Back in June we spoke to Netgem boss Sylvain Thevenot about the firm’s two new Freeview Play set top boxes, the NetBox HD and SoundBox HD, and we’ve now had a chance to get some in-depth hands-on time with both models.
The cheaper of the two boxes, the NetBox HD is a compact non-recording set top box that is roughly the same size as an Apple TV or Amazon’s FireTV, while the larger and also non-recording SoundBox HD integrates a set top box with a soundbar.
As you’d expect from two simultaneously launched products, both models use the same software and user interface and, as is common with all Freeview Play devices, offer access to all Freeview channels – including High Definition – available in your area alongside catch-up apps from the BBC, ITV, Channels 4 and 5 and UKTV.
On top of this, Netgem includes a number of subscription apps including Rakuten TV, Hopster, Hayu and its headline app, Amazon Prime Video & Music, all of which can be accessed through the box’s ‘home screen’.
We’re also told that YouTube will arrive “very soon”.
Setting up the boxes is a breeze – simply plug in the power lead and aerial cable, decide whether you want to use WiFi or an ethernet cable so you can access the streaming content, and connect the device to a spare HDMI port on your telly.
All that’s left is to follow the onscreen prompts through, what for most users will be, a two stage set-up process of telling the box which type of internet connection you’re using and picking a parental code.
While you’re doing this, the box automatically scans for available Freeview channels, if you think it’s found too few you can choose to rescan at an optional stage three but most users are likely to find this unnecessary.
The onscreen Freeview programme guide, the home screen (a page which combines broadcast shows with catch-up content), and the Netgem TV page (here you’ll find all the subscription apps), have a fresh and sophisticated feel about them, with nice, easy to read fonts and a good choice of colours to ensure they’re legible and comfortable to read.
But while we liked the look and feel of them, the lack of onscreen signposting risks some users not immediately understanding the need to navigate all the way to the top of the screen in order to switch between the Freeview and Netgem menus, and this is something the firm should maybe revisit in a future software update.
(If you’re wondering why the two sets of content are presented separately in the first place, this is because of restrictions put in place by Freeview who require paid-for and third party content to be clearly separated from its own services.)
While the boxes have only just launched, Netgem hasn’t be resting and updates are already on their way, with a more personalised UI including recommendations due to hit boxes by Christmas.
While both boxes will help you make your ageing TV ‘smart’ it’s worth noting that they need to be connected via a HDMI cable so if you’re still using that ancient old set with its SCART sockets, these aren’t going to work.
Most set top box makers are dropping SCART, which is ancient technology dating back to the 1970s and won’t deliver the High Definition and 4K Ultra High Definition pictures many viewers expect in 2018.
While you can still find some Freeview, Freesat and YouView set top boxes with a SCART socket, you might be better investing your money in a new TV rather than a set top box.
In addition to the HDMI slot, both boxes also feature an aerial-in connection, an ethernet port (as noted above, you can use WiFi if you prefer), the power connector and a USB-port for servicing.
The NetBox HD also features a S/PDIF digital audio out connection for optionally connecting it to a sound system.
As it includes an integrated soundbar, the SoundBox HD has no need for audio cable connections but you can use its Bluetooth connection to play music and other audio from your smartphone, computer or tablet.
The decision to integrate the set top box and soundbar into a single unit means you won’t need multiple remote controls, saves space under the TV and reduces the number of connections and electrical plugs you need to accommodate.
Even better, the SoundBox HD delivers great sound, with several different audio modes available to you suit your taste. If you’re currently still relying on your TV’s in-built speakers, you won’t fail to be impressed at the difference
While neither box can record programmes, something that many users find decreasingly necessary in an age of catch-up players, both allow you to live pause shows so you can leave the room without missing any of the action.
Netgem’s point of differentiation with other Freeview Play device makers is its partnership with Amazon which sees not only the inclusion of Prime Video among the subscription apps, but also compatibility with the Alexa voice assistant, meaning Amazon Echo owners can control their set top box by voice.
In addition, every box comes with a year’s free Amazon Prime membership (normally £79), including Prime Video, for both new members and existing members who can add the free year onto the end of their existing membership period.
Both boxes provide a simple to use, easy to set-up way of watching catch-up and on-demand content on your big screen TV, with the SoundBox HD also offering a signifiant upgrade to any TV’s in-built speakers.
At £129.00 for the Netbox HD and £249.00 for the SoundBox HD both models offer great value for money, especially when you factor in that the SoundBox includes a whole year of Amazon Prime and also negates the need to buy a separate soundbar.
If you’re in the market for a new Freeview set top box or are looking to upgrade your TV listening experience without filling your room with a full surround sound system, we think both of these devices should be at the top of your options list.