When Foxtel launched their iQ3 box it was an ambitious product that aimed to revolutionise the pay TV set-top box. Three years later, with the release of the iQ4K, the revolution is finally here!
Foxtel’s ubiquitous iQ3 box has received its fair share of bouquets and brickbats over the three and a half years it’s been a current product. Many people immediately warmed to the more personal interface, which was a welcome change from the earlier iQ2’s “hotel movie channel chic” menu system. The generous 1000 GB hard drive allowed for recording of a continuous week’s worth of HD channels, an important upgrade as more and more HD channels came online. Its plethora of tuners — a remarkable ten in the satellite version, including two for free-to-air TV — meant you could easily record multiple shows at once without regular viewing being interrupted or recordings clashing with one another.
But the Foxtel iQ3 set-top box wasn’t without its annoyances — not least being the simple fact that the underlying hardware, the micro-computer running the box, simply wasn’t powerful enough for the tasks being demanded of it. It did what any good DVR should do — prioritised recording and playback integrity at all cost, even if that cost meant slow, sluggish on-screen menus, a user interface that occasionally made the simple act of browsing through available channels feel like an exercise in slow-motion.
iQ3 vs iQ4K: Streaming the Future
That wasn’t Foxtel’s fault, either — the iQ3 was a product of UK set-top box experts Pace, who presumably under-speced the box when it came to CPU power and memory. The result was like trying to run the latest MacOS on a 2009 MacBook — it works, but it works slowly!
Pace is no longer around, having been absorbed by US company Arris just after the launch of the iQ3. And it’s Arris that’s been tasked with delivering the long-rumoured update to the iQ3. It’s a box that slots into the same niche as its predecessor, but does everything far, far better (and a lot faster). It also happens to support 4K video. It’s the Foxtel iQ4K, and trust us, if you use Foxtel, you want one.
What Makes the iQ4K Different
While the external appearance of the iQ4K is almost the same as that of the iQ3, you can tell them apart instantly if you know what to look for — the iQ4K has a pair of buttons on the right hand side of the front panel, while the old iQ3 has a single power button. But the lookalike appearance is deceptive — what’s inside this new box has pretty much nothing in common with the iQ3 except the software it runs on, and the same ten-tuner count (the iQ4K is only available in a satellite version, by the way, as Foxtel slowly phases out cable connections over the coming years).
Under the hood is a variation on Arris’s MS6505 device, with a powerful processor, gigabytes of fast memory, and hardware support for the very latest video standards. HDMI 2.0 support solves the issues some had with the iQ3 and modern TVs, while also providing full support for 4K video — both broadcast and streamed. But most important of all, the upgraded hardware gives Foxtel’s interface all the breathing room it needs to really shine — the difference in speed and responsiveness is night and day.
The iQ4K isn’t actually entirely brand new. Foxtel has been shipping it to customers for half a year or so now under the guise of it being a “slightly changed design” of the iQ3 — they even named it the “iQ 3.5” for a time. If you have one of these boxes already (look for the two front panel buttons) then a simple software update is all you’ll need to find yourself with the new iQ4K!
What New Content Does the iQ4K Deliver?
The main reason for the iQ4K’s arrival — above and beyond being a drop-in replacement for the no-longer-made iQ3 — is 4K video. Foxtel launches Australia’s first 4K broadcast channel in October, initially a single channel playing various forms of live cricket alongside movies and documentaries in 4K, as demo material.
But make no mistake, they’re not going to stop at one channel if all goes to plan. Satellite is an ideal delivery method for 4K, freed from the constraints of free-to-air broadcast TV when it comes to available bandwidth –— the only real limit is how much capacity Foxtel has on the satellite.
This also means that even if you’re one of the many suffering from slow broadband and can’t stream 4K video via the internet, you’ll have no such problems with the iQ4K — the use of satellite means pristine 4K video will be available to everyone.
