28 Dec 2015

Vu+ Solo 4K

Submitted by drhans

The reason I was interested in trying the new Vu+ Solo 4K was not 4K itself but rather the  fact this is the latest Linux receiver from one of my favorite manufacturers, running Enigma 2. Therefore, this review does not primarily focus on 4K reception since I don’t even own any 4K capable display. This review will describe the following:

-        Overall box design and connections

-        Hardware highlights

-        TV experience

-        Media: default media player, XBMC, Dreamplex

Overall box design and connections

First impression of the box is rather confusing as it’s quite “boxy”. I’d even say it’s an ugly black box with even uglier LCD display in the middle. Adding to the confusion is the standby toggle button. For some reason, the only button on the front panel is not a button anymore. It’s just a light. I felt quite stupid trying to push that button to power the box on or off. To do that, one must open the smartcard/CAM cover and push a weird reset-like button.

What I had more difficulties getting around was the large LCD display. Not that I would hold a grudge against displays but I still can’t really figure out what it could be good for. OK, the Dreamboxes 7080/ 820HD have a small OLED display which fits perfectly and has a clear purpose, at least for me – show the receiver IP address when in recovery mode or the menu selections when stuck in incorrect display mode or just without any display connected. But that’s about it. Small 1-inch display is perfectly fine for this.

Imagine this – sitting in a living room, watching a 60-inch TV (why else would anyone get 4K, right?) and then having a 3.5-inch LCD display on the Vu+, probably something like 2-4 meters away. No matter how hard I tried to justify the display, I just couldn’t come to any other conclusion that it’s just a cheap gimmick. On powering the box on, we see an animation play on the display. An animation which looks like something from an 80’s video game. Then you could also route the video from the currently watched channel onto that small display. That’s cool, right? So cool! Wait… why would I want to do that? I can’t see shit on 3.5-inch TV from my sofa and the 500 Euro receiver is not exactly in the category of receivers you’d take out to use as an alternative to a real sat finder. What else… well, how about channel logo on the display? Or the clock? None of this makes any real sense. Browsing through music on the display is one possibility but with the lack of major music apps such as I Heart Radio, Sirius XM or Pandora, I’m not sure if this makes much sense either since all the radio stations on satellite broadcast in poor audio quality and playing MP3s on the Vu+ seems like an overkill.

I have to say, the display brings the overall feel of the box down. It makes it look like something designed at around the same time as that old Skoda in the picture below – that one was UHD too, after all!

The remote is good. It’s actually one of the best but there’s one big BUT. It’s noisy. Every button push makes loud clicking sound. This was not the case with some of the older Vu+ remotes but unfortunately has been there since the release of Vu+ Solo 2 as far as I can remember. One might say this is a small thing, why even worry about it? Well, try to use this remote in the bedroom next to your sleeping wife! She will hate you. At night, the clicking sound of the remote gets extremely annoying and then it doesn’t matter if you wear earbuds and turned the TV brightness all the way down. There’s so much less bitching when using the Dreambox! Really, this is no joke. Just because of this, I had to stop with the testing and continue the next day…

Hardware highlights

Considering how large this box is, I wonder why there is no component video output. This is quite disappointing as a device like the Slingbox relies on component outputs for HD video. There’s not even a SCART with YPbPr output. This box is HDMI all the way which is a bummer. This takes away some of the flexibility you could have with analog video outputs. But the reality is most people don’t care about a Slingbox or portable displays with analog CVBS inputs or connecting the box to multiple displays without having to use HDMI splitters.

This receiver is fast, really fast. During normal usage, it is as good as my Dreambox 820 HD (although the DM boots a bit faster) but this Vu+ is even faster when running plugins such as DreamPlex and XBMC. Perhaps this is thanks to the switch from MIPS to ARM7 architecture. I love this change because now I can easily develop simple command line applications on Raspberry (also ARM), compile on Raspberry and then run them directly on the Vu+! No more need for cross compilers. This is great stuff, making the Vu+ Solo 4K great for developers and plugin users. Sure, you will not get CCcam to run on ARM but you don’t really need nor want the obsolete CCcam anymore. OSCam is the only soft CAM you need.

