Fetch TV Mini and Mighty: Australian Review

The Fetch TV Mighty and Mini (pictured) let you wrestle control of the broadcast schedule. Image: Adam Turner

Blending the best of the internet and free-to-air television, Fetch TV's new Mini and Mighty set-top boxes are Australia's killer tag team of home entertainment. These days Fetch TV is basically the closest we have to a Foxtel rival – letting you watch and record both free-to-air and streaming pay TV, as well as tap into a wide range of online content. If you're not keen on signing up for Foxtel's oft-maligned iQ3 recorder then a Fetch TV Mighty or Mini could earn pride of place in your lounge room.

What Is It?

High And Mighty

The new $399 Fetch TV Mighty follows in the footsteps of the current second-gen Fetch TV Personal Video Recorder which I reviewed in detail a few years ago. One big improvement is that the Mighty records up to six channels at once from three different networks or streaming pay TV. Along with streaming pay TV channels you've also got access to movie purchase/rentals and catch up TV.

The slick Fetch TV interface lays out your entertainment options. Image: Adam Turner

The icing on the cake is built-in access to Presto, Stan (co-owned by Fairfax Media) and Netflix with support for Ultra HD streaming. Access to Ultra HD Netflix alone will win the Mighty a berth in some lounge rooms, assuming your broadband connection is up to the task. It even won praise from Netflix: "We are excited that Fetch TV's new "Mighty" will be amongst the first STB's deployed anywhere in the world to support Netflix in 4k."

If you bought an early Ultra HD television which didn't have built-in support for Ultra HD Netflix then your only options right now are Fetch TV's Mighty and Samsung's new $599 Ultra HD Blu-ray player (or Panasonic's player which will hit the shelves later this year and is expected to cost a lot more than the Samsung).

What's especially significant is that the Mighty and Mini support the more efficient HEVC video codec, which lets you stream Ultra HD Netflix with as little as 15.3 Mbps at your disposal (rather than 25 Mbps without HEVC). For now Netflix is Fetch TV's only source of Ultra HD content, but the Mighty is ready to stream Ultra HD from other services when they're ready to offer it.

Support for HEVC also allows Fetch TV to slim down its high-def sports stream from 5.8 Mbps to 3.8 Mbps. Like Netflix, it uses adaptive streaming for its pay TV channels to offer the best picture for your broadband connection.

The channels included in Fetch TV's $15 per month Entertainment Package. Image: Adam Turner

Mini Minor

Meanwhile the keenly priced $149 Fetch TV Mini forgoes the ability to record digital television and only supports Full HD Netflix.

Under the bonnet it packs 1GB of RAM rather than the Mighty's 3GB but it still manages to feel snappy. Both boxes get a performance boost from their ability to keep Netflix suspended in the background and launch it in a few seconds.

Stan and Presto are also quick to load because they're built into the Fetch TV interface and are optimised for the box. This responsiveness offers a much more seamless experience, letting you treat streaming more like another broadcast channel. Both Fetch TV boxes are also getting a YouTube app powered by HTML5.

Screen shots from the Fetch TV app, which lets you schedule recordings. Image: Adam Turner

In return for its sacrifices the Mini is much smaller than the Mighty, with a footprint roughly the size of a CD case. Even without recording features it will meet the needs of some lounge rooms, while other homes might see the Mini as a secondary player for the bedroom or rumpus room.

Like the Mighty it features a USB port (hidden on the side) but – unlike many digital set-top boxes – there's no option to add your own USB storage to the Mini for recording television. It obviously has a little onboard storage, you can't rewind live free-to-air television but you can pause it for up to 15 minutes.

Streaming a recording from the Mighty to the Fetch TV app via Wi-Fi. Image: Adam Turner

The welcome addition of 802.11ac Wi-Fi to both the Mini and Mighty makes it easier to set up your Fetch TV in those hard-to-reach corners of your home where you can't easily run an Ethernet cable. Both boxes feature an HDMI video output and SP/DIF digital audio out, but there are no old-style composite, component or s-video outputs so you can't use the Fetch TV to give a digital makeover to an old television which lacks HDMI inputs.

