Three or four years ago, Linux-based media players that sat under your Plasma and let you record live TV and play back your Torrentz were all the rage, and the king of them all here in Australia was the Noontec V9T – a huge enthusiast community built up around this, replete with people rolling their own firmwares for it. They quietly faded away when it looked like Android-based solutions were going to take over the world.
Well, history has shown that Android failed to set the media-player world on fire, probably because of it’s lack-lustre DVB TV support, and the fragmented app market, so eventually a factory in China was convinced by the local importers here to re-release the V9T, and today I have the cunningly-named V9T2 to look at.
What is it:
If you have a “smart” TV, you likely have some of the functionality of the V9T2 in your TV already, although most TVs, especially Sony, seem to do it in half-assed way – a Sony Bravia TV I saw recently required you to visit their website with a PC to create an account before the TV was “allowed” to download a codec to play some kind of streaming media from a Sony-provided app.
Anyway, you connect the V9T2 between your antenna and your TV, and it can record and playback live TV shows, pause them, fast-forward through ads, rewind etc, and save them as files on it’s hard drive – you can actually copy the saved recordings off the unit (unlike Foxtel’s IQ boxes, which forbid doing anything with recordings you’ve made, other than delete them). It’s got a TV guide page that lets you schedule shows for repeat recording, and in the future, whilst you are not there to hit the record button.
The V9T2 can also play back pretty much any movies/music/photo files you can plug into it or let it stream from other storage on your wired or wireless network – handy if you’ve got a pile of movies, photos, or MP3s on your PC that you’d like to play on a big screen. Lastly, it has limited web-browsing and media app capabilities, can act as a storage dump for other devices to read files from, and it can do Bittorrent downloading, although you wouldn’t want to, for reasons I’ll cover towards the end of this review.
Here are some shots of the box art – it’s mostly well-Englished and gives a good rundown of the feature-set and connectivity.
The V9T2 itself is well packed in foam, and there’s a separate accessories box with IR remote, external 100-240volt plugpack (12v 2Amp coaxial barrel plug output to the player – caravanners with 12v electricals will appreciate this), a set of Analogue RCA Audio Right/Left and Video cables, a pair of AAA batteries, a small bag of hard drive screws, a USB3.0 Device cable, a no-Chinglish manual and warranty card with contact details for the Sydney-based importer who provides local support. If you don’t already have one, you’ll need to buy a HDMI cable to connect this to your TV. The player is normally sold without a hard drive installed, so the screws are supplied to bolt a 3.5inch SATA drive to the base of the player. You can buy it in a bundle with a drive, although you could also just as well re-purpose an old PC desktop drive that’s been superseded by an SSD. The blue USB3.0 cable is for connecting the player to a PC, so you can transfer video/audio/photo files across from your PC to the player’s hard drive fairly quickly, seeing as USB3.0 should be good for 100MB/Second.
On the right side of the unit we have a card reader for SD cards (the kind you normally find in Android phones, which will require an adapter to fit in the V9T2), two USB2 Host ports that you can stick thumb-drives and other USB drives into, and the USB3.0 Device port that can be used to connect the player to a PC.
On the back you’ll find all the outputs and inputs – from left to right: Wifi 802.11 Antenna, Composite Video (yellow), analogue audio (red/white), Analogue Component video (Pr/Pb/Y), an upside-down HDMI digital video/audio port, a Gigabit network socket for Cat5 or Cat6 patch cables, optical and co-axial digital audio outputs (useful if you have a separate sound system / amplifier for your TV), the power socket, and TV antenna socket and loop-through output. On the right, you can just see the tiny little fan that is all that keeps the HDD cool. I couldn’t hear this fan over the ambient noise in our office.
There’s just 4 screws holding the base cover to the bottom of the unit – I’ve mounted a SATA 3.5inch desktop hard drive to the base here, using the pre-connected SATA data and power cables. Drives up to 4Tb in size are supported. The interior is well shielded to reduce noise and electrical interference.
