SiliconDust HDHomeRun CONNECT review

Streaming TV online is one way to watch television these days, if restricted to catch-up services of programmes posted for a short time after first airing. But live over-the-air broadcasting continues as the most popular and easiest way to watch TV in the UK. For traditional UHF broadcasting for reception by your roof aerial, that now means Freeview for terrestrial TV services, and its high-definition adjunct of Freeview HD.

When it comes to watching Freeview without using a traditional television set, the computer and technology enthusiast is well served by USB adaptors that plug directly into a PC, and now even straight into the ports of smartphones and tablets. But assuming you just want to watch telly at home rather than while travelling, there’s now a much better way to enjoy television on just about any device in the home with a screen – the network television tuner.

This works just like a simple USB digital TV adaptor, but the adaptor box connects to your home router with an ethernet cable, and then shares what it tunes to over your entire home network. This setup can be used by wired or wireless devices. All you need to do is make sure your aerial socket and router are within reach of each other by connecting cables.

SiliconDust is a US company that has specialised in the network-connected TV tuner since 2007, designing a range of hardware units it calls HDHomeRun. Another digital-TV-for-PC specialist, Elgato, was even stocking its products for use with its EyeTV for Mac software, before launching a network TV adaptor of its own – the Elgato Netstream DTT.

At PC Advisor we found the Netstream to be a great solution for watching television on a Mac, Windows PC or iPad, and awarded the Netstream the Best Digital Home Device of 2012. Satellite network tuners followed, complete with Freesat HD capability to pick up all the usual stations and more, without needing any subscription to Sky.

Unfortunately Elgato has now discontinued the Netstream DTT unit, which for the UK and other worldwide markets was becoming increasingly obsolete due its non-HD credentials. Specifically it could only work with the original DVB-T standard for digital terrestrial broadcasts, which all but limits it to standard-definition video only. The DVB-T2 introduced HD TV to the UK, and is now in use in upwards of 24 countries around the world, with even holdouts such as France, Germany and Spain now rolling out trials for more widespread adoption soon.

Until recently receiving Freeview HD on your choice of any computer or mobile device was not possible, with Elgato abandoning the opportunity to update its DVB-T Netstream product. A solution now finally exists for the DVB-T2 service though. Step up the SiliconDust HDHomeRun CONNECT. Like the lauded Elgato Netstream the HDHomeRun CONNECT is a network TV adaptor with two separate tuners, allowing two programmes to be watched or recorded at once.

It just needs an aerial feed such as from your usual wall socket, and a wired ethernet connection to your router. If your home has enough family members with divergent tastes to make two stations too few for comfort, you can add another device, with a second HDHomeRun CONNECT box able to expand available station coverage to four. But beware that with HD stations especially, you may find some network congestion that causes small glitches to deny smooth playback. And that’s over a wired network – if you want to stream television over Wi-Fi you’ll likely need to confine your viewing to non-HD channels, even when the latest 802.11ac is an option.

HDHomeRun CONNECT review: Build and Design

The SiliconDust hardware here is a small plastic box 92 x 93 mm and 28 mm high, with just three connectors on the back panel – a female TV aerial socket, 10/100 ethernet port and DC power inlet. Supplied in the box is a 5 V mains adaptor and short length of ethernet cable. Build quality is satisfactory, not as streamlined in appearance as the Elgato Netstream but for a product that will probably be stowed out of sight after first setup there is no need for designer styling.

Note that there is no portable antenna included, but since HD broadcasts in particular require a good RF signal the HDHomeRun is best used with an installed roof aerial.

If you haven’t tried to receive Freeview HD before, it’s also possible you may need a new aerial, as in some parts of the country the HD broadcasts are on channels distantly separated from those you would have tuned to in analogue-only days. A new wideband antenna is the solution if this affects you.

HDHomeRun CONNECT ports

SiliconDust supplies its own software for Windows, OS X and Linux operating systems, as well as a mobile app for Google Android. The HDHomeRun VIEW application is sufficient to watch live Freeview and Freeview HD broadcasting, although there is no provision for recording or even pausing live TV.

SiliconDust is working on its own personal video recorder (PVR) solution, the HDHomeRun DVR, with a Kickstarter campaign to fund development of a software package that will simplify the recording of broadcast streams from the HDHomeRun CONNECT to a NAS drive on your network. This has the major benefit of not requiring a personal computer to be switched on at all times, waiting to record scheduled programmes. At time of review this DVR software solution is planned for launch in August 2015.

You can already record and pause TV now though, with the help of some additional software. Windows users that still have Windows Media Center available can use WMC to watch and record TV on their PC. For Mac users, Elgato EyeTV 3 is the answer, available to buy separately from Elgato’s hardware devices for £59.95, while the companion EyeTV mobile app is on the App Store at £3.99.

