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Grundig GDT1000 DTT STB 12th January 2003

Over the last few weeks we have been evaluating the Grundig GDT1000 Digital Terrestrial Television Set Top Box. Before getting on to the product itself let's look at what it does and where it fits in.

 

Freeview

A few years ago UK television went digital with the promise of many more channels and increased viewer choice (they could also have gone down the High Definition route as our American cousins did but that opportunity was missed and will have to wait for another day). There were two competing systems to choose from, one offered by SKY television (already offering a large number of channels via analogue satellite) and Digital Terrestrial (later known as ITV digital). The advantages of Digital Satellite were that many more channels could be provided but only with a 45cm dish attached to the viewers house. Existing analogue satellite customers would need their 60 or 80 cm dishes replaced and/or re-aligned to point to the new generation of digital satellites in orbit. Digital Terrestrial on the other hand needed no dish and would receive digital signals through an outdoor aerial. The disadvantages though were that aerials sometimes needed to be upgraded as the digital signal used frequencies outside those of analogue television and in any case there was never coverage for the entire country (particularly rural areas). Due to the restricted bandwidth available only a few dozen channels could be offered in comparison to digital satellite's hundreds at least until analogue television was switched off and the frequencies re-allocated to digital terrestrial (an event still several years away). Both systems relied on a digital set-top box and both were heavily subsidized by a consortium of corporations hoping to reap benefits from selling interactive services. After the first few months the boxes were being given away by SKY for the cost of installation and loaned for free in exchange for a subscription by Digital Terrestrial (ITV Digital). We also saw televisions being sold in stores with built-in Digital Terrestrial receivers but these came at a price premium and required additional hardware to receive any more than free channels.

To cut a long story short, most people went with Sky's digital satellite service for the larger number of channels and improved picture quality. Technically both systems used the same Mpeg2 encoding for material but ITV Digital had a limited number of frequencies available to them so to squeeze in more channels they compressed their broadcasts more than Sky which resulted in lower quality and an increase in visible artifacts. These artifacts typically appeared as blocking or smearing of the picture and together with the weak signal which often resulted in regular picture break up put viewers off ITV Digital. In the end ITV Digital declared bankruptcy and we all saw the debacle of receivers going to great lengths to retrieve set top boxes from the public or to demand a fee for their permanent ownership.

Clearly this was of embarrassment to the government  which needed to offer a cheap digital service to the public so they could switch off analogue services in the future once uptake was high enough (we believe a figure of 95% would be needed). They turned to the BBC which concluded that:

  • People did not like paying a monthly fee and it would be pointless to compete with SKY over pay television.

  • Channels available should be free and not solely commercially biased.

  • Channel selection should complement rather than compete with other services.

  • Channel numbers would be restricted to avoid over-compression and poor quality.

  • Above all a set top box should be able to be purchased for a low one-off payment and connected to any existing television or VCR. 

Thus was born Freeview. You can find out more detail at Freeview's Home Page.

 

The Grundig GDT1000

This brings us to the subject of the review - Grundig's GDT1000 Freeview Digital Adaptor. Grundig have a reputation for build quality and durability - we have a Grundig television purchased 20 years ago that is still running fine. Sturdy construction and longevity are done at the expense of esoteric considerations and Grundig products have always looked rather bland and boxy. 

The box is much smaller than its DTT ancestors probably down to circuit/chip integration and a realization that it no longer needs to match a VCR in dimensions. It can indeed be hidden out of site with the use of the optional remote extender, particularly useful if your TV/VCR cabinet is short of space. The remote control is comfortable to use and well laid out which assists finger tip navigation in darkened rooms. The buttons have a sturdy rubbery feel to them with good tactile feedback with each press. The manual is well written with clear diagrams explains all of the devices intended functions.

Looking at the back we can see the usual RF in/out and connector for the remote extender as well as two Scarts, one for a television and the other for a VCR. The VCR Scart acts as a loop through when watching a source connected to it. We would have like to have seen the inclusion of an SVHS connector for improved picture quality but this has not been a feature on any Freeview box we know of. An interesting omission is the lack of a telephone line socket which is a key component of its DTT heritage and all SKY digital products. Indeed it was a contractual requirement Sky and DTT stipulated that their boxes be permanently connected to a phone line for at least one year in order to receive the OnDigital subsidy. This omission seems to be a recognition of Freeview's new charter.

 

Installation

Installation was very straightforward and connected to all our televisions, VCRs and PCs without problem. The simplicity of the procedure is basically to make the physical connections, turn on the television to the right channel (or AV if you are using the Scart connectors as recommended) and turn on the GDT1000. Entering the menus is very simple and intuitive and a single selection scans the available frequency range to store all channels receivable. The channel names and numbers are not editable by the user in an effort to ensure consistency in listings guides (Radio Times etc.) and the rather limited now/next display which tells you what is on now and the next program. We would have liked to see something along the lines of SKY's EPG which shows programs for the next seven days and provides some timer functions as well.

