Since its initial release in 2010, the Telstra T-Box has been the butt of many a home-cinema joke, with many users claiming to have been hampered by technical difficulties and poor hardware. In July 2011, Telstra quietly released new T-Box hardware, which increased its internal storage capacity from 320GB to 1TB, but didn't attempt to address any of its customers' complaints.
Compared with other personal video recorders (PVRs) in market, the T-Box is one big step behind. While many PVRs can carry connections from external drives via eSATA and USB, the T-Box is mostly restricted to playing content broadcasted to or previously recorded on the box. Outbound, the T-Box can connect to your telly via either an HDMI connection or a SCART socket, but there are no composite- or component-connection options, so those with older TVs need not apply.
It's also short on raw computing power, which not only makes using the T-Box feel slow, but also impacts the unit's ability to record multi programs simultaneously. The T-Box has two tuners, and, while this is common to most PVRs at this time, the T-Box can only record one show and watch another, but not record two shows at the same time. This is particularly frustrating when two favourite shows merely overlap, let alone when they are broadcasted at the same time every day.
Free-to-air TV is only one part of the equation, though, and Telstra is hoping to tempt you with its range of online goodies for rent and purchase via BigPond Movies. To that end, the T-Box is equipped with Wi-Fi connectivity, support for the 802.11 G and N protocols and a single Ethernet port.
Most baffling is that the T-Box comes with two USB ports, but neither really seems to work like you'd expect a USB port to work on any other PVR. You can connect an external drive and transfer recordings from the T-Box (in a proprietary format), but you can't access files located on the external drive, and you can't transfer content to the T-Box from the external drive to watch later. This severely limits the role that a T-Box could play in your home-entertainment system, requiring most tech-savvy film buffs to invest in yet more hardware to watch their digitised movies, like a NAS or a separate media streamer.
Of course, there is a reason for all of these restrictions. To Telstra, the T-Box is a storefront in its customers' homes, a hub to tempt BigPond internet subscribers to spend a little extra money on renting a movie or a season of their favourite TV show. As nefarious as we might make this sound, the connection to BigPond Movies is one of the best features of the T-Box. A rough count of the titles available suggests that there are over 5000 titles currently, and the service is updated on a frequent enough basis to give it an always-fresh feeling.
In addition to its rental service, T-Box customers can also watch BigPond videos for free. These videos are mostly short clips of web content, with news, entertainment and sports covered. While we appreciate that this content is free, it is hardly substantial enough to be a draw card. Lovers of NRL, AFL or V8 supercars are in the for the biggest treat, with around-the-clock replays from each sport, and music lovers get a look-in, too, with the BigPond Music channel on offer.
As you'll find on new smart TVs, the T-Box is also host to a small selection of apps. The YouTube app will probably get the most use in households, and we like the inclusion of TuneIn radio for listening to the thousands of internet radio stations.
Tying it all together is a great user interface. Using slick, glossy-looking gradients of blue, the UI looks clean, and is well signposted for new users. With an internet connection, you'll be able to see previews of channels in small picture boxes before you commit to buying them, and the program guide is uncluttered, easy to read and bolstered with graphics for each program where possible. It's just a shame that the computer powering this graphics-intensive system is so underpowered for the task that you will regularly find yourself waiting for the menu to catch up with your commands.
One of the main reasons for which you may consider signing up for a Telstra T-Box is as an alternative way of receiving Foxtel subscription-TV content without a long-term Foxtel contract. The service offered to T-Box customers is hugely different from the standard Foxtel service, though, with fewer channels to choose from and less freedom in how you watch it. Or, as Foxtel says on its own site, "Foxtel on T-Box is a great new way to enjoy a sample of Foxtel entertainment through your T-Box".
The Foxtel channel packages available on T-Box (minus the sports pack).
(Screenshot by CBSi)
There are 30 channels on offer with this service, unlike the 200 channels on standard Foxtel, and these are broken down into five packages. The base package costs AU$19.50 per month, and includes Fox 8, CNN, the Discovery Channel and Fox Sports news, among others. Additional packages cost either AU$10 or AU$15 per month, with the entire service adding up to AU$74.50 per month when all channel packages are taken.
The major drawback to Foxtel on T-Box is that you cannot record any of the content on these channels. You cannot, therefore, series link any of the programs you enjoy, and you cannot watch them later at a time that is convenient to you. For AU$75 per month, you have to make yourself available when you favourite shows are on, or miss out on watching them. We're sure there are concerns about piracy that have influenced this restriction, but, for us, not being able to record Foxtel the same as you would free-to-air TV entirely defeats the purpose of subscribing to the service and watching it through a PVR. This is a lot to pay for such a limited sample of content burdened by this unusual limitation.
Whether you're looking to record a single program or a series of episodes, we found the basic recording function easy to use on the T-Box. It is short on advanced options, though; you can't search for a program by name, for example, although you can filter the channels by genre and by whether it's on free-to-air TV or on Foxtel.
You can series link TV shows, and we have found that this works quite well, although programs that repeat several times a day will be recorded at all instances. We also found that our series-linked recordings tended to be cut off before the end of the program, due to a conflict between the listed times of a program and the actual time of the broadcast. You can manually set an extension for a recording (in five-minute increments), but you can't set a universal extension for all shows in a series, which is extremely frustrating.
The T-Box records shows at a high enough resolution that recordings look as good as if you were watching the same program live, and, based on an average of our recordings, we'd estimate that the 1TB of storage in the T-Box is capable of storing about 70 hours of TV, although this will depend on the source.
As we mentioned earlier, our favourite part of the T-Box is the BigPond Movies rental service. This is bolstered by the speed at which the service delivers rented content. We tested the T-Box using a BigPond cable-internet connection, and most movies selected for rental were watchable within less than a minute after buffering.
We did notice, though, that streaming content tended to stutter infrequently when viewed over a Wi-Fi connection. In a feature film with a duration of about 90 minutes, this would occur about three times on average. This isn't enough to completely throw the movie-watching experience, but it is an unwelcome intrusion.
Telstra prices the T-Box at AU$299 outright, or AU$35 upfront and AU$11 per month over 24 months (AU$299 total). BigPond customers can also opt to take a T-Box in a home-services bundle.
The AU$299 price tag puts the T-Box at the lower end of the PVR market, and is a good price for a unit with internet connectivity, apps and access to BigPond Movies. But for the same price, or a little extra, those looking for a decent PVR could buy a unit with multi-channel recording and the ability to play media from external sources; wirelessly, in some cases. It's important to remember that the AU$299 is the beginning of the expense with the T-Box — not the end of it. Rented movies typically cost AU$5.99 each, and the Foxtel pricing definitely adds up if you choose to subscribe.