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14 November 2019 - 12 minute read
I'm really not one to watch TV. I'll occasionally sit down and watch a film in the evening if there's something interesting on, but I won't actively seek out the TV to watch it. Our household doesn't use any paid TV. Our TV is some relatively cheap Panasonic thing. 1080p, really slow, very proprietary.
As my parents tend to watch quite a bit of TV and my younger brother likes to watch a lot of stuff on free streaming things like BBC iPlayer or All4, having the TV able to use all of those easily seemed like a nice thing to have - and having it all running on free software would be even better.
I'd heard the name "Kodi" before and knew about people setting up HTPCs with things like Raspberry Pis so I knew this was a thing that was being done, so I thought I'd have a look and experiment. Some research later and I thought I'd give OSMC's Vero box a go, so this post will be a review of sorts.
So the box arrived yesterday. My order was the Vero box and the TV adapter. It came in the form of a non-recyclable plastic bag containing a cardboard box (about 2/3rds the size of a shoe box) full of non-recyclable foam pellets, and hidden in the middle of that was a little box with the gear in it. I was quite disappointed that not only was the packaging space-inefficient, but you couldn't recycle most of it. If you don't like landfill then you won't be so happy to receive this box either.
Packaging aside, the actual tech included:
The box itself is this tiny square black box with some IO on it. It had Ethernet, 2 USB ports, 2 mini jack ports, DC power, HDMI, and another that I couldn't identify (but we never needed). Note that this thing doesn't have a power button on it. If it's off then you turn it on by plugging in power, so unless you want to be repeatedly reaching behind your TV to unplug/replug the power cable, put the box into suspend rather than powering it off.
The TV card is bigger than you expect it to be, and it does look a little strange plugged into the box. I was going to mount the box vertically behind the TV, but seeing the TV stick in it made me change my mind as it would not be stable - I could see the port and TV stick both getting broken as soon as there's too much of a tug on the aerial cable. Instead it's just sat on the table-top behind the TV out of the way. Because of this, the adhesive mount is going unused. I used the USB RF receiver with the remote as it means no line of sight is needed, so the IR receiver is as-of-yet unused.
The remote is something particularly interesting. It's this wonderful little remote with very few buttons - all clearly marked, which makes it very nice to use and relatively intuitive for the most part. The one thing it's seriously lacking in though is a mute button. It's got volume up and down, but no mute, which is a bit strange. In the mean time we can just use the mute on the TV itself, but it's something of a shame we'll still need it out. Other than that issue though, it's very comfortable to use. The buttons are very tactile and have a nice click to them.
Setup was a mixed bag. The guided setup on first launch was very simple and only took about 10 minutes (most of which was typing in the WiFi password twice because I screwed up the first time). What presented more of a challenge was setting up the TV stick. OSMC made it very easy to install the add-on for the stick, and there was a relatively good guide on how to use the setup, which is a web UI hosted by the box. This combined with SSH running on the machine meant I was able to connect to and manage the whole thing from my laptop which was pretty cool. The only real place we tripped up was when tuning the aerial. The config wizard provided a good selection of stock settings that included our local antenna, though the weather was very bad. We weren't able to get any services from our local one, but were able to reach the next nearest and it found nearly 150 channels. The only problem of using the other antenna is we get different regional BBC channels, though we (or I) know how to retune it so we can try again periodically until we get a good connection to the local one.
One thing I found very exciting was just how customisable the UI is. A couple of recommended add-ons in and I was able to fully customise all the home menu items to get everything tidy. I also made a nice dark grey background using a low-poly generator which looks very nice. Overall very happy UI-wise. Having a faster box also means that it's all much more responsive than the TV. What takes half a second on the TV takes a 10th on this box. It's not instant, but the improvement is enough for the TV to feel really bad now.
This is where my excitement kind of started to really die to be replaced with mild frustration. You can get a reasonable selection of add-ons on the main Kodi repos, but for any of the things I was after (namely BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, UKTV Play, and All4), I needed to find other repos. Searching for these things is hard. It feels reminiscent of looking for Windows software - sketchy website after sketchy website, all trying to sell you VPNs, asking you to type in questionable URLs, and the 2 most common repos mentioned both haven't existed for years.
After a lot of searching around and trying things, I managed to land myself with 3 of the 4.
Searching for All4, I found that there are no longer any add-ons for it as they have moved to a DRM system which Kodi had no support for until version 17. I couldn't find any information on any renewed efforts to write a new add-on.
So this was hours of looking around and trying things, and I got 1 functioning add-on and 2 broken ones. Not pleased. The only redeeming thing is that the TV itself only has BBC iPlayer, so at this current stage the box has matched the TV - making it a valid replacement. I'll continue to look for other add-ons though, and the selection in the main Kodi repo could provide some new things to watch - it'll be down to experimentation and patience.
One thing I might even consider is getting a web browser on it and just adding menu items to open the related website in the browser.
Ok, so what's it actually like to use this thing? Actually not bad. I think the main hurdle in usability is that - unlike a regular TV - the "TV" screen and menus are like a program within the top-level UI, rather than being that top level. Past that though it's fine. The small number of buttons on the remote mean that there isn't much risk of error, and buttons like "Home" and "Back" work fairly intuitively everywhere. Being able to fast-switch channels as well as open the whole guide is a good nice-to-have as well.
I only really have 2 criticisms of the UI. The first is that a lot of menus have this row of options along the bottom. These aren't accessible by pressing down a few times. Instead, you have to go left. If you don't know that, then the buttons seem unreachable. The second criticism is that when the UI is divided into sections like sub-menus, it's often hard to tell whether you're on the outer group or the inner. It could be made a lot clearer what is selected as well as which way to go to get to other things. This is all mostly solved when using a keyboard and mouse though, so if we start getting comfy using the box then I might look into one of those mini wireless keyboard/trackpad things.
One thing I can definitely praise it for though is the quality of the TV connection. If the signal goes a bit iffy on the TV, then it just goes blank and silent with "No signal" for at least a second before trying to display anything again which is incredibly disruptive. If the same thing happens on the box, it just goes JPEG-y for a bit and comes back, meaning it's overall much more consistent, even if the connection is the same.
One thing I haven't tried yet but definitely want to is games. If I can get some emulators on this thing and get a controller, then it could be great for playing retro games and would go next to our SNES very nicely. This could be a strong redeeming feature.
If, like me, free software is important to you, then absolutely get one of these or do something similar with a Raspberry Pi. It's not some flashy consumer product and it's far from perfect, but it's all FOSS and that arguably matters a lot more. If FOSS isn't something you're so bothered about and you're considering whether or not to get one, then I'd say it's fairly good. Do as much research before-hand though. If you know all the content you'll want is available through add-ons that are in the main repos, then you'll find using this thing a breeze. Just get the box, set it up, then go through the list installing what you need and you're basically set. If however you're in my situation where the content you need isn't in the main repos, it very quickly becomes much more of a challenge and a lot of the fun gets sapped out of it very quickly.
If you're relatively tech-savvy then I can recommend it. If you're after FOSS then can definitely recommend it. If you're not tech-savvy and are going to be scared off by searching for add-ons and setting up your TV with a rather complicated Web UI, then I wouldn't get one of these unless you have access to a (willing) tech-savvy person that can do setup. Lastly, I wouldn't get one of these as a gift unless you're willing and able to do all the setup and work around issues tidily as not to make the giftee feel underwhelmed.
7/10 - has issues but fits a need well.
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Copyright Oliver Ayre 2019. Site licensed under the GNU Affero General Public Licence version 3 (AGPLv3).