Not your usual type of PVR
What is the VBox Home TV Gateway?
Now we’ve reviewed many a personal video recorder here at AVForums but this one is something a little different from the norm.It’s probably best not to think of it as a rival to the likes of your Sky+ HD, TiVO, Freeview or Freesat hard drive recorders but more of a tool allowing the easy distribution of free-to-air satellite and terrestrial services by IP streams. The operating software does allow for recording content but you need to add your own storage for that, should you wish to do so.So the V Box is actually more of a media server for broadcast TV and a potential supplement to the likes of Roku boxes and the Apple TV, for those keen to cut the cord. It integrates with XBMC and the beta software we’re using adds support for NAS devices. If you’re after something a little different from your PVR, read on…
Design & Connections of the XTi 3340The VBox Xti 3340 isn’t the prettiest bit of kit you’ll ever introduce into the home but it feels solidly engineered, at least. It’s a very small box, measuring about 18.5cm across and 16cm deep with a basic facia which has some LEDs providing tuner and power status feedback. Around the back are 3 RF inputs – 2 for satellite, 1 for terrestrial – a LAN socket, a CAM/CI slot for premium services, an input for the external power supply, a USB port to hook up storage and a power button.
Note: there are no video or audio outputs, whatsoever, so don’t buy this product thinking you can connect it directly to your TV. That’s not what the VBox is all about and it’s probably a good opportunity for us to say, we don’t think this is something for the novice user – you’ll need to be PC savvy, at the very least, to get it running…
There are no traditional video/audio outputs
XTi 3340 SetUpWe’ll keep this as brief as possible but this section could have been brochure sized, rather than a few paragraphs. That it won’t be is largely down to the fact we’ve been working with the manufacturers to make this a better performing and easier to use product than the one which first arrived with us. We have to take our hats off to the guys at VBox, here, for their efforts in turning this around and the intricacies of the UK DVB-T infrastructure meant it was no easy task. We’re not going to bore you with the details but it’s safe to say you shouldn’t encounter any of the problems we did, now that the latest software update is released.
It becomes apparent during initial procedures that this is more like setting up a router or PC peripheral than it is a PVR. You will need to ensure your PC and router are configured to use the UPnP protocol - most are by default - otherwise we’d advise looking at the instruction manual for more info. You can perform the initial, ‘Quick Setup’ through the mobile apps but we’d recommend being PC based as using touch controls can be a bit awkward for this.
The setup procedure involves connecting to your router, selecting the tuners you wish to use – in our case, this was just the terrestrial one (RF3) as we have no satellite dish – and then initiating a scan on selected frequencies. We’d advise using the tick box, at the top of the page, to select all frequencies as the ones greyed out are unobtainable in the UK. Part of the problem with the original software was that it couldn’t handle duplicate channels, where users are able to pick up transmissions from more than one location. In our case, we can get a signal from both Winter Hill and Fenton and this caused the duplicate tuned channels to be unavailable through the apps. Our testing of the new software can confirm that this is now fixed, which is good as otherwise we would have deemed the product unusable for a large proportion of UK residents.
VBox Home TV Gateway OperationOnce you’ve got all your channels tuned and stored, it is then possible to customise your channel order and, indeed, which services you do or do not want visible but it would have been nice had the software been able to automatically sort channels by their LCN (Logical Channel Number) so, for example, BBC1 and BBC2 were in the top two slots but the process of getting them in to some semblance of order isn’t too laborious – but it could have been easier.
VBox is largely aimed at the tablet and smartphone user market, along with those fond of their Media PC setups. As well as the aforementioned mobile apps, there is a Chrome browser extension for PC and Mac that is marginally quicker than connecting manually but there is also integration with the XBMC media server. Note: those wanting to actually view live TV or recordings from the VBox will need to at least install VLC Media Player but since it’s a very good bit of software, we consider that no great hardship. Still, it is another process in what some may consider a fairly complicated procedure.
We don’t regularly use XBMC anymore but we do still have it installed on our Windows 7 PC which gave us chance to check out how the VBox interacts with it. To get started, you will need IPTV Simple Client, which is a basic PVR Addon for XBMC to receive IPTV Live TV, Radio channels, and EPG information directly. The 13th release of XBMC has the Simple IPTV Add-on is part of the distribution, otherwise you’ll have to seek it out for yourself but despite us having a compatible release, we couldn’t get it to work as XBMC froze every time we attempted to enable LIVE TV. Having spent a lot of time trying to resolve other issues, we didn’t feel inclined to spend any more time doing so but if you want the full instructions, see here. To be clear, we’re not saying it won’t work for you, just that we were already well over our time budget on this one
The mobile apps are pretty good
Mobile Apps and Browser ExtensionThe user interface is fairly consistent over the Android, iOS and Chrome Apps and whilst it’s not the most attractive, it is reasonably easy to follow. The Home Screen invites you to tap to watch your last accessed channel and there is a shortcut bar at the bottom with icons for ‘Home’, ‘Guide’, ‘Live TV’, ‘My Zone’ and ‘Settings’. The guide (EPG) presents the channels run vertically down the left hand side of the screen, whilst the programme listings run horizontally to the right. It’s a standard EPG layout then and by tapping (or mouse clicking) on a programme, it’s possible to set recordings and watch timers, as well as viewing currently running events.