What Will You Pay?

The second-gen Fetch TV box has been available for a few years but it's being replaced by the new $399 Mighty. You can buy it outright from some retailers or else purchase it through several ISPs, adding a monthly cost to your broadband bill.

ISPs are expected to offer the Mighty at the same monthly rates as they did the second-gen box and some will throw it in for free with their high-end entertainment bundles.

The Mini will be cheaper and Optus has already revealed that it will offer it for just $5 per month if you're signed up for an Optus service which entitles you to access its new English Premiere League streaming service. It's important to note that you must get your Mini or Mighty through Optus if you want to watch live EPL matches – the telco is calling it "Yes TV by Fetch".

There was a time when you had to pay $5 per month to use the Fetch TV even if you bought it outright and didn't sign up for the streaming pay TV channels. You were paying for Fetch TV's customised Electronic Program Guide which is far more reliable than the EPG embedded in the broadcast signal – meaning the Fetch TV box is far less likely to miss your favourite shows.

Thankfully Fetch TV has managed to eliminate this fee, which certainly makes the box a more attractive proposition. Now you simply pay a one-off $1 fee to register the box, which entitles you to three free movie rentals.

Get Personal

There's a new generation of young viewers, raised on streaming video, who wouldn't be familiar with the concept of a Personal Video Recorder. The Mighty doesn't just have the ability to record live digital TV, it basically turns broadcast television into your own personal Netflix – with support for MPEG-4 broadcasts so you can access Australia's new high-def digital channels.

The Mighty lets you pause and rewind live television, as well as watch the beginning of a show while you're still recording the end. This means you can start watching live programs a few minutes late and fast-forward through the ads so you catch up to the live broadcast by the end.

It lacks an ad-skipping button but the addition of "auto trackback" is almost as good, letting you fast-forward at 32x, press play at the end of the ad break and have the box jump back a few seconds to allow for slow reflexes.

By default the buffer stores the last 180 minutes of what you've been watching, although this is reset when you change the channel. Buffering live broadcasts means you can pause and even rewind live television although take care because there's no warning when you change the channel – if you're watching the footy 10 minutes behind the action and you change the channel you'll lose that 10 minutes and jump back to live.

Series Tags

You can also create Series Tags to automatically record your favourite shows, which you can manage on the screen or through the Fetch TV smartphone app – which also offers a favourites list of the most popular shows.

Rather than blindly recording the same timeslot, the box checks the schedule for changes – which is why it's worth having Fetch TV's hand-curated EPG which is less likely to leave you in the lurch than the hotch potch guide embedded in the broadcast signal.

Thanks to Series Tags you can forget about the broadcast schedule and watch your favourite TV shows when it suits you rather than when the broadcasters feel like showing them.

The upcoming "Team Tag" feature will appeal to sports fans – a special Series Tag which lets you nominate your favourite sporting teams and record all their matches regardless of the league or channel (including FTA or pay TV). Unfortunately you still can't create Series Tags based on keywords and it's not possible to tell it to ignore repeats and just record new episodes.

The networks refuse to stick to their schedules but you can extend Series Tags for shows which tend to run late. To further improve accuracy the Fetch TV can tap into the real-time Content Reference IDentifier (CRID) data embedded in the broadcast signal. Just like FreeviewPlus recorders, it can tell when a show is running late and continue to record. This certainly helps, although it's not foolproof because the broadcasters can't even be trusted to keep the CRID data up to date.

Treat Streaming Pay TV Like Any Other Channel

Fetch TV also lets you record, pause and rewind the streaming pay TV channels, as well as create Series Tags, just like any other broadcast channel. You can record one pay TV channel while watching another or a free-to-air channel, or even record two pay TV channels at once as part of your six-channel recording limit.

If you've got more than 6 Mbps at your disposal, you can dip into the menus and tell the Fetch TV to record up to three streaming channels at once. If you're on a slow broadband content then use your pay TV Series Tags sparingly so as not to unexpectedly choke up your internet connection when you're doing other things online. The pay TV channels automatically time out after three hours to make sure you don't accidentally leave them playing all night.