For iOS and Android users there is the InstaTV Pro app, free to download and costing £8.99 for the required in-app purchase to support HDHomeRun.

There are also several free and open-source media-centre solutions for Linux and other platforms, such as MythTV and Kodi (formerly XBMC).

HDHomeRun CONNECT review: How to view live television

We tried the HDHomeRun CONNECT first on a Mac, downloading the HDHomeRun Utilities software package from SiliconDust website as instructed. As with its Windows version, this package comprises the core HDHomeRun VIEW application, to view live TV; and terminal script that checks current firmware, and downloads and install any updates it finds online. In our case, the firmware was updated from 20150505 to 20150605. The process initially failed in OS X, likely due to our third-party installed network filter, but then successfully concluded almost instantly when we tried with Windows 7.

HDHomeRun CONNECT software

A web-browser interface is also available by pointing your browser at my.hdhomerun.com. This provides an overview page of the device with assorted information such as the available channel list, firmware version, and handy links for more software for various computer and device platforms.

Using the VIEW software you can easily switch between available stations, with a vertical strip appearing down the right side of the screen. Thumbnail images are embedded that help you quickly identify each station visually.

In addition you can use the free VLC application to view live TV streams from the device. We found the easiest way to tune in was via another SiliconDust software utility CONFIG GUI, which also provides more background technical details about the transmission and local network streams, for the technically inclined.

HDHomeRun CONNECT review: How to record live television

To check on recording capability, we used Elgato EyeTV 3.6.8 software, launching the application’s Setup Wizard to first find and communicate with the CONNECT device on the network. After a quick channel scan through the available digital TV broadcast multiplexes, we found over 100 stations on nine multiplexes – including the long-awaited Freeview HD stations.

At our location receiving from the Crystal Palace transmitter, we were seeing six multiplexes broadcasting using the original DVB-T standard; and a further three using the newer DVB-T2 system, totalling 12 HD channels (BBC ONE HD, TWO HD, THREE HD, FOUR HD, BBC NEWS HD, ITV HD, Channel 4 HD, Channel 4+1 HD, Al Jazeera HD, 4seven HD; also listed were QVC Beauty HD and QVC HD +1).

These channels are transmitted as MPEG-4 AVC video with 1080i/25 resolution, and audio is AAC 16-bit/48 kHz, with bitrate at 128 kb/s for regular stereo broadcasts. In addition, some feature films and sporting events such as Wimbledon may be broadcasted with 5.1-channel surround sound, again using AAC but at a slightly higher bitrate of 320 kb/s.

In use the SiliconDust unit performed very well, letting us view or record stations with excellent image and sound quality. There is a slight pause whenever changing channels, around one second, although many modern TVs are also far from instant in this respect.

HDHomeRun CONNECT live TV

For standard-definition broadcasts the streamed video and audio were faultless, although for HD stations we did sometimes experience occasional glitches, such as small stutters followed momentarily by a flutter of tiny MPEG block artefacts. For the most part though the viewing experience was seamless.

When it came to recording, the Elgato EyeTV software could record on-demand or by schedule, using the standard DVB electronic programme guide (EPG) to populate up to two weeks of listed schedules.

Note that while free-to-air television broadcasts are protected from any form of DRM or encryption by law, the BBC did secretly push for digital copy restrictions to be imposed on the new DVB-T2 service for Freeview HD. This was approved by OFCOM in 2009, and thus when recordings are made by a PVR system, the hardware manufacturer is impelled to encrypt the recording on to hard disk, to prevent it being played on any another device. Manufacturers can ignore the BBC’s direction to scramble recordings but are then denied access to an improved EPG that is broadcasted alongside the usual channels.

We did encounter an issue with Elgato EyeTV unable to cleanly export recorded HD programmes in native format, although current investigations suggest this is not an imposed DRM issue but a bug in the software. When recordings are set to transcode to another video format before output, such as to play at lower resolution on iPad, the programme was exported without corruption.

SiliconDust HDHomeRun CONNECT: Specs

  • Freeview HD network TV tuner
  • 2x DVB/DVB-T2 tuners
  • 10/100 ethernet
  • 5 V/1.1 A mains adaptor
  • 1.83m ethernet cable
  • DLNA compatible
  • 92 x 93 x 28mm
  • Freeview HD network TV tuner
  • 2x DVB/DVB-T2 tuners
  • 10/100 ethernet
  • 5 V/1.1 A mains adaptor
  • 1.83m ethernet cable
  • DLNA compatible
  • 92 x 93 x 28mm

OUR VERDICT

SiliconDust's new HDHomeRunConnect fills a long-awaited hole, a digital TV tuner for terrestrial Freeview HD services, and crucially one that is platform agnostic – an important job in the new world of consumer technology that's no longer focused on a single computer platform. At the price and given its versatility, this solution must be recommended highly.

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