DStv’s new PVR: the inside story

MultiChoice will release a major new version of its popular personal video recorder decoder in two weeks' time. In development for three years, the idea behind the product is to offer the sort of interactive and on-demand services common in developed markets but in a country where fixed-line broadband is poorly developed. By Duncan McLeod.


DStv Central provides the starting point for content discovery on the new PVR

In 2010, when MultiChoice began work on its radically redesigned new personal video recorder (PVR) decoder, the DStv Explora, the premise was that it would be a “connected box” that would offer on-demand services over the Internet.

The Naspers-owned pay-television operator had hoped three years ago that South Africa’s fixed-line broadband infrastructure would improve faster than it has, admits its chief technology officer, Gerdus van Eeden. The fact that it didn’t sent the company back to the drawing board.

“We wanted to give customers the same experience as they get in broadband-rich markets,” says John Kotsaftis, who heads DStv Online, a MultiChoice subsidiary that played a pivotal role in the development of the Explora, which was launched at an event in Johannesburg on Wednesday evening. “We had to get consumers to feel like they’re sitting in the middle of a developed market, yet they don’t even need the Internet to use [the Explora]. It’s like a developed-market product, except it’s built for Africa.”

The Explora was fashioned not so much on what traditional pay-TV operators around the world are doing, but on new-generation on-demand services offered by companies such as Netflix and Apple. The result has been that Kotsaftis’s team at DStv Online, which has developed products such as the BoxOffice movie rental system and the DStv Catch Up on-demand service, and Van Eeden’s team in the broadcast technology division have come to work very closely together. “Gerdus’s division and mine are bonded at the hip on almost every product now,” Kotsaftis says.

From 2014, MultiChoice will begin offering its entire VOD catalogue to Explora users to view over the Internet

A key idea behind the Explora was to expand enormously the amount of video-on-demand (VOD) content available to subscribers. As a result, the size of the hard disk has been quadrupled from the 500GB in the current-generation PVR to a staggering 2TB, a large chunk of which is reserved for VOD content. Catch Up content has been expanded five-fold and will now offer a large range of high-definition movies in addition to series and sports material, while the allocation to users’ personal recording space has been doubled to the maximum limit allowed by international content suppliers. The content is all pushed over IS-20, the recently launched Intelsat satellite on which MultiChoice leases substantial capacity.

The Explora has an additional tuner dedicated specifically to receiving VOD content. Most of a satellite transponder is also dedicated to delivering this content.

The Explora remote controller has buttons dedicated to Catch Up and BoxOffice

The Explora remote controller has buttons dedicated to Catch Up and BoxOffice

The second key focus area was on developing a completely redesigned user interface, something that more closely resembles what’s on offer from “over-the-top” players like Netflix and Apple. Gone are lists of programming, replaced with images representing content. The idea was to help subscribers find more content, with a range of instant search and discovery options for VOD and live broadcast material, says Kotsaftis.

Crucially, if consumers stumble across a programme or movie that is almost finished, they can instantly see when it will next be broadcast, allowing them to record it.

Key to all of this is a redesigned remote controller (see picture) that, although resembling earlier DStv controllers, features new buttons to facilitate speedy access to Catch Up and BoxOffice content.

“We built the Explora with the Internet in mind,” says Kotsaftis. “We put a ton of effort into the user experience. The interface has been redesigned and redesigned through several iterations to get it right.”

The Linux-powered PVR was developed almost entirely in-house, with a middleware layer provided by another Naspers company, Irdeto. This, Kotsaftis says, will allow MultiChoice to develop updates a lot quicker than its current off-the-shelf solution.

It’s able to run Java applications, too, though the company isn’t opening the platform to outside developers yet and will probably only do so in the long term — if at all. Kotsaftis says people are more likely to use apps on what he calls the “second screen” — tablets or phones they use while sitting in front of the television. “On the first screen, we are only creating the core apps that we think are required. We have ideas about all sorts of other apps, but many of those belong on the second screen.”

At launch, the Explora has three bundled apps: News24, SuperSport and Weather, all of which have been redesigned compared to their equivalents on the current PVR.

MultiChoice has also attempted to future-proof the new decoder as much as possible. Although the PVR won’t connect to the Internet at launch, the company plans to sell 3G and Wi-Fi dongles starting in 2014. The machine already comes standard with Ethernet for wired connectivity. There are also three USB ports.

Front of the DStv Explora...