When you’re done installing your hard drive, powering it on launches a wizard for first-time setup that cleans up most of the housekeeping tasks, except for formatting the hard drive itself,
There were heaps of languages to choose from – your flava is bound to be there, unless you happen to be a goat-herder from the Pashtun regions of the ‘stans, in which case you probably have more pressing issues than worrying about setting the right language for your media player menus.
Multiple country regions are catered for, although as this particular unit is intended for Australia, I can’t comment on how well it handles the vagaries of different DVB standards that other countries use.
Networks get autodetected if you connect a network patch cable. You will be prompted to enter a password when you actually connect to a specific network share, and it will save the username and password as a shortcut so you don’t need to enter them every time.
If you have wifi instead of a network cable to connect to your router, you can browse for an Access Point, and use an on-screen keyboard with the arrow buttons on the remote to give it the password. Playing back high-bitrate Blu-Ray content over Wifi might be a bit sketchy – use a network cable if you plan on doing this.
Lastly, you are presented with a handy screen grid to move if your TV didn’t pick up the size of the player’s output properly – this PC monitor was connected via HDMI, so it’s pretty close. There’s a button on the remote that lets you cycle through different TV display schemes, in case it presents you with a blank screen because it does not get a proper handshake from the TV on startup.
You’re presented with the V9T2’s home interface – looks like it’s hot in HK today:
This is a left-right scrolling deal, and you just press OK on the remote to hop into the content. The icons on the bottom right show connected devices. At this point, there was still one job to do – format the hard drive, although if you use an already-formatted drive with NTFS or EXt3 partitions on it, you can skip this step.
Watching TV on the V9T2:
At this point, you can dive right in and start watching TV. Hit the remote’s “EPG” button (Electronic Program Guide), and you get this channel preview and guide listing:
The stations are arrayed across the very top – use the “fast-forward” and “rewind” remote buttons to scroll them. Left / right remote buttons let you scroll the day, and up / down buttons scroll the time. Detailed program info appears in the bottom box when you select a program, and setting a highlighted program to record is as easy as pressing the red “record” remote button.Whilst you are watching a show, you can hit the “info” remote button to get more detail, and a synopsis of the show itself with the green remote button. See the “576” in the popup – It’s surprising to note how low-resolution most Australian free-to-air programming is, compared to the shows from Netflix and other US-based sources, which are normally in 1080 / HD.
Pressing OK brings up this quick channel list. You can edit the list to exclude unwanted channels, or sort them. Channel selection is very quick, and so is the TV guide, which populates the program data as fast as you select the programs. That’s worthwhile noting, as even recent Samsung TV’s I’ve used takes ages to fill in the EPG data.If you’ve scheduled a program to record, it’ll popup a warning that it’s starting soon, and then it’ll change to that channel. As there’s a second tuner available, you can just change the channel back to whatever you were watching at the time, and it’ll let you, but that’s a minor gripe. If you have scheduled two channels to record at the same time, it won’t let you change to any other channels, unless you agree to stop one of the recordings.
You can hit the “Home” button on the remote and it’ll let you browse through the main menu options whilst still showing you the TV content. You can also pause or time-shift the program, and use the fast-forward / rewind buttons to scan through or skip the ads.
The File Browser is probably the next most-useful menu option, in that it will let you pick up your content from attached USB drives, the internal drive, card reader, or other storage locations on your network.
Just use the arrow keys to select a location and press OK on the remote – keep going until you get to the content you want, and it’ll start playing – pretty bulletproof. Network shares that require username / password will prompt you to enter one, and the player will save them. It has a laundry-list of supported file types – only the movie containers that use some flavours of DiVX are excluded.
If you tend to get your movies from sources not approved of by the MAFIAA, If you rip your purchased DVDs to a different format for personal use, you might want to check your favourite codec is supported before buying this, but I hear most people these days use H.264 or MKV, which are supported just fine. It even plays 3D videos to 3D-capable TVs, for the handful of users who still want to endure watching them.
