by Peter Griffin | from the New Zealand Herald

Digital satellite TV operator Freeview admits a “stuff-up” with its flagship brand of set-top boxes marred the service’s launch, but says the technical glitches are now behind it.

Freeview general manager Steve Browning said it was too early to give accurate Freeview sales figures and that a clear picture of usage patterns would not emerge until ratings company ACNielsen began collecting viewer-trend information for the platform.

Technical problems with one of the two Freeview-approved set-top boxes led to many having to be returned by customers, while other glitches were able to be fixed with an over-the-air software update from the Optus D1 satellite.

Browning said new channels, such as the family and 24-hour news channels in the works at TVNZ, would make the Freeview proposition more attractive. He had also been talking with radio-station operators who were struggling to find sufficient FM radio frequencies to expand their services and were considering Freeview as an alternative platform.

Despite issues with the Zinwell set-top box, Browning said it was the more popular of the two currently selling in stores. He put that down to the presence of an RF (radio frequency) connector on the back of the Zinwell box, which gives users the option of plugging it directly into the aerial socket on their TV sets.

However, most users are connecting their set-top boxes via AV (audio-visual) cables as they offer a better signal. AV connections are standard on all but the oldest of TV sets.

The Business Herald took a look at the two official digital set-top boxes on the market.

Hills Satellite Receiver

Price: $299

Herald rating: 7/10 What strikes you about the Hills set-top box is how small it is compared to its Zinwell rival.

The Hills receiver has a profile similar to that of the slim-line PlayStation 2 console and like the PS2 can be positioned vertically to save space. Hills uses a European Scart connection to link the receiver to the TV’s AV (audio-visual) inputs.

There are two Scart connections, one for the TV and one to feed the signal to a VCR or digital recorder. I’m not a big fan of Scart cables, but they seem to work fine here. Set-up was a breeze – I simply plugged the satellite lead coming from the wall into the Hills box, connected the Scart cable to my TV, plugged in the power cable and was away.

The Hills logo pops up on your TV screen when you first boot up the receiver and set the TV to an AV channel. An online menu then appears and asks you to set your geographical region.

Tuning of the channels is automatic. A screen showed me the signal strength of the satellite feed – virtually 100 per cent on the Hills bar graph. I exited the menu and was greeted by a crystal-clear TV One. The channels were listed in order, one through five, the latter being Maori TV and channel 20 reserved for V8 Supercar coverage.

A basic four-digit display on the front of the Hills box tells you what channel you are on. Button functionality on the receiver itself is minimal, with the remote control and electronic menu system favoured for adjusting settings.

The menu and eight-day electronic programming guide are simply laid out and straightforward to use.

While the Hills box does everything advertised well, it’s slightly lacking in the aesthetics department. The box is made of standard silver and white plastic, and the remote control has a gaudy, plastic feel to it.

Again, the comparison with the PS2 comes in handy. That is a device that with a DVD drive and computer processor, is much more sophisticated than the Hills receiver. Yet it looks much better and sells for $220.

At least you can tuck the Hills receiver away out of sight.

Zinwell Satellite Receiver

Price: $299

Herald rating: 5/10

The Zinwell receiver has a larger form factor than its Hills rival, although it performs almost the exact same set of functions.

The most obvious differences between the two are discovered when you look at the rear of the Zinwell box – it has more options when it comes to connectivity, notably the RF connector mentioned above. The presence of standard composite video and component connectors give you better options when it comes to cabling.

Again, set-up was simple. The menu screen asked me to set my region and then automatically found the channels for me.

That is where things started to go wrong: the Zinwell box failed to pick up channels 3 and 4. After repeating the process several times I gave up and rang Zinwell service agent Next Electronics. I was sent an email with instructions on how to manually tune the channels. However, following those instructions failed to produce anything.

“If you still cannot receive the missing channels, after manual tuning, then your antenna dish and LNB most likely needs professional alignment by an accredited installer,” an email from Next stated.

That was despite the Hills receiver and my Sky receiver, wh
ich connect to the same Optus D1 satellite, picking up all channels. It seems my Zinwell receiver hadn’t picked up the over-the-air software upgrade that was issued to fix the initial glitches with the box.

The Zinwell receiver does have the additional options of programmable timers and favourite channel lists.

But again, the box seems pricey for its basic functionality and the average quality of the hardware and remote. Hardware this common around the world should be cheaper and glitch-free right from the start.