How Topfield lost the plot

Long time readers of this blog will know that I also run the Toppy.org.uk site, which is a pretty useful resource for owners of the Topfield Freeview recorders, principally the TF5800 but also the TF5810.

There was a time, a few years ago, when the accepted wisdom was pretty much that, if you wanted a Freeview hard disk recorder, there were two leading models. One was the Humax 9200, and the other was the Topfield TF5800, or ‘Toppy.’

There were two things that made many people consider the Toppy the leading Freeview PVR. One was the ability (shared with the Humax, but a little more reliably) to transfer recordings from the hard drive via the USB port. The other was the presence of an open API, and a freely available set of development tools that allowed users to create ‘TAPs’ or Topfield applications. When the box launched, back in 2005, this was somewhat unprecedented for a piece of domestic AV gear, but it allowed all sorts of things, from simple tweaks like making it easier to jump around a recording, to an almost complete replacement of the user interface.

In short, the TF5800 was a tinkerer’s paradise. Thanks in part to the community that built up on the Toppy forums, and great work done before that by the Australian users (where a version had been on sale for a while), plenty of TAPs appeared, making it one of the most flexible PVRs out there. And, in some ways, it still is – want a box that can automatically record any programme that mentions the word ‘Almodovar’ ? Or that you can set up so that when a radio show has been recorded, it’s transferred to your PC and turned into an MP3 for your iPod? Or that you can set recordings on via the web, or text message? All those things, and more, are possible with the Toppy.

It’s no surprise, then, that many users have been eagerly waiting for a similarly-specced High Definition box to come out.

What is a surprise, though, is how completely and comprehensively Topfield has dropped the ball. They started out as an unknown name in the UK. They gained prominence with a good – if at times quirky – PVR. And they then proceeded to ignore the market to the extent that they’ll have to try very hard to win the trust of users back, even if they do launch a Freeview HD product under their own name.

What went wrong?

When the TF5800 arrived, it had bugs. Plenty of them. But the company was also willing to work with their distributor, Turbosat, who in turn worked with the Toppy.org.uk community, where we collated problems and feature requests. We even created a bug tracker that they could review online.

And, for a while, we had reasonably regular firmware updates; some of those were necessary because in the original firmwares, the MHEG engine (used for interactive services) was a pretty ropy open source implementation that appeared to be being used in a way that breached the open source license. It crashed, and at times while we waited for Topfield to issue fixes, we had to rely on the work of some of the forum members, who reverse engineered firmwares, creating patches in MIPS code, to address shortcomings in the system.

Things really started to go wrong for Topfield with the launch of the TF5810, and the Freeview Playback system (now called Freeview+). To put it bluntly, they never successfully adapted their firmware to work reliably with Freeview+.

If you’re using a Topfield PVR, the advice we have to give on Toppy.org.uk is not to use the Freeview+ firmware; if you have a TF5810, you don’t have much choice, but you can at least use a TAP to create recordings, avoiding the bugs in Topfield’s code.

From a distance

One of the problems is that most of Topfield’s work is done in Korea; they occasionally sent engineers to the UK, who appeared to tinker, then go home, and think “this is good enough.”

On the Toppy forum, we have a group of people who will run through pretty detailed tests and discover bugs that the Topfield engineers never noticed; we report them back – and then another firmware comes out, featuring the same bugs.

Worse, while sending Turbosat firmwares to pass on to the testers, Topfield would release a completely different firmware on their website, that we’d never even seen. When they finally decided to replace the MHEG engine with one bought in from Ocean Blue, they sent a firmware to test, and then released one built two days later on their site, before they had any test results. And then withdrew it.

There hasn’t been an officially released Topfield UK firmware for over two years; the updates that have appeared have been unofficial ones from Toppy.org.uk, patched by our users, or semi-official ones, where Turbosat has commissioned an experienced UK user to patch a firmware to fix critical bugs that Topfield seems unwilling or unable to resolve themselves.

In short, there’s been more work to keep the products alive carried out by dedicated, unpaid forum members than there has been by Topfield’s seemingly never-ending succession of engineers. They have the source code, and yet are unable to fix bugs that users have resolved.

To date, there still hasn’t been an official release of a firmware with the Ocean Blue MHEG engine. There still hasn’t been a properly working Freeview+ firmware update for the 5800 or the 5810.

And, frankly, it seems as if Topfield just consider it all too much trouble, having to have their equipment tested to meet certification requirements, or even asking a dedicated – and willing – group of users to beta test, and then listen to the information that they report back.

Happy Humax

Contrast with their Korean compatriots, Humax, who have taken the UK market far more seriously; though not without some issues of their own, and some grumbles about the time for firmware updates, they’ve managed to maintain a good reputation, and to bring out some first class products for Freeview HD. They have, rightly, become a respected name for PVRs in the UK.

