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Freesat 4K TV Box review: The benchmark for Freesat set-top-boxes and recorders

Stuart Andrews
10 Mar 2020
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
125
for non-recordable box

With 4K support and Dolby Atmos, this is the most future-proof Freesat TV box you can buy

Pros 
Slick interface
Integrated streaming and catch-up services
Great HD and UHD picture quality
Cons 
No Channel 4 HD
No 4K Freesat broadcasts yet
No All4 or Now
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In the age of content streaming it has become all too easy to forget about broadcast TV, but if you want to watch live programmes or record your favourites then a recorder or set-top-box is still a must-have. That goes double if you live in an area with a weak Freeview signal, where there’s no guarantee that the aerial feed into your TV will come up with a full set of channels, particularly in HD. In this case, you’ve got two choices: a Sky subscription or a Freesat box working through an existing Sky dish.

Until last year, the biggest issue with Freesat was a lack of good, affordable hardware, but Freesat has fixed that with its own-branded set-top-boxes, which now include three recorders. These support streaming platforms and resolutions of up to 4K and now even feature their own equivalent to Freeview Play’s headline catch-up features, combined with improved software and a good remote control. Freesat still has some issues – the loss of Channel 4’s HD broadcasts being the biggest – but it no longer feels like a poor alternative to Freeview Play.

Buy now from Argos


Freesat 4K TV Box review: What you need to know

Freesat began as the satellite equivalent of Freeview, bringing all the normal digital TV services – plus a few extras – to your TV via your satellite dish. And, like Freeview, it’s getting smarter. Just as Freeview Play has added catch-up and streaming services to the platform, Freesat has embraced them too, meaning you can scroll backwards through the EPG (electronic programme guide) and play selected programmes up to a week after they’ve been broadcast, with the box grabbing the feed from the relevant catch-up TV service.

This new 4K TV box comes in four variants. The first has no recording features – it’s just a standard set-top-box – but the 500GB, 1TB and 2TB versions add live pausing features and two-channel recording in HD. And while there’s currently no live 4K broadcast content available on the service, the box is ready should it come. For now, you’re limited to what’s available through the built-in apps, meaning 4K streams from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube.

Freesat 4K TV Box review: Price and competition

The non-recording box kicks off the range at £125, with the 500GB, 1TB and 2TB models costing £200, £230 and £270 respectively. They are a little more expensive than non-smart Freesat receivers like the Manhattan SX (under £60) but cheaper than our previous Freesat go-to boxes, the Humax HDR-1100S and HB-1100S which are now near-impossible to track down.

The obvious alternatives are Sky’s TV subscription (from £25/mth) or Sky’s Freesat from Sky service, coming in at £254 as a one-off payment or £25 if you already have a dish and Sky receiver. Alternatively, you could take the Freeview Play route, with boxes starting at £60 and recorders from £170.

Freesat 4K TV Box review: Design

For the design, Freesat has wisely kept things simple. The box itself is a compact little number in a dark matte grey, just 40mm high and 250m wide (or 180mm for the non-recording model), with its only visible features a power button in the front-right corner and a glowing LED indicator bar beneath the infrared receiver at the front. There’s plenty of ventilation at the sides, while all the connectivity is at the rear. Here you’ll find a single LNB input (or two with the recorders), an HDMI output, an SP/DIF for Dolby 5.1 or Dolby Atmos audio, a USB connection and an Ethernet port. You’re not required to use the latter, as the box has built-in dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11n.

A surprising number of Freeview and Freesat boxes have fallen down on poorly designed remotes, but the Freesat 4K isn’t one of them. It has large, sensibly placed buttons, a chunky pink Home button and four shortcut buttons for iPlayer, Netflix, ITV Hub and the On Demand page. I prefer it to the remote on my existing Humax HDR-1100S, and it has a kind of chunky foot near the top of the remote that stops it falling off the arm of the sofa at every conceivable opportunity.

Freesat 4K TV Box review: Setup and ease-of-use

Connecting it all up is fairly easy provided you’ve got enough cable from the dish to work with, and once you do it’s just a case of turning it on and running through the setup procedure. Pick your wireless network, enter the password and the hard work’s done; you just need to let the box run a quick signal text, then run through channel installation.