The ability to bend time and record six channels at once makes the Mighty very powerful but managing it all can be a bit hectic for novices. To make things more intuitive for less tech-savvy users, it would help if the Info button called up a list of all the channels you're currently recording – rather than requiring you to look through the onscreen EPG or dip into your recordings list. Confirming that you want to stop recording when you press the stop button might also be a sensible safety precaution.

The box is generally easy to use but the menus can be a bit counter-intuitive. For example, the "My Stuff" tab puts all your content in one place but it means your recordings aren't under the TV menu where you'd expect to find them. Be prepared to run a few training sessions for the various members of your household who will rely on the Fetch TV.

Storage King

The Mighty can store up to 585 hours of SD broadcasts and it offers a few smart tricks to help you make the most of it. You can set a Series Tag to only keep the last few episodes, automatically deleting the old ones to save space. The recorder is also smart enough not to record the same episode twice, as the EPG includes the series and episode number for each show.

When the hard drive is full the box uses algorithms to decide which of the oldest recordings to delete, although you can override this by setting a recording to "saved protected" rather than "saved managed".

Fetch TV has also overhauled its remote control which is a lot less busy than its predecessor and is blessed with large buttons that won't have you reaching for your glasses.

It's ingeniously done away with the number pad by hiding it in the other buttons – press the "123…" at the top left and the numbers light up. You can also program the remote to turn on your television and control the volume.

The smartphone app can also act as a remote, but one limitation is that you can only link the app to a single box – frustrating if you've got both a Mighty and a Mini in the house but a limitation which will be removed when Fetch TV enables the Multi-Room features that I'll get to in a minute. Thankfully you can connect more than one app to a box.

Streaming Super Star

The recent addition of Presto means that the Mini and Mighty can access the three major Australian subscription video services, although it highlights the frustrating fact that – unlike Netflix – Presto and Stan limit the number of devices you can link to your account (Correction: Stan has removed its device limit, Presto retains one but has raised its to six devices).

Along with subscription video you can tap into four of Australia's five free-to-air catch up services. Nine is the holdout, although 9Now should be available by September. There's also a Start Over feature on the way which will let you jump to catch up TV when you turn on the TV in the middle of a program and want to watch it from the start.

Fetch TV also offers a movie rental service or you can purchase content – similar to the iTunes Store and Google Play – with Fetch TV selling new release HBO content like the latest season of Game of Thrones. An upcoming Download to Go feature will let you transfer these purchases to the mobile app so you can watch them on the run.

If that's not enough to keep you entertained you can sign up for the $15 per month Entertainment Pack which includes 37 streaming pay TV channels. It's an eclectic mix which has improved over time and features a few gems like three BBC channels – First, UKTV and Knowledge – along with Syfy, Comedy Central, ESPN and several news and children's channels.

It's obviously not going to win you away from Foxtel if you've signed up with the pay TV giant for live AFL and other exclusive sport or premium HBO content, but it could be enough to satisfy homes looking for a general entertainment package.

There's no lock-in contract, so some homes might choose to just sign up for pay TV over the school holidays. When you pay for the Entertainment Pack you also get access to a library of 30 free movies which changes regularly, something which was originally available to all users before Fetch TV did away with the minimum monthly fee to cover the EPG access. If you find three good movies in here each month then the $15 package has paid for itself.

Apart from English Premiere League for Optus subscribers, you can also sign up for beIN Sport and a choice of seven foreign language channels.

Around The House

The Fetch TV Mighty isn't just a recorder, it's also a home entertainment hub – letting you stream its digital TV recordings to other devices around your home via DLNA or the Fetch TV app.

The Mighty acts as a DLNA server, but you can't access it as a SMB share (to the disappointment of Plex fans). Meanwhile you can use the My Media Hub menu on the Mighty or Mini to view DLNA servers on your home network, but not SMB shares.

In a nutshell this means you can tap into the Mighty's recordings from the Mini – so you can curl up in bed and use the television in the bedroom to watch something you recorded in the lounge room. That's a major selling point if you're trying to get your loved ones excited about the Fetch TV.