Another hardware perk is a new twin tuner with 6 more virtual tuners. This makes it possible to watch and/or record and/or stream up to 8 channels from different transponders. On the other hand, it could be just 2 channels, even if both tuners are connected, since it doesn’t really matter how many virtual tuners there are if the channels are broadcast from transponders with more than two different polarization/band combinations. Things get even more complicated once multiple satellites get involved. But still it’s nice to see a small innovation like this. By plugging in another twin tuner of the same type, it might be possible to really record 16 channels from different transponders, although from up to 4 satellites only. Personally I don’t record or stream anything but if you’re running an illegal IPTV server, the Vu+ Solo 4K might be your favorite streaming solution.

One thing which is really cool about the box is the hard drive slot in the back. It’s no longer necessary to open the receiver in order to install a hard drive. And speaking of slots, I’m also a bit angry that there’s just one CI slot and it’s not even CI+ compatible. The receiver comes with 2 old-school card readers and one CI slot. This is not good since universal card readers are getting obsolete with all the providers pairing their cards to CAMs or receivers. It would have been much more future proof to equip the box with 2 CI+ slots and one card reader only. And you probably want something future proof if considering a 4K box, a box capable of receiving a standard which has barely started.

The built-in WiFi Ethernet interface is a nice addition but it’s 2 GHz only and I don’t think it’s necessary, especially if we need to stream 50 Mbps 4K content.

There’s probably no need to write about the other hardware specifications, those can be easily found elsewhere and there’s nothing else so special about the receiver. All I can say is that the box performs well, just like I expected from a Vu+.

TV experience

Unfortunately, nothing breathtaking in this department. The tuner does not work with the Enigma2 blind scan – I tried with various images but was not able to get blind scan working. Low SR transponders are locked with mixed results: QPSK locks 1.4 Msym/s. Lower SRs don’t lock, which is worse when compared to Vu+ Solo2, Dreambox or Coolstream, all being able to lock even a 1Msym/s transponder. But to be fair, there’s not a very big market for SRs of 1000 and below. Overall there’s nothing special about the tuning capabilities of this receiver. That means, no 4:2:2, no multi stream, no 16/32 APSK or anything else that would make the receiver stand out.

No lock on Vu+... while on Dreambox:

On the other hand, the receiver works flawlessly with PAL and NTSC services as well as with IPTV streaming features of Enigma 2, including OSCam’s Stream Relay. BISS encrypted PMT services at 27.5W are scanned in just fine too.

What bugged me is the PiP function. Although I have never really used picture in picture, I can imagine how could Vu+ Solo 4K make this a great feature with its hardware power. What I would like to see is 4-way PiP to put CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and Al-Jazeera on screen at the same time. That would be so cool. But unfortunately only 2 services can be viewed at the same time and what’s also disappointing is the fact that the receiver doesn’t seem to have enough power to show 2 UHD services while in PiP mode as the second UHD video gets very choppy and unwatchable – this is not what I would expect from a 4K receiver which claims to have PiP function. PiP is also a bit buggy when trying to watch IPTV in the PiP mode, but in the end it's possible to get it working at least in the basic way of showing 2 videos side by side.

Watching TV and zapping with Vu+ Solo 4K is a pleasure. Snappy and clean channel switching is fun. What’s not so much fun is watching those five or so 4K channels with shitty content played in a demo loop. I felt similar to 8 years ago when I was reviewing the first Linux HD receiver – the Kathrein UFS910. It was all great but there was no meaningful HD content to watch. Now the situation is the same, just in 4K. The onlt channel in 4K that sound tempting are some Trikolor channels and NASA UHD. The problem with Trikolor is that the card won’t work in the universal card reader because it’s paired and NASA UHD is hard to get, considering not many people own an Extended C-Band LNB and a suitable dish to receive 40W.

