It’s a hotly debated topic on many of the forums we have in North Cyprus – how to watch UK television from the comfort of your living room? There has been a wealth of information (and misinformation) given out by various people, often from vendors selling their systems to ever hopeful expats who don’t have a degree in computer science. I myself have that degree but more importantly, I’ve been a big fan of watching media on my TV for almost 10 years and have tried just about every conceivable method, from the very simple to the most involved. So I decided to put together a guide for the layman who just wants to sit down and watch a bit of telly without any fuss, written by someone who has no financial interest in the matter.
Now, when it comes to getting our favourite English channels in the furthest corner of the Med, we have a couple of options. Basically these can be broadly separated into a satellite based system or ‘streaming’ channels across the Internet from the various services such as BBC’s own excellent iPlayer.
The Satellite Challenge
While this should be a simple affair, unlike subscribing to Sky in the UK, we have some additional challenges here. The most popular satellite service, Sky TV was only ever meant to be watched by viewers based in the UK. However, as satellite signals are beamed down to us back on Earth, that beam spreads wider than Sky might have liked, meaning that if we pointed dishes at their satellite, we had a chance of picking up a signal – to varying degrees of success.
As you can see in the picture below, the blue area represents the strongest signal, where only a small dish was needed for decent reception. Areas such as the TRNC are right on the fringe and need a larger dish for this to work. While a 1.2 meter dish will pick up some signal, to get the whole range of channels including BBC, we needed a massive 4.2 meter dish which was not only an eyesore but at £2000 or more for equipment and installation, a serious financial investment: not to mention the monthly cost of a subscription to Sky.
This worked for a while but eventually broke when Sky decided to move some of their channels to another satellite which had a more focused beam – ruling out even a goliath 4.2 meter dish. And whilst they have a new satellite coming online shortly (at the time of writing), nobody is certain what coverage this will provide, though many suggest that it won’t resolve the issues we have, making it a very risky investment at best. So for me and many others – watching Sky TV is out of the equation for the time being.
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Streaming over the Internet
Recently, this seems to have gained a lot of traction as a method of watching our favourite TV here, hardly surprising given the problems surrounding satellite TV I mentioned above. There are a range of solutions available, all with their own caveats but some definitely standout above their peers. So here’s the reality of each.
Using your own computer connected to a TV
For many years, this was the only way to watch Internet TV on your big screen with a cup of coffee and a pack of Mr Kipling’s Country Slices. It’s also come a long way since I first built a ‘Media Center PC’ which makes the whole experience easier to get going with. In fact, Windows 7 has a very pretty service bundled with it called Windows Media Center, which as the title gives away, is a portal to watching you media all in one place.
As much as I admire the pretty interface and slickness of it’s operation, it still has one thing that feels like a ball and chain. It’s running on a PC. I’m obviously a big computer fan but when it comes to relaxing in front of Sherlock, I only want to do exactly that and, as anyone who has a computer here will know, they never quite stay as usable as they were when they were new. Even if like me, you know how to keep your PC running in top condition, it means yet another computer to look after, keep updated and possibly repair when it eventually fills up with dust or gets fried by a power surge. Not only this, but it’s a comparatively expensive way of using a computer.
Even if you have a spare laptop, it’ll need to be of suitable spec to get the performance out of it that you expect, and if it’s your only laptop, you’ll be carting it back and forth between the desk and living room. Investing in a dedicated laptop hardly makes sense either. You’ll want to spend at least £300 on a laptop equipped with an HDMI cable for easy connection to your LCD or plasma screen. [table id=8 /] [table id=9 /]
Dedicated media players
A little while ago, various hardware manufacturers cottoned onto the idea that we wanted another way to watch TV and came up with the ‘Media player’. These have certainly taken off quickly, with a wide range of options to suit every need and budget. The main factors here are finding a device that will do exactly what you want. So, what are the options?
Internet TV set top boxes from you ISP
A number of Internet providers here have started offering their own brew of gadgetry to try ad achieve the holy grail of internet TV. While most providers are simply recommending a box to go with their Internet service, one ISP in particular has aimed to wrap the whole experience into one package that just works. Launched in May this year, Multimax Internet started rolling out a service called NTV IPTV. Essentially what this is, is a set top box pre-configured to work with their Internet service, for which a monthly subscription is required. The subscription is like any other service in that it can be used for your whole home internet, as well as for watching TV.
The box itself works fairly well, though I’m not enthusiastic about the menu system and interface, but I can look past this as having a ‘just works’ solution is certainly very appealing. While on the whole it does seem to work well, there are times when watching services such as iPlayer can grind to a halt and the dreaded buffering starts, meaning a pause of ten seconds or more every minute or so. Now this comes down to many possible factors that are both within and outside of Multimax’s control. There have been a number of reports of poor performance, while others have been happy enough on the whole – or simply not made their feelings publicly known. While this may be more or less of an issue for you, I get very frustrated when my programme starts pausing as it breaks the atmosphere of whatever I’m watching. Now I will re-iterate that these problems are not exclusive to Multimax and your mileage may vary.
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For those of you who still have a property in the UK, SlingBox from a company called SlingMedia may be what you’re after. Essentially, it’s a system that comprises of two separate boxes, the first of which connects to your TV signal at home in the UK, whether it be Sky, Freeview, Cable or plain terrestrial digital TV. It then grabs this signal, wraps it up for transport over the Internet then sends it (or slings it) to another box connected to your
TV and internet connection here in Cyprus. Whilst this does still rely on the internet for receiving your picture, it has the benefit that at least you aren’t sharing a service with thousands of others like you will with iPlayer. It’s a smart setup that allows you to connect just about any UK service to it and has some funky apps that allow you to watch your own TV stream from a variety of devices such as PCs, iPads and Android devices etc. While I’ve tried and tested it, the system of physically changing channel on my UK cable TV box over the internet doesn’t appeal to me much. Indeed, a lot of the time the process of changing channel feels sluggish and unresponsive, often leading to multiple button presses which then suddenly all happen in a burst which is very annoying to say the least.
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Buying a standalone box and using your current internet connection
The final option is one that many of you may find appealing. By using an existing Internet connection and simply buying a standalone set top box, you can start watching TV right away. There are many companies offering such a device, however some have become more popular and well supported over the years than others.
I’ve tried eight different boxes such as this and have had various experiences with them. The large majority of them have a clunky feeling interface or don’t support the types of media I wish to watch. However, a couple of years ago, a company called Western Digital introduced a highly polished solution. Western Digital are well known for their computer hard drives and are a big multi billion dollar outfit – meaning they have the cash to invest and get it right.
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It’s fair to say that there is no one solution that will tock the boxes for everyone. Regardless of my internet provider (I’ve had both Multimax and Nethouse), I never seem to get any buffering or poor performance from the WD TV Live unless the internet connection has been down altogether. Now in its second incarnation, the WD TV Live provides a great interface, offers BBC iPlayer, Hulu Netflix and many other streaming TV services. It’s excellent build quality, regular software updates and ease of use make it the most reliable and affordable (the best price I’ve found so far is here) system I’ve found to date and continues to be the only way I watch TV here in North Cyprus. So unless you have the need (and patience) to use a system that provides more channels, the WD TV is a good all rounder with keen pricing to boot. By using iPlayer for my regular TV channels and Netflix for my movie selection, I’m happy with the overall package I’ve put together for minimal cost – plus my wife and kids find it simple and reliable to use, which for me, is the final seal of approval.