While DLNA access works well, by Christmas Fetch TV will enable true Multi-Room features to offer much tighter integration between the Mini and Mighty. You'll be able to call up the Mighty's recording list on the Mini as if they were stored on the Mini. Press record on the Mini's remote control and it will tell the Mighty to record whatever you're watching.

At this point the Mighty really becomes an entertainment server for the entire household, letting different people around the house watch different recordings simultaneously or even the same recording. The mobile app remembers where you were up to when you resume playback, but the app can't stream HD recordings which is a major inconvenience and requires on-the-fly transcoding which is on the long-term roadmap – don't expect to see it this year.

The killer feature here is that you'll be able to tap into recordings in progress, so you can hop into bed at 11pm and watch tonight's tennis or stage of the Tour de France from the beginning, even if you started recording it an hour ago in the lounge room. Once again, this could seal the deal if you're trying to convince the people you love that the Mighty is a worthy investment.

This kind of remote chasing playback already works unofficially via DLNA, the Mini can stream a recording in progress from the Mighty but it falters if you try to fast-forward through the ad breaks.

Optus Customers No Longer Left In The Cold

The current Fetch TV already offers some of these digital TV streaming features but they've been disabled on boxes supplied by Optus, seemingly afraid of legal threats from the broadcasters and content owners after it lost the TV Now case. These features would seem to be on safe legal ground because they're your own recordings made in your lounge room, rather than recordings someone else helped you make in the cloud.

Thankfully Fetch TV is updating its smartphone apps in the next few months to remove this restriction on the Mighty and well as existing second-gen Fetch TV boxes, so Optus customers will be treated as equals. There are still some limitations for all Fetch TV users, related more to rights restrictions than technical issues.

The Mighty's digital TV streaming features only work around your home, you can't stream your recordings to your smartphone over the internet when you're out and about – although it's within the letter of the law and I'm told it's on the roadmap. Nor can you stream live digital TV channels around your home via DLNA, as you can with the HD HomeRun, but once again Fetch TV plans to add this. In some cases the broadcasters' own catch up and live streaming apps can fill these gaps.

Meanwhile you can watch the live streaming Pay TV channels on your smartphone via Wi-Fi or 3G/4G mobile broadband. The downside is you can't stream recorded Pay TV from the Mighty to your smartphone, even when you're at home. Thankfully Fetch TV is adding a pay TV catch up service to help get around this.

Should You Buy It?

The Fetch TV Mighty is the one box to rule them all, putting the best of the internet and free-to-air television at your fingertips while freeing you from the shackles of the broadcast schedule. The Mini is the perfect companion, freeing you from the couch so you can make the most of the Mighty around your home.

We covered a lot of ground here but the Fetch TV has an important job to do so it's important that you ask the hard questions. In terms of core PVR features the defunct TiVo has set the gold standard for a long time but the Fetch TV Mighty is a worthy successor. If your old TiVo is ready to give up the ghost then the Mighty is your go-to device and the one against which you should measure other contenders.

Releasing two boxes is a smart move in an age where we're less reliant on free-to-air television and Fetch TV is up against nimble competitors like the Apple TV and Telstra TV which don't feature TV tuners for watching live broadcasts.

Telstra abandoned the T-Box PVR in favour of Telstra TV, so it's great that Fetch TV still offers you the choice – even if you've mostly shunned free-to-air in favour of the internet, chances are you still occasionally rely on live broadcasts for content like sport.

It's great to see that Fetch TV is doing its best to treat the free-to-air and Pay TV channels equally, as Foxtel tries with the iQ3 recorder. There are still a few frustrations but they're more to do with rights restrictions than technical limitations and hopefully Fetch TV can address them over time.

Fetch TV still has some great features "on the roadmap" – a term which naturally raises a red flag for people who've been burned in the past by PVR makers who failed to deliver on their promises. Thankfully they Mighty and Mini are great devices today and most of those upcoming features will be delivered by Christmas. Fetch TV has a good track record when it comes to delivering on its promises.

If you're looking for an entertainment powerhouse to sit at the heart of your lounge room and easily fling content to the far reaches of your home then you can't go wrong with Fetch TV's Mighty and Mini.

This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.