Samsung STB-E7500M Smart Freeview HD PVR Review
Mark puts Samsung's Smart HD Freeview PVR through its paces
The Freeview PVR (Personal Video Recorder) market has been one that many of the major manufacturers shied away from or, at least, made only tentative steps into in the past. All that is beginning to change now, however, and most of the ‘big boys' have a product on offer, albeit often in a more multi-function format. We’ve just reviewed the LG HR 925M and earlier in 2012 we went in-depth with Samsung’s own BD-E8500M which added Blu-ray playback on to what the STB-E7500M is capable of, with impressive results. Some may not be too keen on the idea having all their eggs in one basket or may well own a Blu-ray player that doesn’t need updating, and for those with more simple needs the E7500M offers a combination of high definition Freeview recorder with built-in access to Samsung’s excellent Smart platform and its many charms. So it’s not quite a straightforward PVR but this is Samsung and the year is 2012, what did you expect? Time to smarten up your Freeview experience? Let’s see…
The Samsung STB-E7500M is fairly unremarkable in the looks department. It’s nominally a ‘Set Top Box’ and a box is precisely what it is – shiny and black with some buttons on the top. Connectivity options are routine fare, also, with a single HDMI connection, stereo and digital audio outs and a pair of USB ports – one is to the front, beneath a flap. Although there’s a LAN connection to the rear, we’d imagine most will welcome the built-in Wi-Fi to take advantage of the connected features. The included remote control is easy to handle, thanks to its slim and lightweight construction but we’d like to have seen a dedicated button to take you to recordings and the Smart Hub and Guide buttons made larger and more prominent. Menus are necessarily replete with plenty of options but easy enough to navigate.
There’s so much on offer from Samsung’s Smart products that we wrote an entire review dedicated to the subject and the E7500M doesn’t disappoint in its range and variety of apps, Video on Demand services and media streaming capabilities. Perhaps the only disappointment of the suite is the current Android app that doesn’t really make navigating the built-in browser any more fun and possesses an unattractive interface for (most) smartphone users. Of course if you have a behemoth, Galaxy Note (I or II) you’re golden as it’s more suited to tablet size displays.
Samsung’s PVR software has come on leaps and bounds this year and it’s good to be able to talk about what they can do, rather than the opposite. As well as all the, routine, pause, rewind and dual record functionalities, the E7500M also provides some welcome frills with series recording and recommendations. Reliability is also a key area where the Samsung isn’t found wanting. There’s room for improvement, of course, and there’s quite a list of suggestions we’d like to see implemented; chief amongst which are the aforementioned inclusion of a dedicated button to access recordings and the ability to access the EPG whilst chasing play or dual recording. It would also be nice to see Samsung implement an auto padding option in the set up menus. Quibbles aside, the E7500M is a very capable high definition Freeview PVR that just needs an extra lick of polish.
At its current suggested retail price of around £300, we’re not sure why anyone would choose the STB-E7500M over the Samsung BD-E8500 that performs all the same tricks and adds in 3D Blu-ray and DVD playback support to the bargain; all for around the same cost. That said, shop around and the 7500 can be had for significantly less than the (slightly inflated) suggested ticket price. When all’s said and done, the STB-E7500 is an accomplished Freeview PVR with a treasure trove of a feature set that provides an excellent way to smarten up your TV. It’s a solid Recommended award winner; just make sure that you really want the Smart experience before clicking the Buy button.
Design and Connections
The term ‘set top box’ has never really been particularly fitting and grows ever more anachronistic by the day as TVs become more skinny. It would take the balancing prowess of Eskil Ronningsbakken (Google him) to mount the E7500M on the average flat panel and it’s far more likely owners would actually try the opposite but that would obscure the touch key controls placed on the top of the unit in a circular fashion. We’re not sure how many are likely to go to the bother of getting off their backsides to change channel or play or initiate a recording but for any poor excuse for a couch potato out there, the button location might seem curious. Other than the top-mounted buttons, there’s very little remarkable about the E7500M’s looks; it’s a shiny black, rectangular box with a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) to the right hand side that gives elapsed recording and playback information or, when no PVR activity is occurring, helpfully displays a clock.
