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My NTL digibox is a goddamn piece of crap

I don’t watch TV very often – news programmes, the odd bit of MTV2 and re-runs of Have I Got News For You – but when I do, I’m struck by a very important truth: my NTL digibox is a goddamn piece of crap.

The box – branded NTL but actually made by Pace – is a masterpiece of bad design. The user interface is horrible, it’s desperately slow, the remote is uncomfortable… but all of these things are dwarfed by the fact that my NTL digibox is a goddamn piece of crap.

I’m a simple soul. If I’m watching TV, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the “change channel” button to, er, change the channel. But not with my NTL digibox. When I turn on the TV, I’ve got a 50/50 chance of actually getting a picture. Half of the time, I get a blank screen and blank channels that can only be fixed by physically unplugging the digibox, waiting ten seconds, plugging it back in and watching a “please wait…” message for 200 years. If I don’t get that, every few days I’ll get a mystery error: I can’t change channels because the digibox can’t access programme listings for anything. It then tells me that I need to press Select to fix an “error” – a mystery error, for which there’s no explanation – and then watch the “please wait…” message for another 200 years.

Even when it works, that doesn’t mean I can expect my NTL digibox to do anything useful. Let’s say I’m on CNN and want to switch to MTV2 during the commercial break. I click the channel button, channel button, channel button, and then the channel option disappears and takes me right back to CNN. So I get smart: I click forward three channels and then click “OK”, before trying again. That does mean I end up watching the Watching Paint Dry Channel (or worse, Men and Motors) while I keep clicking the channel button, but it does save me the anguish of clicking through ten or eleven channels just for the NTL box to decide to reset itself back to the channel I started from. There’s no other explanation: my NTL digibox is clearly a goddamn piece of crap.

This is why I’ve yet to embrace the digital hub, the Media Center PC or the personal video recorder. Thanks to technology I’ve gone from something simple – a handful of channels that I can click through by pressing “up” or “down” on a remote control – to something complicated, that doesn’t work and that needs rebooting more often than the most virus-riddled, spyware-infested Windows PC. If hardware and media companies want us to embrace the digital home, they could make a start by creating technology that means I don’t have to reboot my television whenever I want to watch a programme.

Update, 18 November

The NTL engineer is in my living room and has identified three possible problems: insufficient ventilation, so the digibox may be overheating; a potentially cracked cable, that could affect the signal; and that my NTL digibox is a goddamn piece of crap. There will apparently be a major software update on 15th December to address the third problem.

In the longer term, it seems that NTL will be replacing Pace boxes with Samsungs, which are currently being trialled in belfast and whose failure rate is a fraction of the Pace boxes. No word on when we’ll be able to get them, though.

As for the weird behaviour of my remote control, it seems that my lightbulbs are the problem. Because I use low energy bulbs in the front room, apparently they interfere with the frequency of the remote. It’s a known issue with NTL boxes, apparently. You learn something new every day.