People who leave the traditional pay-TV services like Sky and Virgin Media for Freeview, sometimes have a hard time finding their feet without the cable/satellite interface they’re familiar with. It’s that issue – among others – that Netgem are trying to solve with their Netbox.
The Netgem Netbox 4K is a Freeview Play box with (limited) recording capabilities, all the live Freeview channels (plus premium ones that you can pay for), several streaming video apps like BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube, and a unique user interface that aims to unite all these services.
It’s an interesting idea, but does it work? In this review, I’ll take a look at what the Netbox does well, where it’s lacking, and whether this is the right Freeview recorder for you.
Quick Look – Netgem Netbox 4K
What is it: A “Freeview Play” box with streaming apps, live TV (via an aerial) and recording capabilities (on a USB stick). Retail Price at time of review: £129.00.
Interface & Usage
- Most of the major UK streaming services
- Excellent video and sound quality (4K on some services)
- Quick global search across many services
- Fast interface
- No Netflix or NOW TV apps
- No hard drive – recording requires a USB stick/drive
- Remote control buttons are poor
Features and Specs
- Video Quality: 4K (2160p), HDR
- Sound: Dolby Atmos
- Channels: 70+ SD Freeview Channels, 15 HD, 25+ Radio Stations
- Apps: BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5, UKTV Play, Amazon Prime Video, BritBox, hayu, YouTube and more
- EPG: 8 Days (7 days backwards)
- Recording: Via your own USB stick/drive (32GB minimum)
- Connections: HDMI, S/PDIF, USB (for recording)
- Internet: Ethernet + WiFi
- Extra Features: Personal TV recommendations, cast content from your mobile phone, optional Netgem TV subscription service with additional channels (such as LaLiga TV)
Unique Freeview Play box that tries to reinvent the interface wheel with personal recommendations and a one-stop-shop for the various streaming services. But without Netflix or NOW TV, and limited recording capabilities, it still has room for improvement.
Table of Contents
Who Is The Netgem Netbox 4K For?
If you have a TV sold in the UK after 2010, it should already have a Freeview tuner built-in. And if you bought a TV in recent years, chances are it’s also a “Smart TV”, so it already has a variety of streaming apps.
Given all that, one might question the need for a stand-alone Freeview box with streaming apps. However, these boxes still have their place – thanks to the extra features they provide.
What Is Freeview?
Established in 2002, Freeview is the United Kingdom’s digital terrestrial television platform. It provides access to free-to-air TV channels and radio stations, including more than 85 standard channels and HD channels – from the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4, to CBS, Sony Movies, QVC and many others.
Freeview, as the name implies, is FREE, without a monthly cost – but most people do need to pay the annual TV licence fee.
Freeview Play adds a streaming component, with catch-up apps from some of the leading broadcasters (like BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, etc’). For Freeview Play, you also need to connect your compatible box to the internet (See my full Freeview Play guide).
So, what does the Netgem Netbox 4K offer over a Freeview player built into your TV?
First, there’s the interface. Smart TVs, even very modern ones, are often slow and clunky, with a confusing interface.
The Netbox, however, has a pretty slick interface – it’s not the fastest on the market (that still goes to the Manhattan T3-R), but it’s better than most Smart TV interfaces. When you jump into one of its menus, or into the Freeview EPG, everything is pretty instant.
But other than being quick, the interface is also Netgem’s most unique selling point, even over competing Freeview boxes. With support for Freeview Play catch-up apps, as well as a few additional popular streaming apps (like Prime Video), the interface tries to combine all these services into one.
Some will love it, while some will find it needlessly confusing. Instead of a list of apps (or even channels), the Netbox always pushes you towards its own interface, where you get personal recommendations from across ALL the supported apps and channels.
This means that once the Netbox learns your TV tastes – for example, you like dramas – it will try to show you personalised recommendations from Freeview Play apps (such as the BBC), or dramas available on Prime Video, or even related movies available to rent on Rakuten.
