A few years ago I purchased a (Netgem) BT Iplayer Freeview box (a returned sale) for Â£30 from ebay so I could get Freeview in my room in a student house in Belfast. Now, a couple of years on, I’ve decided to share my experience of this particular piece of kit.
From what I’d read on the subject on the internet, it seemed unlikely that the loop antenna on my TV wouldn’t be sufficient to receive DTT (Freeview), even though the iPlayer supposedly performed better than other boxes when there was a weak signal. I assumed my house would have poor reception (particularly in my downstairs room) so I also grabbed an amplified set-top aerial from Argos and was initially quite impressed with the quality of the picture and sound. In fact, aside from the fact that initially the EPG was only a now/next (see below), I would have been delighted.
The box immediately auto-tuned to pick up the available channels; the standard 5, plus ITV2, BBC Three and Four etc. The picture’s good, although subject to interference from mobile phones and cars outside (I blame that on the set-top aerial though). The on-screen display menus make it easy to configure your box the way you like it.
The box itself is packed with features. Mine was the BT Iplayer, meaning that although it was manufactured by Netgem, it was BT-branded and came with different features, such as on-screen caller ID when plugged into your phone line, at the expense of a Top-Up TV slot (which wasn’t a problem as I wouldn’t waste my money on Topup TV anyway). Other than that the boxes were nearly identical, and thanks to a subsequent software upgrade (downloaded through the box’s built-in modem) I now have a Topup TV-capable “Iplayer+” (complete with 7-day EPG) anyway.
The Iplayer also has a USB port allowing you to plug in and play songs or video from an MP3 player or memory stick.
According to other users on the (now defunct) Iplayer user/support forum, the box should (in theory) playback MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 files with a bitrate of up to around 3.5Mbps and less than 2GB in total size. However I’ve tried various movies and the only one to work was a small (MPEG 1) email attachment – various other videos just completely refused to play. I never did determine whether this is due to the wireless connection or the video-processing limitations of the box itself.
It’s also through this USB port that you can attach a Wi-Fi adaptor to enjoy wireless networking on your Iplayer – allowing it to play shared audio/video files from your PC and to use your wireless home network to access the internet. Unfortunately, as the box is several years old and Netgem don’t support it (at least in any meaningful way) any longer, the technology is slightly out of date. The Iplayer Wi-Fi connectivity doesn’t support WPA security, only going so far as the more easily cracked WEP (64 or 128-bit) and compatability seems to be limited to a handful of old USB adaptors (more ebay hunting, since most are no longer in production) which only run in 802.11b mode at 11Mbps. I wouldn’t have a problem with the lax security if it was only on the Iplayer, however to connect the Iplayer at all means I have to also disable WPA on my router, hence my PC is also connected using the insecure encryption.
You can use the Wi-Fi connection to connect to the internet using the Iplayer’s own browser, however if you don’t want the hassle of the wireless setup, you can connect to the internet to your dial-up ISP through the built-in modem. As well as the internet you will be able to send and receive POP mail through the Iplayer.
The first time you connect the box will download logos for the channels (which will then be displayed in the EPG) and will also check for software updates. I did this through the built-in modem at the time, but I presume it would do the same if you connect using WiFi.
The browser itself is quite basic and it’s often not the easiest thing to read a website from a TV screen, but the basic functionality’s all there, including some CSS formatting. In older software versions there were reported problems with some complicated sites (Yahoo mail particularly sticks out in my mind) but all I can say from my own experience is that it seems to work ok with Gmail.
Netgem themselves seem to have given up supporting the Iplayer in the UK, now focusing on the apparently more lucrative (for them anyway) French market. Their website, Netgem.com, now focuses on their activities there, with the UK Iplayer relegated to Iplayer.co.uk, which doesn’t seem to have been updated in a few years.
When I got my Iplayer way back when, the main (only?) source of support was the official forum, which used to be frequented by at least one member of Netgem’s staff, but has been completely locked (no new posts allowed) since October 2005.
Even today, managing to get one at Â£30 would make it a good little purchase. The main downfalls are, as I’ve mentioned the slow and insecure wireless, but I guess beggars can’t be choosers. I had a quick look on google for Freeview boxes with WiFi and didn’t find much, so I guess if you want internet through your Freeview box it’s still a decent choice. The picture/sound quality sounds ok to my untrained ear and the EPG is as functional as any (and less frustrating than ntl’s). As long as you don’t expect any support from Netgem, and you’re not looking for a multimedia centre, the Iplayer’s a good buy.