Along with the VFD, on the front panel there’s a USB port secreted behind a pull-down flap and other connections include the aerial connection (and RF loop-out), a LAN port, HDMI output, another USB input and a composite video connection. Audio wise there’s stereo audio jacks and S/PDIF digital audio out.
The remote is nice and slender with a mostly well-planned design but both the Smart Hub and Guide buttons should really be larger and more prominently placed. At the top left are two buttons that illuminate on pressing – PVR and TV – which switch controls between the unit and a connected, or unconnected – for that matter - Samsung TV which will no doubt prove convenient for many out there.
Set Up & Menus
First time set up of the STB-E7500M requires a little patience but it’s worth getting channel tuning, network initialisation and software updates out of the way before you begin. The E7500M had absolutely no issues in locking on to all the available digital services and we were up and running within around 15 minutes.
Once tuned in and network connected we were presented with the familiar Samsung GUI (Graphical User Interface) consisting of 5 sub-menus – Smart Hub, AllShare Play, Channel, Schedule Manager and Settings. Under the Settings heading, there are categories for Display, Audio, Channel, Network, System, and Support. We’ll cover the Smart Hub in detail, later in the review.
Let's begin with AllShare Play where all playback functions are accessed. Bringing up the AllShare Menu will give further options of My List, Videos, Photos, Music and Recorded TV. The My List option contains sub-sections for Recently Played, which is largely self-explanatory but does include your recent selections from whichever medium you were viewing – whether streamed from PC or Mobile Device, Media stored on the internal 500GB hard drives or connected storage. Similarly, opting for Videos, Photos or Music will provide the opportunity of watching or listening from the various devices. From the My List option you can also create playlists, of various content, but you’ll need a Samsung.com account to do so. Finally, at the bottom off the AllShare list, is the Recorded TV item - which is precisely what you think it is but offers the choice of playback from the internal hard drive or connected storage.
The Channel Menu allows the user to create favourites lists, choose to view only TV, Radio or Data services, move the channel order or look at Recently and Most Viewed channels. We’re a little surprised there was no option to tune in services in there too, as it seems a logical fit, but that’s reserved for the Settings Menu. From the Schedule Manager it’s possible to review and edit scheduled recordings, set manual recordings, view, edit and split previously recorded programmes or ‘Chase Play’ on an item currently being recorded. For the uninitiated, Chase Play refers to the function of beginning to watch a programme before the recording has finished. Progress indeed after last year’s clunky implementation of that particular feature.
The final menu, Settings, plays home to an enormous array of options but we’ll just try and guide you through the picture altering options, i.e. the Display Menu. From here there are options including TV Aspect Ratio, Smart Hub Screen Size, BD Wise, Resolution, DTV Smart resolution, Movie Frame (24FS), HDMI Colour Format and HDMI Deep Colour. Aspect Ratio is best set to 16:9 Original to preserve 4:3 material in its correct size and Shape; Smart Hub Screen Size increases or decreases the Zoom for the Smart Hub page.
If the Smart features on-board the E7500M are of no interest to you, we’d probably recommend checking out the more simplistic PVR’s on the market as it really only justifies the (suggested) price-tag, of around £300, if you intend on using them.
Almost all that’s on offer, feature wise, through the STB-E7500M is accessible via the Smart Hub but there’s no access to recorded programmes or stored/streamed media files from there. We’re not sure why that is, Samsung manage it on their TVs and, obviously, that content can be got at from elsewhere but it’s a questionably non-inclusive strategy from Samsung. The offerings from the Smart Hub are very extensive but not quite up to those in the TV ranges with the most notable omissions being the ITV Player, the BBC Sport App and Samsungs’ own Explore 3D streaming service.
Sitting in the middle of the Smart Hub is the 'Your Video' section that works as a recommendation engine, where your viewing habits are tracked and suggestions based on genre, subject matter, director, actor/actress are made for your further viewing. Too add to the near ubiquitous presence of the iPlayer and YouTube, there are also VoD services from Netflix and LoveFilm and more. In terms of apps that aren’t VoD, Samsung still leads the pack in the variety, and number it has on offer. Social networkers are taken care of with dedicated Facebook and Twitter apps as well as the Social TV feature that allows you to enjoy programming with your friends even when you’re not with them, via a chat tab down the right hand side of the screen. They will, of course, have to have a compatible Samsung device to do so.
