Ready for UK primetime?
What is the VBox TV Gateway?Don’t think of this as a direct rival to a traditional digital TV recorder, a la your Sky, TiVO, Freeview/Freesat personal video recorder (PVR), the VBox TV gateway is something a bit different. Consider the VBox more as a router for your TV signal. It accepts transmissions from either terrestrial (aerial), satellite or cable sources and then makes them available to other devices (smartphones, tablets, media boxes and PCs) on your home network through apps, a browser or a KODI add-on. You can also add some USB or networked storage to the XTi 3342 to enable live TV pausing and recording, with the recorded content also able to be distributed in the same way.
This isn’t the first VBox we’ve looked at, in fact, the predecessor of this model, the XTi 3340, was a promising device but lacked the tools necessary for the UK market. There was no support for Freeview HD channels, for one, the default programme guide was disorganised and nor could you schedule series recordings, plus there were a number of other shortcomings when compared to the usual PVR experience; it all just felt a bit unrefined and unready. The XTi 3342 carries a suggested retail price of £129.95 (November 2015) and, naturally, we’re expecting improvements from it on some of those fronts, and more besides, so let’s see if the new VBox TV Gateway is now ready for UK primetime…
Design & ConnectionsThe VBox Xti 3342 is a very basic looking box but since you’re likely to hide it away somewhere, that’s not really an issue. The chassis measures 18.5cm across and 16cm deep with a basic facia featuring some LEDs providing tuner and power status feedback. Around the back is an RF input for your aerial connection, a LAN port, a CAM/CI slot for premium digital services, an input for the external power supply, a USB port to connect to a storage device and a power button. In case the introduction didn’t make it clear, there are no video or audio outputs so you can’t hook it up directly to your TV.
SetupUnlike our previous experience with the first VBox (roughly twelve hours spent with their engineers), setting up this latest model was a comparative breeze. One potential drawback in setting up the XTi 3342 is that you would ideally need to have both your router and primary aerial connection close together, as a wired LAN connection to the router is a prerequisite, as is the need to get a broadcast signal to it. That’s not an issue for me but it might be for others.
Once you’ve taken care of those necessaries - and powered up the VBox - it’s time to tune in the channels and perform a few other necessary steps. Before starting – and this is unavoidably a bit technical - you’ll need to ensure your PC and router are configured to use the UPnP protocol, although most are by default. Sorry, but if you encounter difficulties, you’ll have to check your router’s instructions for help. Whilst it is possible to use the Android or iOS app for initial setup, we would advise using a PC in case you need to troubleshoot, not to mention the fact touchscreen interfaces aren’t necessarily the best for this type of procedure.
You access the setup screen via your web browser or app; in the case of the browser route, you’ll need to find the VBox on your home network using a PC, and then right click to find its assigned IP address. We would advise going for the Quick Setup option and then hitting Auto Tune and you should then quickly have all the channels and services scanned in. In our case, the process took around seven minutes with everything we ought to receive duly tuned – including 12 HD channels. The software now deals with instances where you receive the same channel from two different transmitters, if you live in a marginal area, and channels are now thankfully sorted by their LCN (Logical Channel Number), meaning you get BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4 etc in the order you would usually expect; this wasn’t the case before and a definite step ahead in usability for us in the UK. You can sort the channels in any order you wish, via the setup interface, and delete any you don’t want there too, which is a definite bonus given the amount of dross on DTV.
Perhaps the fact we’ve had to devote so much page space to the set up section is telling; certainly, in terms of getting up and running - and subsequently having the wherewithal to deal with any issues - a certain ‘PC-savviness’ is required although, once done, the feature-set and applications definitely have mass appeal and, as we’re about to find out, simple to use.
Using itThe VBox makes an assault on a couple of potential markets – one very large and the other more niche. Clearly folks like to stream TV to their mobile devices nowadays and the VBox - and its apps for iOS and Android - do that very well indeed. We have to stress that our WiFi network is pretty strong and stable with a fairly high-end 802.11ac router but the manufacturer says a 802.11n router should be sufficient. Testing was done using an iPad 4, Hudl 2, Minix X8-H Plus, a Windows 7 laptop and through KODI on the Minix Z64W and, as yet, an Android box still waiting to be reviewed.
The user interface is consistent over the Android and iOS mobile devices and although it isn’t the prettiest, it is functional. The Home Screen shows you your most viewed channels there’s a shortcut bar at the bottom with icons for ‘Home’, ‘Guide’, ‘Live TV’, ‘My Zone’ and ‘Settings’. The Electronic Programme 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 – including series link - 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 lets you channel surf and shows extended programme information. The settings menu allows you to add timer paddings - ranging from 2 minutes before and after the scheduled start, up to 20 minutes either side – which we liked - and recordings were solidly & reliably made. One thing to note is that if you want to record to network attached storage, rather than a local USB device, you will need to specify that from the browser interface as there is no facility to do so in the apps or from KODI. The software is sophisticated enough to let you begin watching recordings before the programme has ended and, in theory, the number of devices connected to the VBox is limited only by the available bandwidth on your home network.There are two tuners built-in, meaning you can watch one programme (or a recording) but in practise we found that any more than 2 with HD channels - or 3 with a mixture of high and standard definition and we’d all start hitting the buffers.
We have to say the iOS implementation seems quite a bit better than on Android with reception of HD channels no problem from virtually anywhere in the home for our iPad. This wasn’t quite the case with the various Android devices we tested. There were no issues with the SD channels but the HD ones were unwatchable a couple of rooms away on the Hudl and an Android box although, to be fair, the iPad does have better hardware than both..
