Foxtel claims that iQ is the "smartest thing to ever happen to TV", and while they've come up with an outstanding product, it's not the TiVo-like service we in Australia have been clamouring years for. Is your money better spent on a Media Center PC, DVD recorder or set top box with hard drive? Read on to find out.
The Foxtel iQ set top box comes in standard silver, and while there are several buttons on the front they're kept small so as not to ruin the sleek aesthetic. Perhaps the most prominent feature is the playback indicator in the centre of the unit, which has a similar design to the iQ logo. As well as lighting up when a recorded program is playing or if you're recording, the surrounding circle also lights up when you're watching a time-shift program (such as when you've rewound live TV).
As you'd expect from a proprietary box, there's little in terms of connectors at the back of the Foxtel iQ box. There's a SCART that connects to your television, another SCART for plugging in a VCR or other device, S-Video and composite out, plus optical audio and digital audio outs. There's also a mystery USB port in there (a USB 1.1, which is even stranger), with a Foxtel rep saying it'll be used for delivering major updates in the future.
Our First Take on the Foxtel iQ gives you an excellent detailed summary of what features this new personal digital recorder has to offer. In brief, not only does it act as a Foxtel Digital set top box, but iQ also allows you to record up to 60 hours of television on its 160GB hard drive. The inclusion of a hard drive also gives you the ability to treat live television as you would any DVD - you can pause, rewind up to 60 minutes, fast forward and see things in slow motion. iQ also comes with two tuners, so you can watch and record at the same time (or even record two programs at once).
Foxtel iQ also allows you to seamlessly sync with the Foxtel Digital electronic program guide (EPG), which means you can use the EPG to plan your recordings up to a week in advance. Foxtel iQ also has a handy Series Link feature included, which means you can tell the unit to automatically record every show in a particular series (for example, The Simpsons) every time it's on.
Performance wise, the iQ system works well. Learning how to use the various new functions (such as recording, pause TV, rewinding, etc) is a cinch - you probably won't need to sit through the mini-tutorial the Foxtel installer will take you through after initial install. If you've ever used a VHS or DVD player, then transferring that level of control to a live television experience is a no-brainer.
Being able to pause live television is an extremely handy option (particularly if you've got an incoming phone call or the kids need some urgent attention) that you'll wonder how you ever lived without. And importantly, there's no loss of quality when watching rewound TV - the picture is still crystal clear despite it not being "live".
Just be aware that rewinding live TV does have its limitations - while you can set the hard disk to cache up to 60 minutes of television (which means you can rewind back up to 60 minutes), you can only rewind as far back in time as you've been watching that station. For example, if you've only been on the Nine News for five minutes, then you can only rewind back five minutes. The cache also restarts if you go into any of the Foxtel menus like the TV guide or the personal planner. If you're an avid channel surfer who's always switching programs, then the rewinding live TV feature may not offer you much.
Recording is a very simple process - just press the record button and it will immediately start recording what's on screen. You can also go into the Foxtel EPG and select any program to record simply by pressing the record button once again.
Some stations and programs also feature the Series Link option - press this and iQ will automatically find when the next instalment of the show is and record it for you. Despite only having program information for the next seven days, Series Link will still remember to record that particular show for you without having to reselect it every week. And in a much needed addition, Series Link will automatically recognise repeats of a program. So if you've selected Series Link for The Simpsons, for example, iQ will know not to record something that's already on your hard drive (which is great for a show that seems to be on Fox 8 all the time).
Nearly everything on Foxtel Digital (both visual and audio channels) can be recorded, and the recordings will stay on the hard drive indefinitely - or at least as long as you pay your subscription fees. Foxtel iQ will, however, automatically delete recordings once its hard drive gets close to full. To keep any recordings you particular want, you need to access the Foxtel Planner and highlight recordings you want to remain.
It's a different situation when it comes to Box Office Movies and Pay-Per-Views. If you record a Box Office movie or a Main Event show, you have three days in which to watch it before it gets automatically deleted. And once you hit play on a recorded Box Office or Main Event program, you only have 24 hours to watch the whole thing before it's automatically deleted. You can, however, watch it as many times as you want within that 24 hour time period.
Once again, there's an exception to this rule. iQ will not allow you to record any Box Office movies by Universal Studios (such as The Chronicles of Riddick or The Bourne Supremacy), as Foxtel is still working out some digital rights management issues with Universal.
All of your recordings can be accessed via the Planner section of the Foxtel EPG. The Planner organises everything you've recorded, and stores such handy information as when you recorded that program, whether you recorded the whole program or just part of it, whether you've already watched it, and if you have watched it remembers where you stopped so it can play from that same point. It also contains information about how much space the recording's taking up on your hard drive, so if you need to cull you can quickly find out which recordings are eating up lots of space.
While Foxtel iQ offers some great functions, there's still a lot more we wished it could do to make it a must-have solution - particularly at the price Foxtel is asking for it ($395 for the box, $100 for the install and $5.95 per month after that for non-Platinum subscribers).
Perhaps it biggest failing is the lack of EPG information for Channels Ten and Seven. We know Foxtel has been working hard behind the scenes to get those two free to airs to come to the party, but not having their programming included in the EPG really undercuts the convenience aspect of iQ. You can still record Ten and Seven shows, but if you want to record future programs you'll have to input the times and dates in manually - it's not the easy one-touch recording that everything else has and makes you feel like you're programming an old VCR. Having said that, if you mainly watch Foxtel programs and stay away from the free to airs, then iQ is an ideal solution.
Having extra search criteria such as genres or favourite actors within the existing EPG would have also added to the whole personal digital recorder experience, and would have made Foxtel more TiVo-like in its overall appeal. As it is now, you have to know exactly what you want and tell the iQ to record it - it doesn't have the smarts other PDRs have around the globe to automatically cater for your tastes.
Another feature iQ doesn't have that other similar services around the world offers is the ability to automatically skip commercials in shows you've recorded. We know skipping ads is a thorny issue for any TV operator, but if services like TiVo can offer it in the US, why can't Australian consumers have it?
Also from what we could gather, iQ does not know in real time when a program you've asked to be recorded finishes, meaning if a show goes over the time listed in the EPG (such as a late running sporting event) the recording will be cut off. iQ does allow you to add some "fat" at the end of your recordings (with options to extend recording times up to 10 minutes after what the EPG states), but this should really have been a built-in feature.
Its issues like these that prevent Foxtel iQ from being an automatic selection over set-top boxes with hard drives, Media Center PCs or even DVD recorders. If iQ offered these added benefits, then the steep price (considering there's no way to archive your recordings, that you don't own the box at the end of the day and that it's all only in SD quality) would be more than worthwhile. As it is, Foxtel iQ is a must have for those who mainly watch Foxtel programs and have money to spare. Others will need to work out whether adding another set top box, Media Center PC or DVD recorder is the better option.