The STB-E7500M works very well as a media player, and we encountered no problems with a variety of media servers and files we tried – PS3 Media Centre/Servio/WMP and Samsung’s own, Smartshare software. The built-in WiFi is a real boon here too and we like the fact you can use the Web Browser whilst viewing/listening to the currently selected channel but it’s a chore to use with a standard remote control and not really a great deal better with the Samsung Remote App which could use a makeover to improve its layout for smartphones – it’s definitely better for a tablet than phone. The app allows for full remote control of the E7500 but perhaps more attractively enables your mobile device to act as a gyroscopic games controller, for those games that support it.
Samsung are making big on their family friendly services this year with the Family Story, Fitness and Kids apps taking centre stage on the Smart Hub. The Family Story feature appears to be a kind of family blog where you can post photos, write comments, make diary appointments and share content with other members of your family. The Kids app delivers a number of educational and recreational games whilst the Fitness centre is kind of self-explanatory and could turn a couch potato in to a catwalk star given the required dedication to carry out the series of exercise routines. The app will provide you with your own personal trainer and take note of your weight and height details and suggest exercise videos for you to follow. We’re not going to pretend for one moment that we donned a lycra leotard but there seemed to be plenty of videos available.
Coming soon is Samsung’s Smart View feature and Smart View App, allowing owners to watch the same or different TV programs on compatible devices such as a tablet, PC or smartphone in a different part of the house. Smart View is scheduled for a release very soon.
Freeview HD+ PVR
Just like the BD-E8500M we recently covered the STB-E7500 is a very fully-featured PVR capable of recording two programmes simultaneously even when watching a recorded programme, streaming media, or accessing the Smart Hub. In a certain circumstance, it will also allow the viewing of another ‘live’ TV channel, provided it’s on the same multiplex (MUX) as one of the programmes being recorded or its recording two programmes from the same MUX. In fact, the latter scenario opens up every other channel for viewing – premium services excepted.
The chase play feature is very handy, with the user able to simply access currently recording shows by entering the Schedule Manager. We’d prefer it that you weren’t dumped back in there following the recording finishing but it’s a small complaint really. We’d also like to see the EPG made available during chase play and dual recording. Perhaps more of a fundamental mistake is the lack of a dedicated button to take you in to the Schedule Manager or Recorded TV section of AllShare. It’s unnecessarily clunky having to go through either the Guide or Home Menu to access recordings; we’d happily sacrifice the www. button, for instance, in their stead and a (near) dedicated PVR really should provide an effortless method of getting at the recordings.
We set a batch of series records, single timer events and back to back recordings and the STB-E7500 performed perfectly but there’s always the risk of missing the end or beginning of recordings unless the broadcasters are really on the ball in updating the EPG data. To that end a ‘Global Padding’ option – where automatic over-run/early programme start - could help minimise that issue, although it can be done on a per programme basis and the ability to specify how consecutive recordings on the same channel are handled.
It should be pointed out that anyone used to other PVR’s where buffering is automatically enabled will need to readjust. Buffering is the process whereby the tuner contents are automatically written to part of the hard drive to allow for pausing, rewinding or recording. With the E7500, users are necessitated to either press the Pause or Play button of the remote before it’s activated. With other media able to be stored on the hard drive, we can understand Samsung’s reticence in enabling automatic ‘Timeshift’ features as the software allocates 22Gb of space for the purpose, but those used to such flexibility might want to get in to the habit of pressing play before they settle down for an evening’s viewing. Better still, Samsung could create Timeshift as an automatic option in the settings!
It’s good to see that Samsung has grasped what a PVR should be capable of delivering, this year, and with just a few more refinements they may just leave us with nothing to criticise. Encouragement enough, surely, for them to act on our suggestions!
Our feedback for Samsung
If you are interested in buying the Samsung STB-E7500M,
Have your say
Read about our review ethos and the meaning of our review badges here.
2,628 word review viewed 4,236 times.
Freeview HD+ PVR with Smart Features
Suggested price: £299
Reviewed 6th November, 2012 by Mark Hodgkinson
To get the best out of your TV or projector, consider getting it calibrated.