Freesat has revised the interface since the initial launch, but it’s still streamlined and easy to follow, with a central home screen containing links to the seven-day guide, recordings, programme reminders and on-demand services on the left, and a grid of tiles picking out broadcast highlights on the right. This doesn’t seem to update to reflect your viewing habits but it does occasionally throw up programmes that you might otherwise have missed.

There’s also a search function, though it’s not particularly versatile. While it claims to search across broadcast and on-demand sources, it failed to find programmes on iPlayer or Netflix, or even programmes we’d recorded on the box.

That aside, the UI still feels slick and speedy, with none of the lag I’ve experienced when navigating the menus on some older Freesat units.

Sign the box in to a Freesat account and you can also download an app and control it from your Android or iOS smartphone. Personally, I’m not too bothered about using my phone as a remote control but it does come in handy for browsing through the day’s programmes or setting reminders and recordings remotely. This worked flawlessly in my tests.

Like Freeview Play, Freesat now allows you to scroll backwards through the EPG to catch up with programmes you’ve missed from the last seven days, while many BBC programmes also support the Play from Start feature, letting you catch up if you’re a few minutes late for your favourite show. Based on my own use, it seems as though there are fewer programmes across the mainstream channels that support this time-shifting feature than there were at launch. Nevertheless, it’s a useful feature which saves you messing around with different apps when you’re trying to find a programme you’ve missed.

Freesat 4K TV Box review: Performance

There’s little to complain about when it comes to audio and picture quality, either. HD broadcasts are crisp with a good, natural colour balance and there’s nothing obvious in the way of artefacts. Step down to the SD channels and the low resolution and macro blocking become more apparent, but in some respects, I’d say the Freesat 4K TV Box handles this better than my Humax HDR-1100S, not to mention plenty of Freeview Play units. Recordings look great, with no signs of any degradation from the original broadcast.

On the 4K side of things, you’re somewhat limited because there are no 4K Freesat broadcasts at present. The box supports encrypted Ultra HD broadcasts, meaning it is 4K-ready, but it needs the broadcast content providers to hop on the bandwagon first. Still, 4K and 4K HDR content streamed on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube looks fantastic – not up to 4K Blu-ray standards, but a definite leap up from 1080p, with rich, vibrant colours and an almost ludicrous amount of detail. The gritty, neon-lit cyberpunk worlds of Altered Carbon burst with colour, while the textures of The Witcher are so rich in detail that you can almost smell the gore and dung.

Although it’s likely that your 4K TV already has its own 4K-capable Netflix app, you won’t have any problems using the Freesat box as a source instead. It also supports Dolby Atmos and straight 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound, so you don’t face any limitations there.

In fact, the only constraint you’ll come up against is that a couple of key on-demand services are missing. You get Netflix, YouTube, iPlayer, BritBox, ITV Hub and My5, plus the recently added Amazon Prime. However, there’s no All4 or Now, which is a shame, and having UKTV Play, CBS Catchup, HorrorBites, France24 and ErosNow (it’s not what it sounds like) doesn’t really make up for it.

Freesat 4K TV Box review: Verdict

If you’re looking for a Freesat receiver or recorder, Freesat’s 4K TV Boxes take over from the Humax HDR-1100S as the best-in-class. They’re good, speedy units with a slick UI and cover all the important bases, from 4K broadcasts to Dolby Atmos and HDR playback.

If you’re in an area where Freeview reception is better, I’d still be tempted to go for the terrestrial platform. Neither Freesat or Freeview has any 4K broadcast content yet, but Freeview Play brings you Channel 4 in HD, which Freesat is still – unfortunately – missing. Then again, that ‘If’ can be a big deal; not everyone can get a solid Freeview signal. In that case, Freesat is your best free-to-air option, and a Freesat 4K TV Box is the best way to enjoy it.

 

Freesat 4K TV Box - Key specifications

Resolution: 3,840 x 2,160

Internet: Ethernet, Wi-Fi

Audio: Dolby Atmos, Dolby 5.1

Ports: HDMI, USB 2.0, Optical Out, Ethernet, LNB x 2

Channels: 180+ 

Dimensions: 180 x 120 x 40mm (WDH)  

Streaming services: BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, My5, STV Player, UKTV Play, Netflix, YouTube, Horror Bites, CBS Catchup Channels, France 24, Pop Fun

Weight: 1.05kg

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