Clicking on Live TV takes you to the last watched station but from here you also get an onscreen remote which allows for channel surfing and displaying extended programme information. MyZone takes you to your recorded and scheduled recorded content, whilst the Settings section gives you various language, subtitle and TV gateway settings. From here, with the latest software installed, you can also choose to add timer paddings, ranging from 2 minutes before and after the scheduled start, up to 20 minutes either side. We would like to have been able to set custom padding as some live events can run well over an hour late but most eventualities are covered by the defaults.
VBox Home TV Gateway Video Review
VBox Home TV Gateway General PerformanceWe will say that the VBox proved reliable in making scheduled recordings but most will consider that there a few shortcomings with it overall. Possibly chief amonst these is the lack of High Definition compatibility for UK terrestrial services. The VBox family are only equipped with DVB-T tuners where you need DVB-T2 for HD in the UK. Most of the rest of the Europe can access HD with DVB-T but not us. This isn’t a big issue when viewing on your average smartphone or tablet but watching on a PC monitor, standard definition really doesn’t look very good. We should point out that the satellite tuners can recieve HD, by the way.
The next thing folks will miss is the ability to view content on the big screen, easily. You will need some sort of media device/streamer with either XBMC built-in or, at the very least UPnP compatibility attached to your TV to do so, and these aren’t that commonly found in the home. The only thing we had to test it out was a PS3 and, even then, we couldn’t get past a loading screen so the user experience could hardly be described as smooth. We tried to get it working with our resident Roku 3 as well, but got even less close to achieving that than with the PlayStation.
UPDATE: Good news for Roku owners since this review, VBox has confirmed they are working on a Roku channel, set for release in 2015
We hate to tell you VBox but there are more regulation PVRs out there, particularly in the case of the Panasonic’s, that allow for much easier distribution of both live and recorded content using DLNA. Moreover, they feature the niceties of a remote control, series recording, on-board video connections and access to the likes of BBC iPlayer and Netflix through their app selections. The Panasonic DMR-HWT230 is one such that comes to mind and it’s currently available for only £25 more than the VBox 3340 in the UK, and it comes with storage built-in. It also doesn’t tie you in to being on a home network connection to view content as you can do it from anywhere you can get the internet.
Where the VBox does score well, particularly with the multi-tuner versions, is in being able to stream multiple sources to multiple devices, to as many users as you're network will allow - both for recoded and live TV content - so it's definitely worth considering if that's your goal. We realise that won't interest all that many people but there is a market for that kind of utilisation out there.
There's too many of the usual niceties missing to make this a mainstream product
- Effectively distributes free-to-air TV via IP
- Reliable recording function
- Easy to fit in your setup
- Good mobile app
- XBMC Integration
- No video outputs
- No built-in storage
- Some will find it complicated
- There are more conventional solutions achieving similar things
VBox Home TV Gateway (XTi 3340) PVR ReviewThe VBox XTi 3340 is a basic but well put together little unit which is small enough to squeeze into just about any AV setup. It’s not a typical AV product however, and it has no video or audio outputs. Instead, it sits on your network attached to your router where it then distributes free to air terrestrial and satellite signals to mobile apps, XBMC, web browsers or any compatible UPnP devices. Also, unusually for a PVR, it has no hard drive built in but you can add your own storage via the USB input.
Setup is easy enough for anyone that’s PC savvy but those accustomed to a more traditional PVR might find it a little long-winded and complicated. Once up and running the user interfaces are reasonably simple to follow although, again, not the prettiest. Both the mobile apps (iOS & Android) and Chrome browser extension follow the same general layout, from where you can access the EPG and your recordings, as well as make various settings adjustments.
In terms of reliability in making recordings, the VBox scores well and there are new options in the latest software release that allow for timer paddings to ensure you don’t miss anything in the event of over-runs. Also included in the latest software is full integration into the XBMC media server which we know will interest quite a few.
The real issue we have with the VBox’s place in the market is that you can go out and buy more mainstream PVRs which include a lot of the features – such as distributing content to mobile devices – which are supposed to differentiate it from the pack. They will also come sporting video and audio connections, have Freeview HD capability and have in-built storage for very little more than the asking price of the XTi 3340.
This is not to say that there isn’t a market for the VBox, just that it is going to be a very specialist one, confined largely to those with Media PC setups or those looking to distribute both satellite and terrestrial signals around the home. It works but we think it’s going to be something of a hard sell for the manufacturers in the UK market.
Ease of Use Menus/GUI6
Picture Quality SD7
Value for Money7
Our Review Ethos
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