Their 9200 launched in the UK around the same time as the Topfield 5800; both were built on the same platform too – NEC’s EMMA2 chip. Both have been through ups and downs over the years. And both have been well supported with vibrant user communities.

Topfield, however, just seems to have run out of steam; they give every impression of not really caring if their products work the way they’re supposed to, of not listening to their customers and – perhaps worst of all – of not even being familiar with their own software. How is it that crucial bugs, including one affecting scanning for channels, have only ever been fixed by third party patches, rather than in a release from their own engineers?

What next?

So far, none of the Freeview HD products out there yet has caught the imagination the way that the original Toppy did when it arrived in the UK in 2005. Many users are still hanging on, hoping that something will come along that’s close enough to make them want to switch.

Five years is a long time for a product like a PVR, especially these days. That the TF5800 is still popular, and has such a vibrant community around it is, in my view, more in spite of Topfield than because of them.

Slapdash software development, an unwillingness to understand the UK market, or to listen to users have probably doomed Topfield in the UK. From a position where they had a leading product, and a good track record in providing updates, they have become, an also-ran, with a reputation for products that the users support themselves.

And the biggest shame is that it needn’t have happened.

32 thoughts on “How Topfield lost the plot

  1. You haven’t mentioned the PSU capacitor problems. As many forum members know, I have been involved in repairing PSUs or providing capacitor kits for DIY repairs. The life expectancy of a Topfield PSU is 3 years; some last longer if they have been well ventilated and switched to standby when not in use.

    By contrast, the Humax PSU shows no signs of any problems. I repaired one recently that had been accidentally damaged and when I searched for Humax 9200 PSU problems, I found nothing. They use the same capacitors as later Topfields too!

    1. I guess the tricky thing would be convincing a manufacturer that they would gain a sufficient return on their investment; how much work would it take to customise one of their existing designs to suit the needs of the users, and would they be able to see at a sufficient premium to recoup that.
      Complicating that, of course, is whether or not it would be possible for a unit to pass things like Freeview HD certification, while still incorporating things like a TAP-equivalent API. Unless that can be done, I think a lot of manufacturers would tend to write the idea off, as the certification is an important part of the sale process these days.

  2. I’ve been thinking the same thing recently – I’d like to get a Freeview HD box, but nothing comes close to my Toppy!

    I wonder if the closest thing would be something like MythTV with a DVB-T2 & DVB-S2 card(s)? I’m not keen on using a computer as a replacement though, as appliances always seem more reliable (my Toppy works great with the recommended firmware & the excellent MyStuff EPG).

    Hohum!

  3. It’s a sad story of neglect and missed opportunity. In fact, it seems that Topfield was even more incompetent than I originally thought.

    My early 2006 5800 is still going strong, albeit with patched firmware, various taps, an upgraded HD, cooling fan and acoustifeet. It was a revelation when I first got it, but I never felt it was consumer ready enough to recommend to anyone and Topfield’s neglect made sure that never changed.

    My old folks ended up with a Humax 9200 – a much better supported product but even that was blighted by a long period of lock-up problems which have only recently been resolved. Anyone who didn’t thrown their crash-tastic 9200 out of the window eventually got a working PVR. Too little too late.

    Ultimately, I gave up on both and ended up with Sky+HD. Not the way I wanted things to turn out.

  4. You’d have thought after this amount of time, Topfield would just make the source code open source and have people make real fixes as opposed to binary patches.
    It worked ok with Chuckie Egg, I see no reason why it wouldn’t work with the Topfield firmware.

    rgds

    1. Unfortunately, though Topfield might be able to release some of their own code if they really wanted, parts of it will likely be covered by the NEC Non Disclosure Agreement that applies (for reasons I’ve never understood) to the EMMA2-related code. Some of the NEC documentation just isn’t generally available, which is one reason why efforts to port things like Linux to the system have always been plagued by difficulties.
      As with open sourcing anything, there would have to be a lot of effort put in to making sure nothing was disclosed that wasn’t meant to be, and for an old product, there’s not much chance of Topfield deciding that it’s worth doing that. Releasing source code is something that’s much easier if you start a product with that in view.

  5. Nigel you give voice to our frustrations, but Is an open API even compatible with Freeview HD licensing? How will YouView boxes address this? Also, what is/was Turbosat’s role in this? Do they have any power to commission/direct Topfield’s endeavours, i.e. was it the importer who ‘lost the plot’?

