25 Dec 2012

Vu+ Solo2: not ready for prime time yet?

Submitted by drhans

This is a honest Vu+ Solo2 review. I paid for the box so noone is paying me for a positive review and I am not biased towards any receiver brand. Well, I just hate Ferguson Ariva, AB IP Box, HD Box, Showbox and silimar brands. I had to say that. I feel better now. Sorry. In this review, I will focus on selected features.

The idea of getting the new Vu+ Solo2 before Christmas seemed to be a lost cause after the distributor of Vu+ for the Eastern Europe region failed miserably to deliver the necessary amount of receivers to satisfy the huge demand.

Luckilly, after a couple of calls, I was on a 3-hour drive outside Prague to hunt down one of the very few units available in the country. Quite soon I realized it was real. There really is a Vu+ Solo2! And the one I got was quite cheap too (€320), even after counting in the gas costs and travelling in very busy Christmas traffic. Apparently it came from the German distribution.

FLASHING and BOOTING

After plugging the box in, you realize it's fast. I didn't even have enough time to load the batteries into the remote control and the setup wizard was already on screen. Of course, the stock firmware is no fun so I immediately downloaded the Black Hole image. Flashing the image is extremely easy and works the same way as with other Vu+ receivers. Just copy the extracted image to a flashdrive, reboot the box, confirm and there you go... flashing starts. After about 2 minutes, the new Vu+ Solo2 is in the state it was meant to be.

Booting Black Hole E2 is reasonably fast. About 20 seconds faster than it takes to boot a Dreambox 500 HD. Although Vu+ looks almost 3x faster on paper, the reality is somewhere else. However, the powerful hardware is yet to be fully utilized in future E2 releases, I hope.

The next step was basic setup which follows the standard Enigma 2 steps. What surprised me in a bad way was the service scan. It seemed terribly slow. Scanning 6 satellites (42E, 28E, 23E, 19E, 13E, 5E) was taking ridiculous time. It was just painful. Check out the following video. It's not slow motion, it's real time.

After almos 1 hour of scannig, the progress bar was indicating only 45%. That's when I stopped the scan. No channels were saved in the list, not even the channels that were already scanned. So the only viable option was to download a ready channel list.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

During the first moments, I just took a look around. I happened to stumble upon a feature "Tuner server", which should allow me to stream to the network. So I enabled the feature. I shouldn't have done that. Right after enabling the feature, the box crashed. Fuck, this is not good. Bad luck I guess. Later I realized it crashed because there was no HDD mounted. Alright, a popup error message would be enough, but I guess Vu+ prefers theatrical crash with a green screen.

After a few more minutes of examining the menus and various functions, I noticed that the box slowed down significantly. Scrolling through the channel list suddenly became slow. I think it's the DLNA server slowing things down. Even when the slowdown is not noticable, some remote commads seem to get lost after a channel is tuned in. It happened to me many times after tuning to a channel, any button press on the remote was ignored for 2-5 seconds. I'm sorry but this is not acceptable.

Update: After I've done some reading, I think the remote commands might be ignored because of plasma TV interference. I've moved my test setup to an LED TV and the remote works flawlessly. Moved again to a plasma, remote commads get ignored. The closer to the TV, the worse is the problem. 30 cm close to the plasma TV and the remote commands are ignored completely.

EMULATORS

Networking the box and installing CCcam was the next step. Everything went smoothly even though the necessary emulator downloads are not available in the BlackHole plugin menu. It would be illegal, maybe. Everything with channel decrypting via CCcam seems to work normally and doesn't need any special attention in this review.

NETWORKING

Vu+ Solo2 comes with the usual goodies like web interface allowing you to stream TV and media files, change channels, set timers or use the virtual remote. Samba and FTP also come enabled by default, making connectivity to the box really easy. And how fast is the network? The box comes with a 1 Gbit interface afterall. Well... it's not THAT fast. But it's fast. I tried a 200 MB FTP transfer between a PC equipped with SSD hard drive and the Vu+ box's internal memory. Speed reading from Vu+ was only 120 Mbps but writing speed to Vu+ reached 350 Mbps. Next test, which was mounting NAS on Vu+ and using Vu+ FTP to transfer files between the NAS and PC yielded very similar results. This is clearly a notable improvement over the 100 Mbit network but nothing to get too excited about.

PVR

Recording multiple HD streams to mounted NAS storage and playing a HD 1080p MKV movie at the same time works. What more should I say. Nothing to complain here!

MEDIA PLAYER

The next big test is the media player. I'm sure you ask questions like these:

Can Vu+ Solo2 play 1080p MKV? Yes but fast forwarding is not working properly. Max speed is 8x and after a few seconds of forwarding, the video freezes. This happened to me every time. Otherwise the playback is smooth and uninterrupted.