 

 

One downside of the Vu+, compared to a Dreambox, would be the inabilty of OSCam to access the hardware DES decoder. PowerVu DES decryption only works through Stream Relay, which is not optimal but still better than nothing.

Media: default media player, XBMC, DreamPlex

The ARM CPU and 4K support make Vu+ Solo 4K a great media player. However, it still can’t compete with Raspberry Pi or Apple TV and that’s just too bad as I was hoping for a solution which would let me dump the extra boxes and stream IPTV with PVR Stalker and use AirPlay on the Vu+. The problem with XBMC is that it’s just that – an old XBMC, not capable of installing some of the best plugins, like the mentioned PVR Stalker which lets you connect to the premium IPTV services.

During the media playback, the XBMC uses the Enigma2 player and I was not able to find out how to use plugins, such as a subtitle downloader, during the playback, which is something that works fine with on Raspberry Pi. All the PVR add-ons are missing too. Because of these limitations, this is no way a full featured XBMC. I hope we can get the current Kodi implemented into Enigma 2 in the future. XBMC is just too obsolete.

AirPlay is supposed to be supported by both XBMC and an Enigma2 plugin. However, I was not able to do any airplay from neither of the 2 iPhones I tried so I just stick to using my new Apple TV.

DreamPlex is another story, though. I was amazed how well this plugin runs on the Vu+ Solo 4K compared to DM820HD. The menu navigation is fast and the playback is flawless. For some reason, though, 4K content encoded in AVC didn’t play without transcoding. Hopefully this would be fixed in a future release.

In another test, I wanted to see how 4K local media plays. For this purpose, I stored various UHD clips and movies on CIFS mounted storage, connected with the Vu+ via a gigabit network. I used the Enigma2 Media Player to play these media and these are the results:

File: Samsung_UHD_Soccer_Barcelona_Atletico_Madrid.ts
Video: HEVC @ 45.8 Mbps, 3840x2160p, 50 fps
DreamPlex result: PLAYS WELL
Enigma2 media player result: PLAYS WELL

File: PUPPIES BATH IN 4K (ULTRA HD)(Original_H.264-AAC) (4ksamples.com).mp4
Video: AVC @ 21.2 Mbps, 4096x2304p, 23.976 fps
DreamPlex result: DOES NOT PLAY (audio only)
Enigma2 media player result: DOES NOT PLAY (audio only)

File: 4K Gaming Sample (4ksamples.com).mp4
Video: AVC @ 50.1 Mbps, 3840x2160p, 50 fps
DreamPlex result: DOES NOT PLAY (audio only)
Enigma2 media player result: DOES NOT PLAY (audio only)

These results suggest that while HEVC files will play fine, AVC does not work. All the “old” formats play without issues too, including DD and DTS bit stream output. Embedded subtitles work too. The Vu+ Solo 4K is a good media player, it just needs real Kodi plugin with all the Kodi features that come with it. Then this box will be unbeatable.

Overall experience

Once again, I hoped for a perfect satellite receiver but once again, I ended up a little disappointed. Yes, the Vu+ Solo 4K is the best satellite receiver you can get today in terms of price/performance ratio but it’s not enough to justify an impulse purchase or an upgrade from Vu+ Solo 2 or a Dreambox 820HD/7080HD. If you’re considering an upgrade from an older Vu+ or a Dreambox, you can’t go wrong. The Dreambox users must be aware of unfinished PowerVu support on the Vu+ machines.

The box is not very esthetically pleasing, misses some A/V connections and the media player part has still a long way to go but all this brings its quality down just by a very tiny bit. But still, I'd love to see a cheaper version of the receiver without the display (hoping this could bring the dimensions down a little) and wifi. For me, this was a miss and in the end I decided to return the unit, sticking to Dreamboxes for now as my primary satellite receivers.