In this review, we have a look at the Smart1, a satellite receiver available from DTV Solutions. It is described as a ‘hybrid’ device because it has three or four things that it sets out to do:
1) Satellite Receiver
3) Media Player
4) Android PC
Of course, there are quite a few solutions competing for attention in this space. HTPCs have probably been around the longest, and choices range from Windows’ own built in functionality to other 3rd party options running on Windows or other options like Linux. More recently, TVs and traditional devices like DVD players have taken on ‘Smart’ functionality, offering the ability to play media files from USB, and applications to play games or access internet content. And then of course you have dedicated devices such as Apple TV and lately Chromecast. So – how does the Smart1 proposition stack up against the competition? Read on and find out!
The thing that sets the Smart1 apart from all the others is that it is built on a satellite receiver platform. This opens up the possibility of a single box solution to connect to your TV that will do everything you need, in one place.
The Smart1 is a small box about 20cmx13cmx4cm (WxDxH). It is made of aluminium and black plastic, and has three indicator lights which show through the plastic. In short, it’s quiet, small and unobtrusive. It comes with an RCA AV cable, an HDMI cable, manual, power supply and a remote (more on that later).
The Smart1 has an impressive array of ports. To start with, there is of course a standard F-Type screw connector for the LNB (satellite) input. It has two display options, HDMI and a 3.5mm output to RCA AV composite via the supplied cable. It also has S/PDIF optical audio out to complement the display options. On the network side there is an RJ-45 for wired Ethernet, as well as the built-in Wi-Fi option. There is even an old-fashioned RS-232 (serial) port – presumably for use by developers.
It is on the storage side that the box really shines. First off there is an eSATA option for an external hard drive, as well as four (4) USB ports, three at the back and one on the side. To add to this, there is a slot for SD/MMC memory cards. The USB ports can of course also be used for a wired keyboard/mouse, or an external Bluetooth dongle, all options supported in the software.
The other major piece of hardware is the remote control. This is not your standard remote! First off, it uses a radio signal rather than infrared. This may seem trivial, but it has the major advantage that the box can be stowed out of site behind the TV, and the remote will still work perfectly. The second distinguishing feature is that the remote has a ‘mouse’ built into the centre ‘OK’ button of the D-pad. Sliding your finger around over the button moves the mouse pointer around on the screen – it’s a little tricky first off, but soon becomes second nature.
The final feature that sets the remote apart is that it is double sided – the one side looks like a normal remote with the D-pad, volume/channel/control buttons and a numeric keypad. However, if you turn it over, you find a whole keyboard with individual buttons that are a joy to type on (albeit with two thumbs). As anybody who has used a TV connected device before can confirm, there are some things that are just a lot easier with a proper keyboard!
Setting up is relatively straight forward. First connect the necessary cables – in my case, the satellite coax, the network cable, the HDMI cable and of course the power. After the initial power up screens, you are entered into a set up wizard which guides you through the process. First off is pairing the remote – this enables you to have more than one unit operating in close proximity, and still have control of each one from a different remote. You are then stepped through display, network, location, and finally satellite/channel set up.
Satellite reception is the default mode for the Smart1. If you press the menu button, you are then presented with the main menu as below, overlaid on the current TV channel:
Choosing the App menu presents a full screen, scrollable list of installed applications, both built in and installed:
The unit comes pre-programmed with the details of all the common satellites used in NZ. The first time I set the box up, I only had to confirm the default selection of Optus D1 and everything just worked.
Most commonly the satellite will be Optus D1 for Freeview use, but many others are present, complete with transponder definitions. This makes setup reasonably easy, as you don’t have to enter anything, just choose the right options (eg LO frequency for your LNB). Once you get the options right, you get immediate feedback on signal strength and quality, cutting out multiple set-up/test cycles. The Smart1 supports DiSEqC 1.0/1.1, as well as DVB-S2 (used by Sky for HD) for those with more complicated set-ups.
Channel scans can be done quickly by transponder or satellite, and you can choose to limit it to Free-To-Air (FTA eg Freeview) or Scrambled (eg Sky), as well as TV and/or Radio. By default all channels found are saved, but you can go back into setup and delete as necessary.
The box supports two programme guides (EPG). By default, when viewing a Freeview channel, the EPG button will display the MHEG-5 based Freeview EPG. While this is a familiar interface to many users it has the disadvantage compared to the native EPG that you cannot book PVR recordings. However the native EPG is available for all channels from the main menu.
Channel changes are quick and you can scan through all channels using the channel buttons on the remote. As normal, it displays the current playing programme, but also has a nice touch of adding an indicator so you can see how far along you are in the programme you are currently watching.
The main disadvantage of the Smart1 as a satellite receiver is that it only has a single tuner. While it does not particularly impact on your real time TV watching, it does limit the use of the unit as a PVR.
In common with many new satellite receivers, the Smart1 has the ability to record TV on schedule, so you can watch it later at your convenience. In a fully-fledged implementation like MythTV, this means you can record all the TV you’re interested in and watch it days or weeks later, and you never need to miss anything again. However, the Smart1 does not aim to replace an HTPC in that regard. It is better suited as a replacement for a video tape recorder – recording something occasionally when you know you’re going to be out.
To enable this functionality, you do need some storage attached to the unit. In my case, I simply plugged in a 4GB USB drive of the sort that you probably have lying around in a drawer somewhere. As mentioned above, you can book recordings from the native EPG (from the main menu), or from a recording application in the App menu. You have a choice of recording once, or otherwise on what days of the week to record, useful for catching the same programme every day or once a week.
