Foxtel iQHD is very difficult to separate from a discussion of the entire Foxtel service, but let's try. As a set-top box and DVR system, Foxtel iQHD is up with the best.
The slender black box measures in at 6cm tall, with basic controls and indicator lights on the front, so it slots nicely into most home entertainment setups. During installation, the technicians are careful about not sitting this onto or under other components. Whether that's a question of keeping the breathing space around the Foxtel iQHD box or just being concerned citizens for other boxes, we never had a problem while testing, even when we did shuffle other boxes on and under the iQHD.
The remote is as it has been for many years now. If you're new to the remote, it can seem overwhelming, but you'll quickly make sense of the layout and it's navigation system for menus, channels and volume, plus your DVR controls for live and recorded viewing.
The Foxtel iQHD box packs a 320GB HDD, which Foxtel rates to around 30 hours of HD content. All the output options you could ask for are represented, including HDMI, component, composite and even SCART and S-Video are still on the back. Digital audio out is also supported in both coaxial and optical forms. The box also includes USB, though there is no current supported use. Ethernet must be physically connected to your home network, but the installers did supply a pair of Ethernet over Power adapters to bridge the gap from our home entertainment system to the router.
The service offers a mix of 720p and 1080i HD content, and today, there is a wide selection of HD channels to choose from. We count 25 HD channels right now, with special event channels (like the amazing eight HD channels of London 2012 Olympics coverage) and On Demand viewing selections adding to the HD mix. Most of the HD channels are essentially HD versions of channels that non-HD subscribers get in SD. There is also a small selection of 3D content delivered exclusively to users of the Foxtel iQHD box.
The Foxtel iQHD box allows for recording of two shows at once, while watching a third live show at the same time. A fourth tuner gives access to the EPG and On Demand content, alongside the rest. While some other DVRs offer "quad recording", Foxtel offers a wealth of +2 channels, so any conflicts can often be resolved by finding the +2 version of the show in question.
Having both HD and SD versions of channels is an excellent practical advantage. When setting iQ to record certain programs, you can make a call on whether you want something in HD or SD, saving or splurging on available HDD space, accordingly. For films, we found it is easy to get excited and queue up a bunch of HD flicks to come back to when you have the time, but you'll soon feel your available drive space running out. By Foxtel's estimates, you are saving around 3x storage when you choose SD instead of HD, which will make a difference when you're suddenly staring at less than 20 per cent on the meter.
Compared to other high-end DVRs on the market, iQHD's 320GB storage is looking very light at this stage. A 1TB version of the iQHD will be very welcome, but seems to have been only barely mentioned in Foxtel promotions. Be sure to ask for the 1TB to force the issue with that better model.
The user interface has not changed much since last we looked at iQ, but if it ain't broke, why fix it? Recent enhancements give you options for picture-in-picture and for browsing single channels in an easier to read fashion. That said, the search system could use an overhaul — learning a few tricks for how we like to search and explore the web could help turn search into a real feature of the box.
The channels look good too, and record quality is very good, with few artifacts getting in the way of enjoying the content.
We did find occasional program drops from our scheduled series recordings, and this has to be one of the biggest frustrations one can face when putting your faith in a DVR. Foxtel does offer a "safety net" of sorts, with On Demand programming available through the Foxtel iQHD box or via your PC. Not to be confused with Foxtel's pay-per-view movie service, On Demand offers access to recent programming from across its wide range of channels. You will have access to only the shows from channels you already subscribe to. The streaming quality of On Demand is very poor on an HD TV, so this is definitely something to treat as a last resort.
You can program the Foxtel iQHD box from a computer or from mobile apps, so it is easy to dive in and set something to record if you forgot to before you left the house. We found this very important on a service with such a wide range of channels. It is so easy to not notice something you'd like to see, and when you are home, you'd rather be watching than browsing channels. Being able to browse and set recordings while on the move definitely adds more value to the time you spend in front of the box.
There is also a Foxtel iSuggest service, but it feels like a promotional window rather than a recommendation engine. Greater content discovery tools would be a welcome addition. With so much content on offer, Foxtel users would get more bang for their buck if they knew they were catching everything they really want to see. That occasional missed show does increase the fear that you're not really getting your full money's worth from the service.
By comparison, the free-to-air service Ice TV (which works on a number of DVR brands, including Topfield, Humax and others) lets you set recordings based on generic search terms, or shows that are not currently in the schedule. Knowing any program featuring a certain actor or any episode from a TV series will be snapped up in the future, regardless of the channel, would be a major enhancement for getting peak value out of the massive range of Foxtel channels.
In a market now cluttered with options for delivering great content to your TV, Foxtel comes down to a question of whether you can justify the monthly expense. Whether for reception reasons or for wanting access to its world of content, some know that they want to have it or feel they simple need it. Others see the money better spent on other entertainment options.
The box is inseparable from the Foxtel service, but compared to other DVRs on the market Foxtel iQHD really does stand up as being a peer amongst the best.
To us, it just doesn't seem right to own Foxtel without an iQ box. The DVR lets you stay on top of the world of content that Foxtel has to offer, watching it on your own schedule. Whether that is the cheaper iQ box or the full-fat iQHD is up to you, but Foxtel without iQ seems like a waste of money in the busy modern household.
There now seem to be two clear choices for Foxtel access. If you just want the basics, get a cheaper Foxtel IPTV service via a smart TV, Xbox 360 or similar. If you want a bona fide Foxtel box under your TV, do it right and get the iQHD.