Review: What To Expect From Startimes HD Set Top Box

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In March, Digital Television Company StarTimes Media launched a High Definition DVB T2 decoder for the Digital Terrestrial platform (DTT). The HD decoder retails at Kshs. 999 + 1500 subscription. The new decoders come with an improved physical design which is smaller and  an improved user interface. StarTimes also added new channels and new neat features that allow the user to easily navigate channels and content. So what’s new?

Faster Set-Up Time

We are used to getting home, switching the TV and having to wait till the decoder to set up and probably missing on a news story in the process. The StarTimes HD decoder wowed me with the quick pace of set up which averaged 12 seconds on three trials. By any standards, that is a quick set-up time, as we are used to 3-5 minutes of set-up.

Revamped User Interface

user InterfaceOne of the most striking features of the StarTimes HD decoder is the improved user interface both in terms of visual hierarchy and content. The UI implements the separation of content making it quicker and easier to select TV channels you want to watch. After switching your TV and decoder on,press menu on the remote and you are ushered into a variety of options which include Guide, Indian channels, Settings, All channels, Radio, Entertainment, Movies, News, Music, Children, Sports, Documentary, Religion, Lifestyle, TV Series. Selecting either of the options offers a user content based on this interest. Selecting music option, opens up to the three music channels offered by StarTimes and prompts the user to scroll and select their favorite. This hierarchical representation of content was well delivered and implemented.  The UI has also incorporated  a new blue layout, which has largely improved the aesthetics in the new HD decoder.

Channel Management

Channel SignalWith the HD decoder, users of the StarTimes HD decoder have increased options and more controls with the information laid out intuitively. The user has a variety of options including the ability to lock/unlock a given channel. Locking the channel is basically the additional of parental controls to the content you want to watch. It involves adding a lock code and then inputting the “lock” feature, rendering the content inaccessible to those without the lock code. To unlock the channel,  the user will just need to input the pre-set code from their remote control and you are set. By default the code is 0000.

lock and unlock channelsChannel management also adds a new feature “Watch” which acts like a confirmation, that you in deed want to change the channel.  Interestingly, even with this feature, StarTimes does not give you the choice to choose and automatically assumes, if you are browsing this channel you want to watch it. I selected the news option,which ushered a drop down of select channels, I selected the BBC and wanted to check what was showing on Al Jazeera. The channel automatically assumed i want to switch channels and selected Al Jazeera. Still, you can book upto 32 channels over a period of seven days using the autotune feature.

In addition to being able to lock and unlock channels, there is also the ability to add the channels to favorites. There is a special tab for favorites that allows you to quickly access those channels and radio stations you like without having to necessarily browse the entire selection. Your StarTimes favorite channels are highlighted with a yellow star a mark of how much love you have in them. Other features in channel management include channel setting,  where one can add subtitles, select the language, the decoders also offer multilingual support for English, Swahili, French and Portuguese and audio options. There is also channel status that checks on the signal strength and quality besides offering more information on the specific channel you are watching such as channel number frequency as well as the audio track.

Design

StarTimes HDMI, USB, POWERThe guys at StarTimes did a good job with the design of the StarTimes HD decoder. The HD decoder is smaller unlike with the previous decoders. They also revamped the look and design of the new decoders. We were used to grey-white and black, rectangular StarTimes decoders. They also had a metallic feel to them and were pretty bulky when held. The StarTimes HD decoder eliminates all these vexatious details by implementing a simple Prism like design. They also went minimalist with the decoder design by dropping volume and channel navigation buttons and instead remaining with horizontal navigation and menu buttons. These are the most functional ones as they allow the user to operate remote-independent. The Remote control also went minimalist and has dropped several buttons. The HD decoder has three buttons at the top, a slot at the side that allows the user to insert their smart card as well as minimal cabling with just a power power supply, HDMI Port, USB port and antennae input. The three RC connectors common in decoders were eliminated and replaced with the HDMI port.  The exterior of the HD decoder is sleek and smooth occasioned by the use of plastic components, which also contribute to the light weight. The decoder is also smaller with an additional layer of green at the edges on the top of the decoder adding the beautiful aesthetics. The remote on the other hand, has the power, menu, mute and back buttons. The volume, channel navigation and enter buttons are merged into a single into a single control component. The remote also incorporates digits to allow one to input the channel number directly.

Channels

For one to enjoy the HD channels that come with the HD decoder, they must have HD TV sets. There are currently two HD channels, the Bollywood HD and NBA TV HD. There are however plans to introduce new HD channels soon. Even so, the quality of images and audio as well as the strength of the signal with the HD decoder is pretty decent.

StarTimes have managed to offer a bouquet of 9 local radio channels. They have 7 movie channels including iRoko Play, iRoko Plus, Startimes Zone, the African Movie Channel (AMC) and Zee Cinema. They have managed to bundle up  5 news channels including BBC and Al Jazeera, 3 music channels including MTV base and 5 channels focused on children. There are 8 sports channel including Fox Sports and NBA TV HD as well as Sports Focus, a 24 hour Sports news channel.  Discovery Channel and Viasat comprise the 5 documentary channels while 6 channels are bundled under religion. Others include Indian with 5 channels, 7 TV series channels as well as 1 lifestyle channel.

The Klutzy

While we love the vim StarTimes showed with the HD decoder, there are a few things, which need some work. The remote needs work. I liked the fact that its simple and uncomplicated but it feels odd with too much real estate left for the logo. With the elimination of the unnecessary features,  a reduction in the size would have been apt. In addition, labeling of the buttons in the single control panel to indicate which one changes channels as well as which one adds the volume. In most instances, I kept confusing the buttons which, was equally frustrating. Still on the remote, there is need to add an information button, to ease navigation and the process of browsing through the various channels offerings. Currently, one has to press the menu function to navigate and choose channels, confuse between the volume button and the change channel function, as you try to get information on what is showing.

With the HD decoder, StarTimes have implemented electronic program guide that allows you to book up to 32 channels for 7 days on autotune. While this is commendable, this feature needs work.  The EPG allows the viewers to navigate between channels, identify the currently screening program and the next program (‘now and next’) on each channel. It would be apt if the reminders provided a short synopsis of the content of programs and also allow for easy search for programs by genre.

Interestingly, there are two features on the HD decoder that do not function. We mounted a USB driver onto the USB port, but it was not recognized on the television screen. We also tried to navigate the decoder using the buttons on the decoder but they were non-responsive.

Would I buy the HD decoder? definitely. The HD channels are in real HD with astonishingly good image and audio quality.  In addition, the other channels are also in very good quality, and it presents some neat features at a particularly good pricing point.

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