For people who are coming from a pay-TV service like Sky, this might be a helpful halfway-step towards complete streaming freedom. You don’t have to constantly jump between different apps and services to find what to watch – instead, you see recommendations on one screen, and once you choose what to watch – THEN you will be taken to the appropriate app.
If, however, you know what you want to watch (and particularly WHERE) – this can get a bit cumbersome. Why hide Amazon Prime’s interface, when it’s already such an established brand? (You can still access each app and streaming service directly – but that option is a bit hidden, compared to those personalised recommendations).
In addition, those personalised recommendations mix together content that you can watch for free – and content that you would need to pay for (for example, by getting a Prime Video or BritBox subscriptions, or by renting something on Rakuten).
And to make things even more confusing, the Netgem service comes in two flavours:
The Premium Addon: What Is Netgem.TV?
You can get the Netgem Netbox in one of two ways:
- Directly, as a standalone box (currently only available on Amazon).
- As part of the Netgem.TV monthly subscription
The subscription model (which can also be purchased via some broadband providers or directly from Netgem) costs £14.99/month and has a 12-months contract.
For that price, you get the 4K Netbox (but you have to return it when the contract ends), with all the Freeview channels and apps that normally come with it – as well as a few additional “Premium” channels.
These premium channels include Premier Sports 1, 2, and LaLiga TV – a bundle that normally costs £9.99/month (depending on where you get it), as well as FITE TV.
In addition, you get a few live lifestyle channels – cooking, home improvement, etc’ – nothing too exciting, but fun to watch if you’re into these genres.
Without the yearly contract, this could have been an interesting proposition for those who want to test the waters, and are also sports fans. But paying £14.99/month for a full year, when the main offer is the Sports bundle – which can be had for just £9.99/month elsewhere – is not a very good deal in my eyes.
Yes, you also get the 4K Netbox – but it’s not actually yours, and one could say you’re paying the extra £5/month for renting the box. So, in most cases, you would be better off buying the Netbox directly from Amazon. (And then you CAN – by contacting Netgem – also subscribe to the monthly service and get the premium channels).
Using The Netgem Netbox 4K
The box itself is surprisingly small and lightweight, and will fit nicely on your TV stand/cabinet.
Setting up the Netbox is quite easy. Once you connect it to your aerial and turn it on for the first time, it will immediately offer to scan for Freeview channels.
Then, you will also be asked to connect it to the internet – either via WiFi or with an Ethernet cable. At that point, the box will probably download a software update – and then you’re ready to go.
It’s also worth mentioning that Netgem offer impressive customer support – when I had a technical issue with the Parental Lock Pin, I approached them via e-mail – and the answer was almost instantaneous.
The Netbox remote control is a bit of a misfire. It has everything you need, but the button-setup is a bit confusing, and the navigation buttons in the middle – which are the buttons you would use the most – are just plain bad, because they are too flat – so you’re not always sure whether you actually pressed them or not.
At this point, it’s also a good idea to install the Netgem TV app on your mobile phone (it’s available for both iOS and Android). For starters, the app lets you mark some favourite TV programmes and movies – which would help with your content recommendations later on.
Now, if you just want to flip through Freeview channels, you can do so in the regular way. But the Netbox’ main strength comes from its recommendation UI.
The Netgem Netbox Interface
The main interface is divided into several tabs:
- Search – A very quick search option that can search for content across most of the apps and services (and can then take you directly to the relevant app).
- My TV, where you get personal recommendations from across all the supported channels and apps.
- Freeview Play – streaming catch-up apps and recommendations that come directly from the Freeview Play platform.
- Safe At Home: A temporary category with content suitable for people who are under lockdown or spending a lot of time at home.
- Extra on Demand: Additional recommendations from paid services, such as Prime Video, BritBox, Rakuten, etc’.
- Live Extra: Live channels that are part of the Netgem.TV subscription platform – mainly sports channel, lifestyle and cooking.
- Recordings: Where you can watch and manage recorded content (more on that later)
The interface is pretty snappy and easy to understand. The way content is shown will really be a matter of taste – I’m already used to going directly to the app I want to watch (Prime Video, BritBox, etc’) – so piling everything together is just confusing for me (especially when you have to pay extra for some of the apps).
