With TiVo finally making an appearance on Australian shores in 2008, there has been a renewed interest in PVR technology. The US TiVo can do both cable and free-to-air (FTA), but the model we'll see next year will be a free-to-air box only. We're at a disadvantage compared to the US in that there is currently no easy way to record digital free-to-air and cable on the same box, but there are dedicated options that attempt to make the best of a bad situation -- such as Foxtel's iQ.
But why wait 12 months for TiVo when devices like Beyonwiz's DP-S1 are available now. While it won't record cable -- not many set top boxes can -- it will record and play two different digital stations at once. Unlike some other PVR's, such as the Topfield TF7000HDPVRt, the Beyonwiz also packs in a DVD player and networkable media playback. But could it be too good to be true?
It may seem like a PC, but a peak inside confirms the DP-S1 is a true PVR.
We were initially suspicious that the Beyonwiz DP-S1 was a Windows Media Center masquerading as a set top box. And though the Beyonwiz does use some PC components -- notably a Realtek audio adaptor -- the DP-S1 is a true PVR.
The styling of the box is fairly swish, with a curving front and replaceable silver side-panels. On the front of the box, the transport buttons are touch-sensitive and light up in blue -- though they need to be tapped a few times till they respond.
This is a very connected device, and comes with the expected component and HDMI connections, as well as an 802.11g wireless adaptor and a LAN port.
The bundled remote is a little busy for our tastes, and some of the buttons are quite small and mystifyingly marked. It sometimes takes a bit of button mashing to get the device to do what you want, as we'll see.
The Beyonwiz is first and foremost a PVR, so it can do all the things you expect such as pausing live TV, recording two shows at once, and a navigable IceTV EPG. The box has a decent 200GB hard drive, and for convenience will store two hours of live TV at a time.
We criticised the Topfield TF7000HDPVRt for its lack of networking support but this is one of the Beyonwiz's main features. Theoretically you are able to stream content from any UPnP device -- such as a NAS drive -- or shared PC folder on your TV. But as you'll see, this proved problematic to set up.
Unlike some other networkable PVRs, the Beyonwiz DP-S1 doesn't yet support programming via the net. IceTV Remote is compatible with Windows Media Center and some Topfield models, and the IceTV Web site says that this functionality will be added in a future firmware update, but that "Beyonwiz has not released a timeframe for when this will be available".
So yes, the firmware is upgradeable, and helpfully the player flashes the firmware number on the display during start-up -- but initially we thought the date was just wrong when it said "1.02.019".
As for DVD support, the player will upscale (though any upscaling applies to the whole unit and not just DVD replay), and although the player is region-locked you can easily unlock it. Type in "DVDFREE (3833733)" while in Setup mode to play your overseas titles. Unfortunately, there is no DVD burner onboard, but you can backup your DP-S1 to PC -- though the manual doesn't explain how to do this.
As a DVD player, the DP-S1 actually works quite well. Watching the Cate Blanchett epic Babel, there were no interlacing problems and the beautiful cinematography was faithfully conveyed. One of the quirks inherent in the player, though, is that to play a DVD you need to first hit the "File Play" button -- marked as a folder with a Play icon inside it. The DVD won't yet autoplay, or even activate if you press play on the front of the Beyonwiz.
The VFD display has a HDD meter so you always know how much space is left.
One of the many quirks of this device is that when playing a DVD or recorded show, and you want to watch TV, you can't simply press the Live (TV) button, you just get an annoying and unhelpful red cross on the screen. You need to press Stop first and then press Live, and in fact no other buttons -- Setup etc -- will work until you press Stop. However, you can go from paused Live content directly back to the File Menu without a problem. This is quite inconsistent and could be confusing. Another major issue with this device is that you can't currently record and play DVDs at the same time -- you get an error message saying that the current recording will be stopped.