Can Vu+ Solo2 pass through Dolby HD and DTS-MA? Dolby HD no, DTS-MA yes.

How about the subtitles? Standard E2 functionality. No feature to automatically download subtitles for a movie from the internet.

Can Vu+ Solo2 act as an DLNA screen to play your content? No, DLNA devices can't use Vu+ as the renderer.


... Android phone can't use Vu+ as a renderer.


... but Vu+ can be used as a DLNA media server.

The media player is decent but with its poor features, it can in no way replace a standalone media streamer. While it plays MKV, AVI, MPG and MOV, it fails to recognize less common formats like WMV, FLV and 3GP.

TRANSCODING

I guess I didn't get it. After opening a stream from web the interface, the screen on the box goes black and a recording is started. But nothing plays. VLC tries to open the stream but this doesn't happen. After closing the VLC player, video (sometimes) returs to the screen. Sometimes it doesn't and you're stuck with Vu+ recording and a black screen. Whatever this transcoding attempts to accomplish, it's apparent that the goal is pretty far away. Was Vu+ supposed to be an alternative to a Slingbox? I hope not. If yes, it fails miserably.

PIP

PIP works with encrypted channels and in HD, meaning you can decrypt 2 HD channels at the same time while watching them. I never really used Picture in Picture but there's something strange about the way how Vu+ handles this feature. Of course it's great you can finally watch 2 HD channels at the same time, not being limited to SD, but I'm still missing some very important features - audio selection! Why is Vu+ limited to playing the audio from the "main" stream only? Why can't I select from which screen do I want to hear the sound? I just don't get this. The fact that there are not any dedicated buttons on the remote for PIP makes PIP a little difficult to use.

WEB BROWSER

There has never been more useless feature in various satellite boxes than a web browser. However, Vu+ Solo2 promises much better web browsing experience. How cool would it be to plug in a wireless keyboard/mouse and surf the net on the TV! Yes, it would be cool if only it was possible. Maybe Vu+ wants to sell us their special remotes with keyboard but it's definitely not cool to omit generic keyboard support in Black Hole E2 image. At least an USB mouse works. So get ready for serious finger torture if you want to use the web browser with the standard Vu+ remote.
Fine, let's check some websites. Not bad. The browser isn't terribly slow, it's just slow. But it's fine for reading emails or news, I guess. However, if you expect to play flash videos from TV archives, you might be disappointed (what, again? Vu+ Solo2 disappointed? Oh no, I don't like how the review is going so far...). As it appears, the browser uses an old Adobe Flash version, rendering many flash videos unplayable. The image below shows a message shown instead of video at Prima Play, a popular video archive of a Czech TV station. The message just says that you're screwed. And this is not any exception. Many other videos fail to play.

All this looks like Vu+ updated the hardware and said "hey, let's talk about everything that we WILL be able to do with this amazing hardware, but let's not actually do it yet". This fucking sucks. Vu+ Solo2 is good, don't get me wrong. But it's not a breakthrough in any sense. All the new features are promising but at this point those features are more like nice ideas rather than something that actually works.

So ... no, Vu+ Solo2 will not combine a great satellite receiver, great media player and great web-browsing / streaming tool into one, but it will make a very good satellite receiver with 2 tuners for a good price. Unfortunately, with the current Black Hole image, Vu+ does not bring out any breathtaking new features that would justify the upgrade... unless you're just looking for a new Enigma 2 box in general. Then I can't recomment Vu+ Solo2 highly enough despite it's current illnesses and lack of revolutionary features.

At the same time, I'm sure there are many more updates coming for this new generation of Enigma 2 boxes. Let's just hope it doesn't mean just bugfixes and shiny, yet useless, plugins. This box deserves much more.

For the price, however, I can recommend Vu+ Solo2 with 3 dishes and a half, out of 5!

Have a question? Make a comment and ask...

The good:
- 2 tuners
- Enigma 2 on MIPS, running all modern emulators
- HD PIP
- good booting speed
- Gigabit LAN
- video streaming
- fan is silent
- fast channel changes
- YPbPr over SCART
- low power consumption (20 W standby, 23-27 W running)
- price

The bad:
- slow channel scan
- sometimes slow remote responses
- sometimes remote commands are not accepted (could be caused by Plasma TV interference)
- No dedicated PIP buttons, audio swap not supported
- fast forward in media player does not work properly
- poor DLNA implementation
- web browser can't play many Flash videos
- transcoding doesn't work
- USB keyboard does not work
- fails to tune in MSNBC at 15 West
- remote control design could be improved
- no 4:2:2 support
- no Multistream support
- PiP tends to skip frames and causes long black-screen periods when swapping services involded in PiP