Once you have booked a recording, you can proceed to watch another channel, use some other application or turn the unit off. When the time for the recording comes around, the unit will turn on and record. If you are using it at the time, it will warn you, and give you the option to cancel the recording, or watch the recording as it is recorded. This can be a little limiting, as it means you can’t watch another satellite channel, or use another application such as watching internet content, while recording. However, if you’re just recording it because you can’t be there (or don’t want to get up) then this won’t bother you at all.
Once the recording is made, it can be played back from the PVR player in the App menu. This works well, simply requiring you to choose the right recording from the list. It will remember the position you got to if you have the leave the recording to do something else. The only downside is that no information about the programme is stored with the recording, apart from channel, date and time. Again if you only make the occasional recording this won’t bother you much – but it does seem a pity that not even the name of the programme is kept, especially given the availability of the EPG.
The other gotcha is that I suspect you will have to manage your storage space carefully. I could find no information about automatically deleting old recordings, which would mean that it would be easy to fill up limited space - such as an old USB drive!
For those of you with gigabytes of ‘home movies’ sitting around on hard drive, the Smart1 is a capable media player. I had no issues with 1080p or 720p recordings in MOV, AVI or MPEG-TS. Apparently the box also supports MP4, MKV, 3GP, MP3, OGG, H.264( MPEG4-AVC, VC-1), MPEG-2 and DivX3/4/5. Audio codecs supported are MP3, AAC, MPEG Audio. The unit comes pre-installed with ‘iMedia Player’ in the App menu, although you can also install your choice of Android media playing application. While the iMedia player works OK for video, it is a poor music player, lacking any obvious support for playlists or even queuing tracks. I used Google Play Music.
In addition to playing locally stored files, the Smart1 can act as a DLNA client, and server. It also has support for remote storage access using SAMBA (SMB or Windows networking) which is supported by the majority of network connected devices.
One increasingly important area of media playback is that of internet content. The fact that the Smart1 is based on Android means that all sorts of applications are available for accessing this content. I tested a variety of apps with mixed results:
- PremierLeaguePass: application works well however video resolution is below that supported by a PC, or other Android devices. Apparently DTVS is in talks with Coliseum.
- TVNZ OnDemand: does not work (unsurprisingly as it only works on selected Android devices)
- Netflix: works OK initially but playback starts skipping after a 2-3 minutes and must be restarted
- BBC iPlayer: works well
- Youtube (built in): works well
In addition, the Smart1 has a built in IPTV app, which is capable of playing simple video streams. I could not find a way to play streams requiring more an a simple URL – you may have better luck installing VLC.
Under the user interface shown above, the Smart1 is running Android 4.0 (ICS). In fact, the ICS skin is never that far from the service. For example, the Settings option from the main menu takes you to a full screen menu of settings options – most of these will then drop you into the standard Android settings menu.
The unit comes with quite a few pre-installed applications. In addition to those already mentioned, it has Camera app (for use with USB webcams), the Android web browser, an Email client, a clock and even XBMC.
Browsing works pretty well – it is not the fastest experience on the planet, but quite usable and the built in mouse functionality really comes into its own – especially compared to my MythTV installation where I don’t have a mouse I can use in my armchair.
Out of the box, the unit lacks the Google apps framework, however more recent versions of the firmware have enabled a menu option allowing you to install the framework, most importantly including Google Play Store (the Android app store). This opens up a world of applications and makes adding new apps a lot easier than having to download them elsewhere and ‘sideload’.
In addition, it also enables apps such as Gmail, and Google Play Music (including the All Access music streaming service). The latter app, combined with the S/PDIF output to my stereo, presents a compelling solution to music playback.
Most applications tried would load and run, usually defaulting to tablet/landscape orientation. However, not everything was a good fit. For example, Google Earth would load and run OK, but was mostly unusable due to the lack of multitouch (the mouse emulates only a single touch). Bad Piggies (a game from Angry Birds creators Rovio) would not get past the opening screens.
Many casual games do work OK, particularly those designed to work in landscape. The presence of the keyboard also opens up some interesting possibilities for more action based gaming than supported by the mouse interface, which is a poor substitute for touch in many gaming apps.
One area suggested by DTVS is the possibility of developing apps for the Smart1 for use in home automation or similar. The presence of an RS-232 port in addition to USB options does open up additional interfacing options.
The Smart1 Hybrid HD Satellite Receiver is an interesting device with a lot of potential to do everything in one box. For me personally, while it succeeded on a lot of fronts (satellite receiver, media file playback, Google Music streaming) it did not do everything I had hoped - probably unreasonably. It soon became clear that it was not a replacement for an HTPC, primarily because of the limited PVR functionality. It also disappointed in some key areas (for me) in terms of internet content – notably PremierLeaguePass and Netflix.
I shall probably keep the Smart1 as part of my setup for now. For one thing, the Google Music integration with my stereo is worth having. DTVS promise additional functionality will be added in later firmware releases, and I am hoping that their discussions with Coliseum bear fruit in terms of improved performance with PremierLeaguePass.
However, the real target market for this device is probably not me. I decided to replace the satellite receiver in my mother-in-law’s flat with this device, as a test. She was quite happy, impressed with the ability to record programs, listen to music and browse the net. She even adapted quickly to the mouse. I suspect this is the real market for this device, and it seems well suited to that role.
About me: I am a long time HTPC user, having watched TV via MythTV/Linux for 7-8 years. I have also spent a fair amount of time using Android, having tried various flavours of stock and custom ROMs on multiple devices.