 

Test Setup

To thoroughly test this product we chose 3 locations - NE London, Slough and Milton Keynes. We checked with the Freeview website by entering post codes for these premises and in each case were informed that all channels were receivable with the correct type of aerial. We selected the following aerials (with manufacturers comments below each picture) from a nearby Maplin Electronics store, all of which are listed as being digital compatible.

A smart, lightweight UHF TV aerial for indoor use. The aerial features two parallel, staggered 7-element arrays of matt finished aluminium, connected to either side of a 75Ohms. coaxial feeder and mounted on a square section plastic support. The unusual ‘log periodic’ design offers up to 6dB of gain at 770MHz, and a minimum 4·5dB at 500MHz. Covers all UHF broadcast TV channels from 21 to 68. The aerial comes in three parts, a triangular base for a plug-in support, and the aerial itself which is normally mounted horizontally but can be inserted vertically for vertically polarised transmitters. Safety isolated to BS5373. Fitted with 1 metre of coaxial cable terminated with a UHF plug.

The One-for-All flat indoor aerial is a revolutionary amplified TV and Digital Radio (DAB) antenna that give excellent performance due to the ultra-flat design and the patented array technique used. This antenna will work in almost any position and can even be mounted behind furniture.

Suitable for Analogue and Digital transmissions. A low-cost but high-quality 10-element wideband TV aerial for installation in the loft or outdoors. Includes complete fitting kit comprising universal bracket with adjustable support, and a generous 10 meters (33 feet) of coaxial cable terminated with a UHF plug. Suitable for all TV channels, including the new digital broadcasts. It is equally suitable for main or additional secondary TV sets. Supplied with easy to fit assembly instructions. Fixing kit included.

 

Test Results

If everything goes according to plan we should be able to receive the following channels:

BBC ONEBBC TWOITV 1
CHANNEL 4FIVE

Entertainment

Documentaries
Documentaries


Shopping And Travel
Shopping And Travel


Music
Music


Special Interest
Special Interest

News
News


Kids
Kids


Radio
Radio

You can click on any of them for more information from Freeview's web site.

In testing we were unable to get satisfactory results with the first aerial. The second aerial yielded perfect results (all channels) in London and Slough but less than half the channels in Milton Keynes and the outdoor one again yielded perfect results with the exception of Milton Keynes where although we received all channels, the signal on some of them came and went resulting in stuttering. We would recommend that if you think you live in a weak signal area to check with your council as well as a post code search on Freeview's site to get some idea of the size of the aerial you will need to get good reception.

 

Picture Quality

As the old saying goes, "the proof of the pudding is in the eating" so now that we have received our channels what's the quality like? In our opinion we saw none of the problems that plagued DTT in the past. This is partly due to a lower number of channels used and partly due to an increase in transmission signal strength. We took some screen captures at full PAL resolution (704x576). The pictures below are not modified in any way but are shown half size so you will need to click on them to see the full size image and judge the quality for yourselves.

This is from a recent Robbie Williams concert and the fine detail is evident, particularly in the definition of the tattoos. We flicked back and forth between the signal from the GDT1000 and the output from our SKY+ box and were unable to distinguish between the two.

This image is from one of the music channels. Generally music channels are regarded as having poorer quality than the mainstream and movie channels but the quality here is just as good as the same channel broadcast on SKY Digital. 

Lastly we can see the menu overlay which is semi-transparent so you don't miss any of the action while tinkering with settings.

 

Conclusion

Freeview has risen from the ashes of ITV Digital like the proverbial Phoenix in an incarnation that is much improved, shedding its old disadvantages. An outdoor aerial is still required to get the best from this service but the new slimmed down set top boxes are being made available at a low price point the consumer can afford without the worry of being tied into contracts. The GDT1000 in particular is at the lowest end of the price range for Freeview adaptors and while not as sleek looking as some of its competitors is a solid contender with the assurance of Grundig's build quality. Picture quality is excellent and the box can be hidden out of site with the optional remote extender. If you already have digital satellite and are considering an extra box but don't want to pay £15 per month for a mirror subscription then the GDT1000 may be a good low cost alternative. If you are considering taking the plunge into digital television but don't want a dish or don't need pay tv channels (movie channels etc.) then the GDT1000 will give you 30 channels of high quality at a low price without having to sign up for a contract. We think Freeview will be a success in the long run with people who just want extra channels to watch (greater freedom of choice) without being tied into expensive contracts.

The GDT1000 is a prime example of this metamorphasis - it can be purchased from any electrical retailer, taken home, plugged in and digital TV can be enjoyed straight away, usually through an existing outdoor aerial. Grundig should be applauded for providing a no frills Freeview solution at what appears to be a bargain price.

 

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