It should be noted that there are two separate apps for Android, with a dedicated one for TV Boxes available which has a remote friendly interface and the whole presentation is more attractive. The Minix performed markedly better with that, naturally, and if you check the ‘Use Native Player’ option in the app settings, you can make it output 50Hz (which UK broadcasts are) rather than the 60Hz of the mobile app; it doesn’t look so bad on a tablet or phone but the mismatch between the framerate of the content (25 frames per second) and the output frequency is glaringly obvious on the big screen. It should also be noted that most Android TV Boxes aren’t capable of automatic frequency switching, especially with 50Hz, so the Minix devices are a fairly rare breed in doing so and you’ll need to manually adjust the display settings of the device to get the right signal to your TV.
There is another issue with all the apps, in that some of the EPG data won’t load up and this applies to all the HD channels, regardless of hardware or software platform used. This is apparently down to the fact the Freeview HD doesn’t implement any Digital Rights Management (DRM) on the channels, themselves, but instead places it on the HD sections of the programme guide to prevent them being copied. The obvious workaround is to look at the EPG data for the corresponding SD channel - if you want to watch or record something - but it’s not ideal and leaves recordings unlabelled. There’s a workaround in KODI (see below) involving using an XML grabber to download programme info from the internet but that’s beyond most people’s expertise and, more so, tolerance levels – I haven’t got involved with such things since the days of the Topfield TF8500 nearly ten years ago and I’m not about to start again. This does mean HD recordings aren’t subject to any DRM so can then be copied for archive purposes but we’d rather have the data. We’ve subsequently spoken to VBox abput this issue and they tell us they already have a beta firmware to fix it, so that will be rolled out to the UK soon. We’ll update the review when we’ve had a chance to try it out.
In terms of accessing the VBox XTi 3342 through a web browser we found the best bet to be Firefox. There used to be a Chrome plug-in but Google has pulled support for the Net Space API (NPAPI) which means you’re now unable to view programmes through it. We also had no luck with Internet Explorer, although that is supposed to work, according to VBox. Owners of Samsung Smart TVs from 2013 and 2014 get a dedicated app available through the Samsung app store but owners of the 2015 Tizen Smart TVs will have to wait on a new app being released (it is in the works), again, we’ll update the review once we’ve had a chance to try that out.
The VBox also has a couple of other nifty features; by setting up 'Remote Access,' you are able to access and schedule recordings wherever you have an internet connection, via the apps, KODI or a browser and users of the Android app can download their recorded content to their device to allow for those times when an internet connection isn't available. All in all, the number of ways you can watch both live and recorded is very impressive and lives up to the name TV Gateway.
VBox TV Gateway KODIWe tested the VBox TV Gateway with a number of devices running KODI 15.2, including the Minix X8-H Plus, NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV, a Windows 10 mini PC and a Chromebox running OpenELEC with slightly mixed results. Getting the XTi 3342 to work within KODI is easy enough; it’s simply a case of enabling Live TV in the KODI settings and activating the VBox TV Gateway PVR add-on from the official KODI repository, you may need to restart to get the guide data loaded but the process takes under 30 seconds.
We experimented with three different ‘Skins’ (User Interfaces) – Confluence, Mimic and the FTV skin modified for live TV with performance consistent throughout. That was good news for the Windows PC and Chromebox but, again, the performance in Android was lacking support for 50Hz output, where it wasn’t an issue on the other operating systems. The Chromebox, in particular, produced excellent images matching broadcast HD quality and although it took several seconds before switching to 50Hz output, at least it did so in the end. To add to the choppy playback, for reasons we’ve been unable to identify, playback through KODI on the Minix was punctuated by severe buffering problems which definitely weren’t down to our network. The X8-H Plus is actually one of VBox’s recommended devices so the behaviour is odd, to say the least, and both manufacturers are investigating this issue for us. So the short story is, the VBox TV Gateway works excellently through KODi, but there could be issues with Android devices, on which you will also need to manually adjust video output to 50Hz.
Update: since publishing, we were provided a beta release of Minix XBMC (manufacturer's tailored version of KODI) and all the issues described above completely vanished so the issue is definitely within mainline KODI; with the new version installed, picture quality via the X8-H Plus rivalled that of the Chromebox.
- Fairly easy to set up
- Works with almost all networked devices
- Series record & other good PVR features
- Broadcast quality pictures (with the right device)
- Recording to networked storage available
- Great integration with KODI - mostly
- Some missing EPG data (fix coming)
VBox Home TV Gateway (XTi 3342) Review
Should I buy the VBox XTi 3342 TV Gateway?This device definitely has a place in the connected home. The VBox TV Gateway offers a fairly simple - and highly flexible - means of getting live and recorded broadcast TV content to virtually any device on your home network, including smartphones, tablets, PCs, media boxes, Samsung TVs and anything running KODI. For some, it may have some slightly restrictive installation requirements – ideally your router and primary TV aerial connection will be close together, your wireless home network is recommended to be a minimum of 802.11n and setup isn’t as simple as a typical PVR.
Once you have got the VBox up and running, however, it is a very user friendly system capable of sending broadcast quality live TV and recordings, including HD, all around the home with dedicated apps for iOS and Android, including a special one for Android TV boxes which is remote friendly. You can use USB or networked (NAS) storage to keep your recordings, and the VBox also plays extremely nice with KODI, with its own dedicated PVR add-on available. It doesn’t work quite so well with Android as it does on other platforms, although perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by that given the diversity of hardware. There is an issue with missing data for HD channels, on all platforms but a fix for that is incoming soon, at which point there will be no other obvious flaws.
Overall this a product we’ve really enjoyed using and we have no hesitation in giving it an AVForums Recommended Award.
Picture Quality HD9
Picture Quality SD8
Value for Money8
Our Review Ethos
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