But for people who don’t want the added work of knowing what each app/service has to offer, and just want to base their watching decisions on content instead of a service – these recommendations can be helpful.
What Channels / Apps Do You Get With Netgem?
First, you get all the free over-the-air Freeview channels (provided you have good reception in your house).
Then, you also get all the default Freeview Play catch-up apps: BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My 5, UKTV Play, CBS Catchup and Horror Bites.
Plus, you also get Plex (see our review), which is a great app for streaming your own content.
Lastly, there’s the premium Netgem.TV tier, which you get with a monthly subscription.
Its main offering is the Sports bundle of Premiere Sports 1 and 2 and LaLiga TV, and it also has a few live lifestyle and cooking channels. (During the UK lockdown, Netgem decided to open the premium tier for free, for everyone, for a limited time – so depending on when you read this, you might still be able to watch these channels without paying extra).
All in all, it’s a decent selection of apps and channels, but Netflix is notably missing, and so is NOW TV.
That’s a real shame, since the Netbox aims to be your one-stop-TV-shop, and it can’t do that with the most prominent streaming service missing – which means you still need another streaming device (or a Smart TV). Hopefully, they’ll be able to add Netflix at some point.
Recording With The Netgem Netbox 4K
The Netbox is not just a Freeview player, it’s also a Freeview recorder – but with a big asterisk – as it doesn’t have any storage space of its own.
Instead, you need to get either a USB stick or a USB drive – which means paying some more. The USB drive has to have a minimum of 32GB, but more is preferable, as recordings take a lot of space – especially if you record HD content.
Once you connect a USB stick, you can either pause live TV (and then watch the recorded part later), or choose programmes to record via the Freeview EPG. But because the Netbox only has one tuner, you can’t record one programme while watching another channel.
Once you have some programmes recorded, you can find them in the “Recordings” section on the main menu, where you can also manage and delete stuff you already watched.
While the recording capability is a nice addition (the Manhattan T3 Freeview Player, for example, can’t record at all), it’s quite limited.
If recording is the main reason you’re looking for a standalone Freeview box, then you should look elsewhere, for boxes with built-in storage and more advanced capabilities (see our recommended Freevew boxes list here).
But if you just want to occasionally record a show here and there – this can fit the bill.
4K Ultra HD On The Netgem Netbox
The Netbox supports 4K and HDR (and on the sound front – Dolby Atmos) – and it certainly delivers excellent picture quality on the supported services.
Remember, though, that 4K content is still limited – you can get some 4K programmes and movies on Amazon Prime Video (if you have a subscription), and there’s some 4K content on YouTube.
The BBC has been running Ultra HD “trials” for the past several years, with some shows being added – but those are few and far between. At the time of this writing, you can find His Dark Materials, Dracula and Seven Worlds, One Planet in 4K on BBC iPlayer.
So while 4K might be a good investment for the future – it’s mostly relevant on the Netbox, at this point, if you have a Prime Video subscription.
The Bottom Line: Is The Netgem Netbox 4K Worth It?
The Freeview Play market isn’t very crowded – while some TVs support it, if you want a standalone set-up box, there aren’t too many options – there are the Manhattan boxes (with and without recording capabilities), and the Humax FVP-5000t recorder.
So where does that Netbox stand? Somewhere in the middle.
It has a fast interface, excellent video and sound quality, and it can even record from Freeview – albeit with limited functionality. The recording alone would have put it above the Manhattan T3 – but without storage space, the £50 price difference feels too much. (Netgem also sell the cheaper Netbox HD – which doesn’t support 4K).
Then there are the apps – the Humax FVP-5000t doesn’t have Prime Video, or BritBox, or hayu – but it does have Netflix, which the Netbox lacks. But then, the Humax box is considerably more expensive (with a built-in hard-drive, though).
So it all comes down to the personalised interface. Some might find it easier to use, with personalised recommendations taking the front stage – and if you belong to that camp, then the Netbox is an interesting choice.
Note: The Netbox 4K was supplied by the manufacturer for this review. As always, this did not influence my unbiased opinion of the product.