The iQ4K’s output also supports two different forms of HDR (High Dynamic Range) video — both the industry-standard HDR10 and the broadcast-specific HLG, which only a handful of TVs support (LG’s OLED TVs are among the ones that do). We don’t know at the time of writing whether Foxtel intends to show any HDR content — their teasing of Planet Earth in the menus suggests they might, though — so we’d recommend plugging the iQ4K directly into your TV when possible, rather than through an amp or sound bar (many such devices don’t pass through all the HDR information to the TV). As for 4K streaming, Foxtel hasn’t committed to it at all just yet. But the iQ4K is more than capable of doing it, with support for the H.265 format used by the likes of Netflix to help keep streaming rates low.
For the time being, 4K will launch with just the single channel, though — and the good news is that it’s free to everyone on the Sports HD channel pack as well as all Platinum HD subscribers.
What Features Does the iQ4K Have?
Despite being a completely different box internally, compared to the iQ3, the iQ4K has quite a bit in common with its older sibling — not entirely surprising, as it’s very likely that some of the same designers worked on the newer box. And so once again we have ten tuners (eight satellite and two terrestrial), a 1000 GB hard drive for about 160 hours of HD recording, and a Bluetooth remote control.
Aside from the major internal upgrades, the iQ4K also boasts 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi for a faster, more reliable connection to your home network (we still recommend using an Ethernet cable, though) and the aforementioned HDMI 2.0 output, for which you’ll need a premium-grade HDMI cable (one is supplied in the box, though a bit on the short side at only 1.5 metres!).
The iQ4K User Experience
Now, here’s where things get good — the moment you have the iQ4K plugged in and turn on the power. The box does its usual iQ start-up procedure — but multiple times faster than the old box did — and then will automatically install the latest software and reboot. And from that point on, after quickly pairing the Bluetooth remote by tapping the front panel button and choosing your output resolution (up to 2160p for 4K TV owners), you’re let loose on a device which is an absolute treat to use.
We cannot stress this enough — the difference in responsiveness and performance compared to the iQ3 is night and day. It’s hard not to smile a little as you seamlessly fly through the on-screen menus, deftly navigate around the program guide, sail through the channel list and swiftly explore the On Demand section. This is undoubtedly the sort of hardware the designers of the iQ software were expecting their system to run on, and set free from its underpowered older sibling, it becomes a much more usable, pleasant and fun experience.
Foxtel being Foxtel, there isn’t much in the way of visual difference to the older device, either on screen or with the box-standard remote. Everything works the same way, from channel surfing to recording to playing back recordings to streaming on demand — it just all works much, much faster.
A great example is the new FoxFlicks movies-on-demand section, where the graphics-heavy menus can simply be browsed through as though you were viewing a web site — no waiting, no lag and nothing to get in the way of you finding the stuff you’re looking for and getting into the actual entertainment much sooner.
How to Get the iQ4K
Even if you don’t have a 4K TV — at least, not yet — the iQ4K is still very much a worthwhile upgrade if you’ve ever found yourself frustrated by the slowness of the iQ3 menu system or its other assorted quirks. If you want to get hold of the iQ4K, you simply need to give Foxtel a phone call — what the actual cost of swapping out to the new box will be varies wildly depending on your current setup, as well as your Foxtel package subscription and other factors, so you could be up for as much as $150 (most likely less, though). We still think it’s worth it regardless!
Cable customers wanting the iQ4K will need to make the switch to satellite, which of course means having a tech over to install a dish and run cables. Again, speak to Foxtel about whether this is possible, and if so, what it’ll cost.
It’s worth noting that the new 4K channel is going to need a satellite installation that has dual outputs — in other words, if your Foxtel point at home only has one socket, a tech will need to visit to upgrade your dish and run a new cable.
Summary: The iQ4K packs serious power!
Foxtel’s iQ3 has long been one of the most user-friendly DVRs (digital video recorders) around, completely separate from its obvious task as a receiver for your Foxtel channels. But the sluggish performance of that device was always an annoyance to one degree or another. With the iQ4K, all annoyance is completely gone — here we have a fast, feature-rich and hugely capable box which makes the experience of simply using Foxtel magnitudes better. The fact that it comes with access to 4K broadcasts via satellite, well, that’s just the icing on the cake. Highly recommended.