Front of the DStv Explora…

...and the rear, showing colour-coded ports

…the rear, showing colour-coded ports…

...and a close-up view of the ports

…and a close-up view of the ports

The company plans to offer several solutions to consumers to get the Explora online, including Wi-Fi and something called MoCA, a standard for home entertainment networking using coaxial cabling. It will then begin offering its entire VOD catalogue to subscribers to view over the Internet. It’s unlikely it will encourage users to watch VOD over 3G and 4G networks because of the constraints and cost of cellular technology. However, it could be used to carry small amounts of data — to set a recording remotely, for example, or activate a BoxOffice movie rental.

Upgrading to the Explora is fairly trivial for users who already have a PVR. They connect the existing cables that run from their satellite dish to a special switch that is supplied with the new PVR. They then connect that to a new uni-cable input on the back of the Explora. There are also legacy outputs so users can connect their old PVRs and other decoders to the Xtraview service. However, they’ll have to call MultiChoice to reactivate Xtraview when they install the new PVR.

The innards of the new box, which is made by the UK’s Pace but assembled in the Eastern Cape by a black-empowered company called Vektronix, have also changed dramatically. There’s a much snappier processor, supplied by specialist chip vendor Broadcom. And the new 2TB hard drive, which is specially designed for constant media use, is faster, spinning at 7 200rpm versus 5 400rpm in the current model.

As with the current PVR, the Explora supports Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, when available, via both HDMI and optical S/PDIF.

The BoxOffice interface has also been overhauled

The BoxOffice interface has also been overhauled

“We also focused on making the hardware more beautiful than in the past,” says Kotsaftis. “It has colour coding for all the different plugs. We even obsessed about the bezels and the sweep.”

The Explora can support broadcasts in high-definition of up to 1080p resolution — that’s 1 920×1 080 pixels using progressive scanning where all the lines in each frame are drawn in sequence. However, 1080p is bandwidth intensive, so MultiChoice, like most satellite broadcasters worldwide, broadcasts using 1080i resolution where the odd and even lines in a frame are drawn alternately.

The software and electronic programme guide in the new PVR are designed to have an optimal experience on HD TVs, though they will still work on older standard-definition sets.

The Explora is expected to go on sale in mid-August with a subsidised recommended retail price of R2 499. The current-generation PVR will no longer be manufactured, though it will continue to be available in retail outlets while there is still stock.  — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media

Share this article

  • Danie van der Merwe

    Premium bouquet again like the video rentals? Details otherwise sound good.

  • Keith Bettinelli

    If I could get a damn fixed data line I wouldn’t need to rely on DSTV anymore!

  • Morgan

    Once again Multichoice fail to realise that providing an HDMI Video output as the only HD video output is a bad idea.
    For houses that use HD Video distribution this decoder has no forethought.
    (Bear in mind that this is not necessarily because people want their houses to be fancy, but sometimes decoders can’t have an HDMI cable connecting the decoder directly to the Tv)

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    What would you suggest they use? Surely HDMI is the best option for HD Video Distribution? Not sure I get your problem? Not many devices offer legacy outputs these days.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    The biggest problem with DSTV’s current PVR/HD is the fact you have to pay each month to use them. Utterly ridiculous. With Openview coming and offering 1080p content at no extra cost, and the ability to hook your own PVR up for free, hopefully this will apply some pressure to DSTV to drop the silly charges.

  • MSmith

    All good and well….not much detail about the current integration/support for Xtraview and older PVR’s? Do I have to chuck my HD Decoder (Aleluja!!). The current HD decoder is so crappy…..there is not a day i do not have issues with it….slower than my grandma, and as reliable as 10 lawyers at the bottom of the sea!!

    Why all the additional USB ports and ethernet if they are not going to be used? Only promises of future use? Will the USB be used for 3G Modems?

    Why not offer ethernet NOW? if you have broadband connectivity?

    I am not a happy customer!!!

  • Morgan

    Currently HDMI is the only option when it comes to Digital Video Distribution.
    If they had considered having an alternative like Component Video Output would have been a sensible move.
    HDMI has issues. Its been known in the Consumer Electronics industry for years.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    If you have a lot of infrastructure using analogue distribution, you could pay R500 to get an HDMI to Composite converter, and if you’re installing new, I can’t see any reason you’d use anything but HDMI (personally I use HDMI over cat5e, works great). I’m a big fan of dropping ports and old tech out of new devices.

    Having said that, I’m not a fan of this decoder. Looks like the same stuff (made by Pace, who made the awful first PVR decoder) and it still has a cooling fan. WTF? That’s a cardinal sin for AV equipment.

