While the pay TV provider piled on the Hugh Jackman charm when it launched its first recorder — iQ was the "smartest thing to ever happen to TV" — Foxtel has been rather quiet since the iQ2 media launch in January.
However this week, CNET.com.au was among the first to experience the new set-top box, ahead of its launch "mid-year". While it will be some time before all of the iQ2's planned features are implemented, we found it's still a worthy upgrade.
Just as formica looks 50s and wood panelling looks 70s, in several years people will be saying "piano black is so noughties". Not that it worries Foxtel any. The iQ2 is bathed in it, and the paintwork is only broken by the front-panel buttons and the funky Foxtel-logo grill on the top.
Despite featuring a useful number of controls, the fascia is actually quite austere and uncluttered. The iconic iQ "Play" indicator still dominates, but otherwise when it's sitting in your AV rack the result is quite understated.
The Foxtel iQ2 is understated yet stylish.
If you've seen a Foxtel remote before then nothing will surprise you about the iQ2's — oh, except that maybe it's piano-black. Despite our misgivings about the finish, it doesn't seem to get too grubby and the buttons are just as friendly as ever.
Considering there's a hard drive in there and a bunch of tuners, the box is fairly compact. But this also necessitates a cooling fan, and though it rarely comes on while the unit is powered it gets quite noisy when you switch the Foxtel on — almost to Xbox 360 levels. Moral: leave it on.
Foxtel's new service — which the iQ2 delivers — is called HD+, and its main drawcard for cable users in eastern states is the provision of not only five exclusive HD channels but all of the free-to-air channels as well. This is good news for people who have a high-def TV but bought it when manufacturers were being stingey and didn't include HD tuners on-board.
While only announcing four channels originally, Foxtel has expanded this to five — the sports channels, ESPN HD and Fox Sports HD; the documentary channels, National Geographic HD and Discovery HD; and a new BBC HD channel. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait another year for more to be added, as the company is relying on a new Optus satellite to be launched in 2009.
Connectivity is one of the strongest points about the new iQ2, with an unparalleled number of ports for features present and future. One of the most "exciting", if we can call it that, is the provision of an eSATA port (front-mounted, unfortunately) and two USB. What this means is that not only will you be able to theoretically expand the amount of on-board storage without opening your case, but Foxtel has strongly hinted that you'll be able to move recordings onto other devices. We tested the two ports and unfortunately they're not recognised by the Foxtel unit yet.
The Foxtel iQ2 features a 320GB hard drive for program storage, four tuners (of which only three are currently in use), and plenty of connectivity options including HDMI (version 1.2), component, SCART, and both forms of digital optical.
While unused at present, Foxtel says it plans to utilise the on-board Ethernet port to deliver "low bit rate, low contention video" (library movies and TV series) sometime in the future. What they mean is you will be able to download On Demand content via the internet — at present it fits down the same, slow pipe. For users of Bigpond this would likely not count towards your monthly download quota. We can't vouch for customers on other ISPs, though.
Despite featuring twice the storage capacity of the original iQ, the greater storage needs of HD means it can only store half the amount of HD programming — or about 30 hours total. Some of the hard drive is also given over to storing On Demand movies, so the provision of expandability in the future will be a bonus.
As we revealed last month, Foxtel has announced the iQ2 pricing: it's AU$200 for the install, plus AU$10 for the box per month, and then the five channels are even more again. The average package will add between AU$20 and AU$25 a month to your existing package. On Demand movies will be available at launch for AU$6.95 each. Up-to-date pricing is currently available here.
Initial testing on an LG Scarlet 42-inch was very positive. When fed an HDMI signal from the iQ2, both standard-definition channels and the handful of high-definition channels, looked fantastic. But it's the few dedicated channels that are the stars here, and watching documentaries in full-HD with 5.1 sound is revelatory. A documentary on deep-sea creatures was given an eerie menace thanks to the creepy underwater sounds emanating from the rear channels.
While the experience is similar to what has gone before, the interface has had a brush-up, and is now a friendly Foxtel orange and white. Navigating menus is also a straightforward affair, and there are some powerful options available from the Setup — including the ability to adjust the audio delay to compensate for lip-synch issues on some TVs.
Foxtel's new interface is now a "friendly" orange and white.
It took about 24 hours after the box was installed for the On Demand HD movies to become available, and Rush Hour 3 — while not a videophile's delight — was nevertheless enjoyable. Video and audio quality were top-notch throughout, and there weren't any telltale compression artefacts you'd find in your typical digital download.
The iQ2 carries the original iQ's Planner and EPG's capabilities across, and while these work well, we don't like how the Planner won't show you the start or end times on currently recording programmes, which makes it harder to "plan". Otherwise, we rarely came across a time when the three tuners weren't enough to please everyone in a standard family home.
Being as the iQ2 isn't due to go public for another month there are still some kinks that need ironing out. For example, we did experience some random black screens using HDMI that required several resets (pressing Back and Select together), and once the audio konked out too. But otherwise, we've been very happy with the performance of this box.
We also tried to use the online Foxtel guide to program the box from work, but whether it was a problem with the flash site itself or the iQ2, it took a lot of perseverance to get this to function. Also, as of the time of writing the HD channels aren't listed yet.
If you already own iQ and have a high-def tuner inside your television set, you may find very little to convince you to upgrade to HD. On the other hand, we see that On Demand is a glimpse of the future and feel that video shop owners should start considering selling antique furniture or something instead.
If you have a flat-panel TV, and want the best "quality" broadcast material available then unquestionably this is Foxtel's HD+. To paraphrase Springsteen, there may be only five channels and nothing (much) on, but the potential is enormous. We can't wait.