Long-Term Review: Foxtel HD+ (Verdict: Needs More Channels)

foxtel iq2 review.jpgFoxtel created a bit of a stir earlier this year when they launched their iQ2 PVR alongside their new range of HD channels. Even though the free-to-air networks all had HD channels broadcasting, there wasn't a lot of content available in HD that really took advantage of the growing trend for homes to have Full HD TVs in the home. With their HD+ service, Foxtel hoped to bring HD content to the mainstream. And after more than three months of watching their HD channels, I can happily say the future looks bright for HD+, but at the moment it's held back by a lack of variety in its content.As a quick reminder for non-Foxtel subscribers, there are five channels (at the moment) that make up the Foxtel HD+ service: Fox Sports HD, ESPN HD, BBC HD, National Geographic HD and Discovery HD. There's also HD movies available through Foxtel's Box Office service.

You need to upgrade to the iQ2 PVR in order to receive the HD channels, and despite the fact that Foxtel has an installation cost of $200 for the iQ2 plus an ongoing subscription fee, the PVR itself almost makes the whole setup worth it. You can record two seperate programs while watching a third, while a fourth tuner downloads on demand programs straight to your box that you can watch at your leisure. Next year, Foxtel promises to update the box to enable the ethernet port for viewing IPTV content as well, offering even more content.

When you first get the HD+ service setup, you'll almost certainly spend the better part of the first week watching nothing but the HD channels. But then, after a while, you'll find your interest waning, especially if you don't watch a lot of sport. In the three months I've been trialling the service, I watched ESPN HD once, just to check it out. It looks fantastic, but is very US-centric in its sports coverage. Fox Sports HD is better for Aussie content, but (and this is a very personal preference) lacks Rugby Union coverage, which is my football code of choice. Which essentially adds up to two sports channels I practically never watched.

Box Office HD is nice - $6 for a HD movie rental is a pretty good price. As with all the HD channels, video quality is pretty spectacular, and the On Demand aspect works an absolute treat. Despite the disappointment of the film itself, I Am Legend was enjoyable to watch thanks to the graphic detail you get from watching films in HD.

Discovery HD and Nat Geo HD were switched on a lot more frequently than the sports channels, and some of the documentaries they showed were breathtaking - one particular show on the Ice Hotel in northern Sweden had me sitting there with my mouth agape for an hour, so amazing was the picture. BBC HD, on the other hand, doesn't know what it wants to be, jumping from documentaries to BBC series like Robin Hood to opera concerts... and it's obviously very British. Aside from the magnificent Planet Earth documentaries, BBC HD just seemed to want to be something for everyone and ended up not offering too much at all.

And that's the biggest problem with Foxtel's HD+ at the moment. There's a lack of variety - it's all sport and documentaries, with a little bit of British thrown in. And there are repeats: I saw BBC's Planet Earth air probably three or four times over three months, and that's just what I actually noticed myself.

Where are the classic TV shows like Lost or Heroes in HD? In fact, where's any of the American and Australian entertainment programming? For Foxtel customers who get their Pay TV via underground cable, there's at least access to the free-to-air HD channels through the iQ2. For people like me who get their Foxtel via a satellite on the roof, we have to wait until next year after the launch of the Optus D3 satellite before we can enjoy the FTA HD channels through the iQ2. If you want to be entertained with comedy or drama from the US or Australia, the HD+ is sorely lacking at the moment.

Foxtel have already announced that they plan to launch even more HD and SD channels once that Optus D3 satellite is launched into orbit and activated in 2009. And that will be the point that Foxtel's HD+ service really becomes an attractive proposition. At the moment, despite the amazing picture quality the five channels on offer and the ability to watch HD movies on demand is not enough to justify the expense, no matter how good the iQ2 PVR is or how much you love HD...

[Foxtel on Giz]

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