  • Morgan

    I have to agree with using HDMI over Cat5 (Preferably Cat 6 though) I baluns from a company, CYP (Europe)
    Unfortunately electrical inferences even with good quality distribution equipment could still effect the video distribution when installing as retrofit.
    If inferences cause issues with the “Handshaking” as it is called, this could be a headache for some clients.

    I have to agree with you, much of the same old types of tech, which they have used in years gone by. There should have been more future planning considering it took them 3 years developing this new decoder.

  • MSmith

    The reason for HDMI is purely content encryption! With HDMI they can then ensure (and provide encryption) between Decoder and TV or AV Receiver.

    It does however mean you have to buy additional equipment….does not say much about being available to the lesser income structure in South Africa does it….

    Then NASPERS is not positioning this for a market that cannot afford the excessive charges they levy on content!

    If I was not a sport freak…I would cancel my DSTV subscription and download all content from other sources!

    It is time for competition and fast!

  • John Mitchell

    HDMI is backwards compatible with DVI and VGA, what’s the issue?

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    DVI yes (you just need an adapter, DVI is really the video bits of HDMI, with a different plug), but VGA is an analogue signal, so that’s not compatible, you need a converter for that (VGA is basically Composite video with some extra pins for timing)

  • Waleed Benjamin

    Duncan Mcleod?? This was written by The Highlander!!

  • Vuyo Singiswa

    As usual same s**t different day DStv. Doesn’t the current pvr have non-functioning Ethernet port and USB ports?!

    Rather than dumb ports at launch I would have preferred Ethernet/wifi connectivity with companion iPad/iPhone/Android/windows phone (or whatever) apps to stream already recorded content to the mobile devices within wifi range. Remote control the pvr from your mobile. And the ability to stream from your decoder over the Internet. Or download from pvr to mobile etc.

    I don’t see any reason to run out and buy this new and not so much improved but more expensive box. This is sadly another the emperors new clothes episode all over again…in my humble opinion

  • http://www.InTheCube.co.za/ InTheCube.co.za

    You’re obviously new around here. Welcome to TechCentral.

  • Lesley Payne

    It’s always good having new technology being released, but we should all keep in mind that we just buying the decoder. If DSTV still plan on releasing series or shows late what good would the xplora be. I have a hd pvr and when I sometimes miss a series thinking that I will watch it later on demand it’s not there for me to watch.

  • http://fischer.org.za kmf

    Not sure why they require a Premium Subscription for this … will be sticking with Netflix, barrier of entry is lower

  • Quinton

    HDMI to anything else is not HDCP compliant, this include DVI, VGA, composite video, component video, ect. The idea of including HD distribution into the decoder via twisted pair or any other method makes as much business sense as making the sale of a vcr compulsory with every meal at spur. What irritates me is that you cant control the channels with a control system. No RS232, the lan does not work, and you cant capture the code hopping IR…

  • Senorblinky

    Good for you, DStv. They said a while ago that they are refocusing their efforts to reduce piracy, and if they really are opening their entire VOD to the public to enjoy series and movies (that aren’t necessarily scheduled for that month) at will, I’m sure it will go a long way in reducing illegal downloads. But it’s only part of the solution, barrier to entry is still pretty high in terms of the monthly subscription and installation costs. Also, what will the Xtraview activation cost? And are they developing an app so I can use my tablet/smartphone as an elaborate remote?
    Ag, they’ll get there eventually, this looks like a step in the right direction.

  • Zee de Beer

    What I can’t understand is why there is no mention of 2 viewing channels, the current HDPVR is actually a downgrade from the old 2 viewing channel SDPVR, which is more reliable and caters much better to families. We are a 3 person household so we run an HDPVR with xtraview SDPVR so we each have our own channel, unfortunately 2 are only SD, but it still stops us fighting over the remote ;-)

  • Vuyo Singiswa

    These guys will continue to trickle innovation for as looooooooong as they can while sucking us dry. Unless we do something about it.

  • MikeS

    an extra R1000 on current decoder prices for a slightly bigger hard drive – No thanks !! The so called “extra features” are all disabled… and all previous (cheaper) PVR’s wont be sold anymore – This is what we call a monopoly.

  • Winch Nicolaas Du Preez

    DSTV should replace all the old HD PVRs, I do not know of one that doesn’t reset untimely. Rubbish, cheap substandard product. Probably cost 15% of retail price to manufacture.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    I also have one of the original Pace ones… runs hot, is noisy and is dog slow. Pace have always been known to make rubbish hardware… and this is just new model is just an OEM’ed version of another Pace decoder. I wouldn’t expect much from it.

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