page at a time, or one full day at at time. These options mean you can quite quickly see what you are looking for.

The “Schedule” screen lists the programmes you have lined up to record. Seven programmes are listed vertically and you can page up/down with the channel up/down buttons.

Finally a “Search” page is one of the ways to find programmes to record. This is reasonably functional, but is a long long way behind Tivo search. You can do a basic keyword/title search which will probably find what you are looking for. Once found you can click and choose to record individual instances of a programmes, or a whole series. The concept of setting up a season pass (as on Tivo) is not quite the same and you can easily list and edit all your season passes. Also you cannot set up a search for programmes that are not yet in the guide and then relax in the knowledge that they will be picked up later and recorded. This, combined with similar keyword/title/actor Wishlists was a major advantage of Tivo, and one I greatly miss.

On Tivo for example you could set up a wish list for “cricket” and all programmes that had that in the title or description would automatically be recorded as and when they came up. Or one for “Hopkins” (the actor) or “french” if you were interested in learning the language (although you get a lot of French language films and programmes with French settings or actors as well…) With Humax Freesat your searches and recording options are a bit more limited.

Your store of recorded programmes is in a separate menu that also can show other files (recorded radio programmes are separately listed – quite useful, and music and photos which you can upload from USB are also available). The recorded programmes can be listed in alphabetical order by date, and the box automatically groups episodes from the same programme in separate folders, again a useful feature.

One final point about the guide. When you call it up, it refreshes with latest data. This is good but slow and it means the currently playing programme is silenced for up to a minute. There is also a slight delay before you can start navigating the guide which can be annoying. These “bugs” are rumoured to be on the list to be fixed in the next software release.


Apart from searching through the programme guide and picking future programmes to record, you can also record “instantly” while watching a programme by pressing the record button. The big drawback (and really unforgivable flaw in my opinion) is that even if the live buffer contains the start of the current programme, when you press record you can only capture from that moment onwards. What is the point of the buffer? I hear that this may be fixed in a future software release, but this really is a fundemental flaw. Another annoying thing is that the live buffer (which is otherwise a very useful 2 hours) automatically resets not only when you change channel (understandable) but also whenever you view a previously recorded programme, or even view the guide. A bit annoying to say the least.


Playback is pretty standard for PVRs. Pressing play displays a time bar across the bottom. You can fast forward and back at variable speeds (2x – 64x) with multiple presses of the FF/RWD buttons. The jump back and forward buttons are also definable to an extent (back: 7, 15, 30s; forward: 30, 60, 120, 240s) This gives a good way of skipping easily through ad breaks, and of replaying incidents (e.g. goals?) you might just miss. If you need to navigate more quickly through a long programme the left/right cursor keys drag a cursor through the timeline very quickly. Also there is a bookmark function. You can set multiple bookmarks throughout a recorded programme and then jump through them with left/right keys. Each bookmark gets a image-captured thumbnail to remind you of what it is. Overall the navigation features are very good.

Other Features

  • Channels can be locked via a PIN, or restricted to certain times (using rating data so that 15 certificate programmes for example will only show after 8pm)
  • Subtitles and audio description are displayed where available.
  • Sound is reproduced with Dolby Digital where available.
  • You can set an on-off time for the machine.
  • Power saving mode. Auto-switch off after period of inactivity (does not affect recordings).
  • IP programming: If you connect to you broadband via ethernet (e.g. using a Homeplug network) you can watch BBC iPlayer and ITV Player as channels on the programme guide. I haven’t set this up so can’t comment on this implementation. I use my PS3 to watch iPlayer/4OD/ITV player.


This is a very good machine, though not perfect. It does most of the core features required of a PVR and does them well. It is marred by a couple of software design flaws (the handling of the live buffer is poor, and the responsiveness of the guide is a slow). There are idiosyncracies of the UI but only the most picky people would find them unacceptable. In most cases it is just a matter of becoming used to how to achieve a task with this particular machine. The search/season pass functionality is adequate, but not a patch on how TiVo did it. However navigation and playback options are particularly good.

500GB is plenty for SD recording, however if you record and store a lot of HD content you might find it a little tight. There is a new 1TB model coming out for the horders amongst you.

For many people the overall choice of whether to go with Freesat will be determined by which channels they particularly want to watch. (I have made a separate post in more detail about the channels). There is no doubt that the range of channels on Freesat is quite limited. However rememebr this is not a subscription service. If like me you find that 80% of your viewing is BBC and the rest is Ch4/more4/Film4 then this is a good deal. I used to have the basic Sky package (Variety & Knowledge pack) so I lose a few channels that I liked particularly FX (The Walking Dead, True Blood), SyFy and the Discovery channels (Mythbusters and a few interesting shows from time to time) and occasionally Dave (where the new series of Red Dwarf will eventually come). Also the upcoming new Sky Atlantic channel looks interesting. [FULL CHANNEL LIST]

However I have come to realise that I couldn’t even keep up with this degree of choice and I think I can live with the smaller range. The money I will save will let me buy boxed sets of those series I really wish to see if they don’t come to BBC/Ch4 eventually.

(Video courtesy of Decipher’s YouTube channel)

Overall: 4/5 (will get an extra 0.5pt if they fix the flaws with a software update)


One Response to “Switching to Freesat”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by By Tor, By Tor. By Tor said: @MarkDEvans My blog post about switching to Freesat http://bit.ly/eLhviY […]

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