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Digital TV goes smart

This page, started on the 14 June 2014, follows on from The digital TV minefield, which I started on the 8 May 2009 and which offers lots of background - so if you haven't read it this might be a good time! Like that page, this one is a sort of personal brainstorm, a bit like some of the recipes in The Online Cookbook- experimental notes but written tidily enough to help others too!

A TV on the blink

We bought our 32-inch Panasonic Viera LCD shortly after moving into our present home in around 2006. We did this not simply to keep up with the technology but because our old analogue telly was too deep front-to-back for our long, narrow sitting room.

A few weeks ago, this veteran - which had worked flawlessly for all those years - developed an attack of the hiccups, Specifically, it started switching spontaneously from whatever video input we were using - FeeSat, DVD recorder or DVD player - back to digital TV. Getting back to what we were watching took just long enough for us to loose critical bits of dialogue.

An investigation when the problem was at its worst revealed that this was happening pretty precisely every 30 seconds. Maybe this otherwise superb telly had reached the end of its natural life...

The resulting long chat with our tech-savvy 17-year-old grandson, Barney, got me into smart TV territory. I'd a;ready got the rig slightly smart by connecting the FreeSat player to our BT Broadband router, which allowed us to use the disappointingly crude version of BBC iPlayer and the virtually unusable version of ITV Player, both of which I took to be additions to the Humax FreeSat box's firmware and were seriosusly inferior to the versions on my PC. The idea of connecting the TV directly to the Internet, which would allow us to use the same versions of the players as on the PC, not to mention getting Channels 4 and 5's on-demand services, was very attractive. When I grasped that this would also allow me to do everything I can do on my Samsung smartphone (apart from the actual phone functions) on the TV, I got seriously interested. I would even be using the familiar environment of the Android operating system.

Just as I was getting quite excited about all this, the old Viera mysteriously recovered spontaneously from its hiccups, so the idea of coughing up several hundred quid for a new receiver became less attractive.

Watching the box - 2014 style!

However, by then Barney had mentioned 'smart TV boxes' - standalone Android 'mini-PCs' which would connect to my network, and from there to the Internet, via wi-fi and to the TV via the high quality HDMI interface.

Perfect! I could buy one of these and connect it to the Viera for as long as that lasts, and when it really conks out I could buy an LED TV without the added expense of the smart functionality.

Moreover, I wouldn't be locked into a TV's smart functionality - which is bound to go on evolving at breakneck speed - until the set dies the death. I could just replace the smart box for about fifty quid when it got a bit long in the tooth.

Decision made. I rambled indecisively around Ebay and Amazon for a couple of days and then made a decision. There is one box which is sold under many brand-names and which has a pretty mouthwatering specification. I ordered one on Ebay for just 43.08 with free postage. Where the odd 8p comes in, I can't imagine, but I'm now wating eagerly for it to arrive. I've already bought the essential 32GB mini-SD card to upgrade the box's internal 8GB of storage.

Here is the description extracted from the Ebay listing:

Android 4.2 operating system (my Samsung phone is 4.3)
RK3188T quad-core Cortex A9 main processor (this is the RISC processor developed in the 1980s by Acorn - times four!). The graphics processor is also quad-core

2G DDR3 RAM

8GB Nand flash storage (to which I will be adding a 32GB mini-SD card)

Full HD 1080P video decoding and output

Compatible with 2.4G wireless mouse and keyboard (will probably get one of those - I hate virtual keyboards)

With external wifi antenna, enhance wifi signal

You can download apps from the Google Play Store; watch videos; play games; surf the internet; use Skype, Youtube, Flicker, Facebook etc (in other words, anything you can do on the Internet - including streaming video, legally or otherwise!)

Built-in Micro SD/TF card slot, supports Micro SD/TF card up to 32GB (card not included)

Equipped with HDMI  and AV cables

Comes with a remote control powered by 2 AAA battery (not included)

Package includeds;
Android TV Box
HDMI Cable
AV Cable
Power Adapter (EU Plug)
Remote Control
User Manual

Here is the Ebay page for as long as it lasts:
http://cgi.ebay.co.uk/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=321391588336&ssPageName=ADME:L:OU:GB:3160.

Update - August 2016

The smart TV box was altogether too complicated to use and vhad rather limited Android capability. In the end we decided on a totally different solution, the decision being prompted by Patricia's deaf, visually-impaired brother's need for a bigger, clearer TV. He was familiar with our 32-inch Panasonic, so we thought we could give him that. The research that followed led me unerringly to another Panasonic Viera. This one was not HD-ready, or even full HD, but ultra-high definition (UHD), and was very smart indeed. It was also much bigger than the old set, with a 40-inch screen with a liny border allowing it to fit - just! - between my two shelf units.

So another learning curve to negotiate...

Most smart TVs have Android operating systems but this one. is based on the open-source FireFox browser, which has its own app market. Pressing the 'Apps' button on the remote revealed at BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4, Demand5, NetFlix, Amazon Video and a range of other preinstalled apps. I had already decided to subscribe to Amazon Prime (which, with its one-day free delivery, immediately transformed our shopping behaviour) so the prospect of loads of free video content was irresistible. Stepson Aidan gave me his NetFlix login, though he has since cancelled his suibscription. He also gave us a NowTV box, but I haven't got to grips with that yet.

Extra goodies include three USB sockets (as well as 3 HDMIs). I bought a 128GB USB flash card and am currently watching Game of Thrones (downloaded by Aidan from some 'torrent' or other) from that.

The only down side is that the UHD screen doesn't do standard definition programmes as well as the old HD-Ready one did - the rendering is quite fuzzy. Ordinary HD is great, and the Olympics have really been brought to life on the BBC. Amazon has quite a lot of UHD viseo, including the other real goody - the first two seaons of Bosch, my favourite fictional detective.

FreeView Play is a definite disappointment. It is supposed to give you an intuitive programme guide that allows you to scroll backward from the present day for catch-up as easily as you scroll forwards through future programmes. In practice, I find the channels' catch-up apps (which is where FreeView Play takes you anyway) easier and more untuitive.

Viewing of online content isn't quite as intuitive as watching my own recorded stuff. Fast-forward and rewind don't let you see the picture at high speed so getting back or forward to where you want to be is rather hit-and-miss.

All in all, though, a really good move forward.