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Netgem Netbox 4K review: Freeview Play, recording and 4K streaming all in one box

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
99

The Netbox 4K's UI may not be for everyone, but at its core this is a great 4K streamer and recorder

Pros 
Easy and efficient setup
4K, HDR10 and Dolby Atmos
Superb HD and UHD picture quality
Cons 
No Netflix or Now TV
Poor remote control
Apps and TV guide buried in UI
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In 2020 Freeview Play is everywhere, coming pre-installed on TVs from LG, Panasonic, Philips and Toshiba, amongst others, and on affordable set-top-boxes from Humax, Panasonic and Manhattan. Back in 2018, though, things weren’t so great for Freeview Play. The service was new and struggling to match BT’s YouView on many features, and many of the set-top-boxes carried price tags that they struggled to justify.

And that explains why we loved Netgem’s Netbox HD, which gave you all the features of Freeview Play, bar recording, for a more reasonable £70. The Netbox 4K is effectively the 4K-capable version, giving you HD broadcasts and 4K streaming along with recording capabilities, though there’s no storage in the unit itself. It’s obviously more expensive than the Netbox HD too, with an asking price of £99, but is it worth the extra cash?

READ NEXT: The best Freeview PVR and set-top boxes

Netgem Netbox 4K review: What you need to know

In case you’re not really sure what Freeview Play is all about, it’s basically the next generation of Freeview HD services, combining HD broadcasts with catch-up TV and streaming services in a single user interface. Along with this came what used to be Freeview Play’s ace in the hole: the ability to scroll backwards through the TV guide and watch programmes that had already been shown up to seven days prior. Instead of starting up, say, the BBC iPlayer app and searching for the programme there, you just picked it out from the Freeview Play guide and waited until it found the stream.

The Netgem Netbox 4K gives you all this wrapped inside Netgem’s own UI, which aims to give you a more personalised entertainment experience enhanced by an accompanying app. What’s more, the 4K model also has recording features, though these come with a couple of caveats. Firstly, there’s only one tuner. Secondly, there’s no onboard storage; you have to plug in a USB stick or hard drive to cover storage and playback. Netgem states that it supports external HDDs but hasn’t said if there’s an upper limit. The only storage devices I had on hand were an 128GB memory stick, which worked fine, and a 2TB HDD which did not.

Netgem Netbox 4K review: Price and competition

Frustratingly, at the time of this review Netgem's Netbox 4K is out of stock on Amazon UK. It also appears that Amazon is the sole retailer of the 4K box. Netgem assures us that new stock will be arriving soon, at a price of £99 per unit, so keep an eye out. Meanwhile, at the time of writing, Netgem's Netbox HD is going for just £49.

The Netbox 4K’s main competitor is the Manhattan T3, which also combines HD broadcasts and 4K catch-up and streaming for £80. The T3 doesn’t have recording, however, so if that's a feature you require then the Netbox 4K has the T3 beat. Alternatively, you could to step up to the larger Manhattan T3-R, which comes with a 500GB HDD for £170 or a 1TB HDD for £200.

The other Freeview Play alternatives are more expensive recorders, namely the Humax FVP-5000T, which starts at £190, and the Panasonic DMR-HWT150EB, starting at around £200.

Beyond that, your options are satellite-based, including Sky Q services, starting at £25 a month, or subscription-free Freesat set-top-boxes, with the Manhattan SX just £50. Of course, if you haven’t got a dish already, you’ll need to budget from £100 to get one supplied and fitted.

Netgem Netbox 4K review: Design

The Netbox 4K is a compact square unit. Measuring around 130mm on each side and standing just 40mm high, it’s actually a little smaller than its HD sibling, and the rounded corners give it a nicer, less angular look. There’s not much to it, otherwise, with just a logo on the top and a slim LED indicator bar at the front, which glows blue when the box is on and red when it’s in standby.

The inputs and outputs are around the back, with an RF aerial in, USB 3.0 and 100Mbit Ethernet connections, the power socket and HDMI and S/PFDIF digital audio outputs.