Though the DP-S1 was relatively successful as a DVD player it wasn't such a hit with CDs. This could have something to do with the less-than-stellar Realtek sound adaptor. There were clicks and pops when playing a CD -- similar to what you find on an underpowered PC. As a result, this isn't the best device to listen to music on. However, we had no such problems when watching TV.
Finally, upon switching to HD TV, apart from the occasional glitch on Channel 10 (possibly weather related), the free-to-air pictures were excellent. Images were well saturated via the HDMI connection, and movement was tracked flawlessly. One feature we liked was the "Favourite Channels" feature which lets you assign only the channels you watch, and then press the "Ch" button to cycle through them.
But what is a PVR without an EPG? Downloading the IceTV guide for the DP-S1 was quite easy, even if the Setup menu isn't easy to navigate. This is because it goes across or down and it's not always obvious which direction you should be navigating. The only perplexing thing was the "download successful" message which read: "Success on getting the epg data. Try to process the epg data". What does this mean? Are we, as a user meant to try interpreting it? We think it means that the player is processing it.
Even with the EPG downloaded, there were still gaps in the program guide -- especially on the HD channels. But if you have the choice of either, why would you watch SD at all?
Recording is OK, but we found some functions to be counterintuitive. For example, instead of pressing stop or pause to halt a recording you need to press record again to bring up an option menu. To help manage your recordings, a small HDD meter on the front of the Beyonwiz informs you how much space is left.
So, the third part in this puzzle is network media playback, and we're sorry to say that until the device gets patched, it's currently terrible. We suspect first time users and even some seasoned vets will simply throw up their hands and dispense with these capabilities.
We tried to hook the DP-S1 to our network with every conceivable method -- 802.11g WEP/WPA and even zero security, and a direct LAN connection. With the latter we would get a "Wireless LAN link down" message -- though the player could find the router. In some cases the Beyonwiz could see our UPnP enabled drive on the network and all of the shared drives on it, but once we clicked on each an error message would pop up with "Network Server Not Found" and the drive icon would disappear.
The Beyonwiz features a card reader and USB connectivity.
Using the media reader and USB host was more successful. Loading a memory card with photos on generates an auto-slideshow, though nothing as fancy as Apple TV. You can change the interval that each photo displays for and pause each photo if you wish.
The problem with this product, and it's something which will be familiar to IT enthusiasts, is that this product doesn't feel like it's finished. The Web site offers firmware to upgrade the unit, which should be available by the time you read this, but there's been no word as to the improvements it will make.
We see prototypes of various products coming through the office on a regular basis, and treat them as such. The essential difference is that the Beyonwiz is already on sale -- which means it's not a prototype -- and so any buyers must wait till the numerous bugs are fixed.
We like the Beyonwiz a lot, and it's a pioneering product in many ways. Yet, even though it's not a computer it's stuck in a PC mindset of upgrades and bug fixes. Compare this to devices by the big guns like Pioneer and Panasonic -- there's no "public beta". The devices in most cases just work. Of course, this is Beyonwiz's first Australian product, but the market they're choosing to compete in has an expectation of how CE devices will operate. We're confident that the product will eventually live up to its lofty aspirations, but if upgrading your PVR seems a bit alien to you we'd advise waiting a bit longer before investing in one. Just until the kinks are worked out.
If you want to get the latest firmware, you can go to the Beyonwiz Web site. The site has only been running for a month, and new functionality is added all the time, but at the moment the content is still rather rudimentary. Helpfully, there are forums where you can discuss any issues.
Apple TV will, no doubt, be tied to proprietary formats for the foreseeable future, and this hampers its user-friendliness and appeal. The Beyonwiz still has a way to go, but we know it will improve with firmware upgrades, and -- unlike Apple -- the company doesn't have a vested interest in keeping file formats locked down.
We only give it a higher score than the Apple TV because parts of what it does actually work very well. For the price you're getting an excellent PVR and a good DVD player. But Beyonwiz's different elements just need to learn to play nice with each other. If you're looking for a PVR which is a little more flexible, and also rewards a bit of tweaking, then why not go the whole hog and try one of these media centres.