Music playback on it’s own is supported from whatever data sources you can feed the player, again a huge range of file types can be played.Yes, there’s a web-browser, although navigating is a bit clunky via a remote, as is entering text using an on-screen keyboard with left / right / up / down arrows (no letters on the remote to keep it simple).
And, there’s a bunch of random not-so-useful apps that you might check out once and never use again. There’s no way to add more apps, as there’s no app store for linux media players that I know of, and they are baked into the firmware anyway – if you want to Youtube, you’ll need to do it in the browser. (Update 22/9: the importer says a newer firmware includes Youtube now)
What else can it do?
You can make the V9T2 a central file store, or NAS (Network Attached Storage) for all your content and have it provide access to other devices over your network – Samba is the tool it uses, and you can specify an FTP server if you are old-school. Getting to the files on the V9T2 from another PC is as simple as typing it’s IP address into your PC’s browser (you can look up it’s IP under setting/network – reserve this IP in your router’s DHCP setup if you don’t want it to change whenever you reboot).
However, as there’s room for only one drive in it, your data is not going to be backed-up in any way, so make sure you have a strategy to put copies of mylifeswork.doc / your vintage Japanese tentacle-porn collection somewhere else as well. A multi-drive RAID enclosure, like those made by QNAP, is a more-sensible file store for data you care about.
Connect it via the included USB3.0 cable to your PC and it’ll appear to be just another dumb external hard drive that you can copy and paste files to. It won’t be usable as a media player whilst you connect it to a PC though.
Yet more things it can do:
Yes, it can do BitTorrent downloading – you’ll need to access it over your network with a PC’s web-browser to load and control your torrents, and it would use far less power than a dedicated PC to do it, but before you get too excited about that, the reality of BitTorrent is that your torrent client will be uploading bits of the media that you are downloading, and as such you will probably be breaking the law somewhere on the planet if you use it to get movies and music. Since the identity of the content you are uploading will not be encrypted by the V9T2, there is some risk that you could get into trouble with government organs, who are being lobbied by Australian content-landlords seeking to criminalise copyright infringement so that the enforcement costs can be socialised, whilst avoiding the profit-reduction that improved pricing and availability would entail. There are less-risky ways of obtaining content without having to share it via torrent uploads, such as
Usenet (1st rule of Usenet – you do not talk about Usenet).
There’s a bunch of other functionality, such as firmware-upgradeability, and a fairly comprehensive set of configuration menus, but the average user might not ever need to get near them, as the player is pretty well sorted – if you want more detail than I have covered here, grab a copy of the manual (19mb Word Document). This is not a first-generation product, so the rough edges have all been smoothed away by a stream of firmware tweaks over the years, and it’s pretty much as good as it’s ever going to be.
Is it worthwhile?
For people who want more than the basic live TV service, and would like to be able to pause / rewind / fast-forward / skip the Ads / record their shows so they can watch them at a more-convenient time, it’s ideal – nowhere near as expensive as a dedicated media-centre PC, and easy enough to use that you could give one to your retired parents in the back-of-Bourke, and not dread getting phonecalls on how to use it every night.
Yes, you can get a lot of this time-shifting functionality with the just-released FreeView Plus, but you’d need to buy a new, relatively-rare and therefore expensive, TV to use that service. Foxtel’s IQ / MyStar also has most of the same time-shift functionality, for a much higher cost, no way to backup or copy the content, and you’d be giving more money to Rupert, which should help improve his standing as the 91st-richest person in the world.
As a way of getting downloaded / shared digital content from your PC to your big screen, it’s pretty much perfect, and has none of the built-in content-control / DRM restrictions that accompany proprietary devices like the AppleTV or Xbox, forcing you to jump through hoops to jail-break them.
I gave one to my parents – they were chuffed.