Netgem supplies the box with aerial and HDMI cables, a wall-wart power supply and a remote control. The latter is one of the worst points about this unit, with a more complex and less intuitive layout than the one that came with the Netbox HD, slightly unresponsive buttons and a particularly fiddly cursor pad. If I was planning to use the Netbox 4K every day, I’d be looking to replace this with a compatible universal remote.

READ NEXT: The best smart TV platforms

Netgem Netbox 4K review: Setup and ease-of-use

One thing Netgem excels in is its setup process, which takes you quietly and efficiently through connecting to a wired or wireless network and entering a PIN code for parental controls. And while you’re doing that, it’s already trying to find and organise your channels in the background, sparing you the usual boring channel scan. Credit, too, for making smartphone pairing part of the setup routine, so that the accompanying app’s all ready to use by the time you’re watching telly.

Sadly, something seems to have gone awry with the rest of the UI. This is a totally subjective issue, but I like to have the TV Guide front and centre and other services available at a button press, whereas Netgem has gone for a slightly weirder presentation. Different programmes and movies from a whole range of broadcast, catch-up and streaming sources are all brought together in one screen, the idea being that it will highlight the TV you’re going to like best straight to you. But I’m not sure it works. In fact, I think it gets in the way.

For instance, with no Netflix available on the Netbox 4K, your main sources of 4K content are going to be Amazon Prime Video and YouTube. Yet, where many rivals put the core apps just a click or two away, Netgem’s UI puts them on the Netgem.TV page underneath its selection of the content and genres it thinks you’re going to like. Apparently, this aids discoverability, as you get a whole bunch of programmes and movies tailored to you when you first open the page.

However, this means that you have to pick the content you can access – because you have an Amazon Prime subscription – from a load of content that you can’t – because you haven’t signed up for Rakuten TV.

And, frankly, I’d rather do my discovering with Amazon’s UI than Netgem’s, even if this means having to hunt through several apps. As the box has a universal search feature, this wouldn’t be necessary, anyway. It feels a bit like this with the broadcast TV services as well. There is a traditional seven-day scrolling EPG, but it’s hard to find within Netgem’s UI. Instead, you’re better off pressing the guide button on the remote.

After a couple of days I got used to the Netbox 4K’s idiosyncrasies, and using the smartphone app can help because, while it still goes heavy on recommendations, it’s easier to get to the regular TV guide. You can set reminders and cast programmes to your TV straight from the app, which also means you can spend less time using the remote.

Netgem Netbox 4K review: Performance

The UI issues are a bit of a shame, because the performance of the 4K box is fantastic. HD programmes look great, with impressive detail and nice, natural colours. 4K content on Amazon Prime Video is even better, revealing all the textures in the gritty, industrial sci-fi of The Expanse, and doing a spectacular job of resolving action scenes in The Avengers: Endgame.

4K Trailers for No Time to Die, Doom Eternal and the Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson vehicle Jungle Cruise also look amazing and, going from one source to another, there’s no visible difference between the presentation from the Netbox and how the same content looks streaming to the native apps on my Samsung TV.

HDR10 is supported, as is Dolby Atmos, though there’s no support for Dolby Vision. Still, if you have a Dolby Vision-capable TV, you’ve probably got your streaming needs covered by the built-in apps.

Our biggest issue, as with so many streaming/broadcast devices, is app support. We get Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and Rakuten TV along with all the major catch-up services, but no Netflix or Now TV. If you’re selling a box as an all-in-one TV solution, Netflix is simply a must have. The Netbox 4K supports BritBox too, though that hardly makes up for the apps it's missing. 

READ NEXT: What is HDR TV?

Netgem Netbox 4K review: Verdict

To be fair to the Netbox 4K, most of its rivals suffer from similar problems: the Manhattan T3 and Manhattan T3-R are superb streaming and TV units, but they can’t boast support for Netflix, Now TV or Amazon Prime. However, for me the Manhattan T3 pulls slightly of the Netbox 4K ahead because of its more conventional UI and lower cost of £80. The T3 lacks recording, of course, and if that's something you really want then the £99 Netbox 4K seems to be your next cheapest option.     

It’s hard to fault the Netbox 4K on performance, but it makes you wonder whether you’d be better off with a separate HD recorder and a 4K streaming stick with wider app support.

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