    1. I don’t think any of the problem is really down to Turbosat; from my dealings with them, I think they’ve tried very hard to get Topfield to do what was necessary. It’s interesting that for the Freeview HD T2200 they chose not to simply import a Topfield product, but to have it branded as IceCrypt (a Turbosat brand). Perhaps commissioning in that way does give them more control over things.

  6. It is a great shame about Topfield. I love my toppy and find it a joy to use. I’ve not gone to the freeview+ firmware and have had years of great use out of it with the TAPs that people so generously build for the community.

    The two best TAPs I use are Quickjump for advert skipping (3mins 50s seems to miss virtually all the adverts in a flash!) and UK Auto Scheduler which gives freeview+ like ability on all channels. I haven’t come across another PVR that can skip adverts other than by fast forwarding

    I do hope Topfield sort themselves out as a HD PVR with the ability to install apps would be brilliant. Could this be where Humax can move to?

  7. I completely agree, as a non techie, I have been frustrated with the various bugs, but gladly put up with them because of the fantastic features and ‘openness’ of the toppy – MANY THANKS to all the fantastic people at Toppy.org and their distributors who have kept it all going – If I had the inclination and the cash, Id be tempted to make a good acquisition and turn the toppy into the next iThing, get apps market going and get the PVR really interactive, but as you say, no such forward thinking.

    I loved you Toppy – RIP!!!

  8. I don’t really know what Freeview in the UK is but we also have something called Freeview in Australia. Is is very heavily advertised, as if Freeview *is* digital TV.

    From what I can see, it is a marketing structure made up by the TV broadcasters so they can impose certain restrictions on equipment manufacturers, eg, Freeview devices are not permitted to skip ads, but can only fast forward over them. (Research has shown that fast forwarding over an ad is just as good as seeing the ad at normal speed.)

    Freeview EPG info (“with exclusive content”) is encrypted and only Freeview-licensed devices are able to decrypt it. The “exclusive content” may mean actual information about the programs which some of the commercial stations don’t bother too much with for non-Freeview viewers.

    But despite this, there are a number of manufacturers who produce Freeview and non-Freeview boxes. Topfield is one of those.

    http://www.itopfield.com.au/

    You will see for example, that the TRF-7150 has this little note:

    – The [Advanced Setting] menu is removed because of FreeView Specification. Please refer to the revised manual.

    Fortunately, we have an independent TV guide available (IceTV) that is supported by many manufacturers which means that Freeview’s EPG is not necessary.

    (Although, Freeview’s EPG may include the actual times the programs start – the program schedules published by the stations are close to fiction.)

    1. Freeview in the UK is much the same – a marketing and branding exercise to increase takeup of digital terrestrial; both Australia and NZ decided our brand worked so well they’d use the same one.

      Our Freeview EPG isn’t encrypted (though the HD one is encoded), and is standards-based. And I believe we have a more stringent test regime than some other countries, especially for things like the automated series-links.

      It will be interesting to see how the Freeview market develops in Australia, and if the test requirements become more stringent. You’ve had a market where people would use things like IceTV for a while, whereas here terrestrial has always been backed by a strong brand name, and people are used to looking for a certified box.

      Will Topfield keep up with new test schemes, and new features as they’re added to the platform? Or will they do as they’ve done in the UK, and try to get away with ‘just about good enough’ ?

  9. this is sad reading, i was hoping topfield would be making a big bang in the uk this year with a launch of a HD box. the ability to install taps was the biggest bonus for me and over the years my toppy has been fantastic. i imagine the only way the open source community of tap writers can continue with such apps is to hope we get a meego HD STB sometime soon

    http://meego.com/devices/connected-tv

  10. Nigel,

    Just read your article on Topfield losing the plot.

    Over hols revised my website & had come to the conclusion
    that Topfield was the only sat recever range that
    met the criteria for ‘sats4flats ready’ for reasons given.

    However I also have no joy with TF’s engineers when
    a glitch occurred -see below.

    I have installed number of Topfields & have only found psu
    problems with the TF-5050Ci not the TF-5000Ci which have
    a larger box to reduce over-heating.

    I own a TF-7700 HSCI in one location & have only been irritated
    by it falling over after saving 4 recordings with a Seagate ext HDD
    (500Gb) with an error messsage that requires re-formatting.

    I am testing a SBP-2000 which is cheaper & better (as like
    equivalent Icecrypt?) can take a channel list from a USB stick..

    Any comments welcome

    John

  11. I have worked in the equipment industry and believe I have seen many decisions to geld products and meetings in which chief engineers and marketeers seems to attempt product suicide for no reason I can fathom apart from them clearly having received a lucrative employment approach from the competition. This is well-covered in Dilbert cartoons.

    We must simply relish that, for a period, with the 5800, we had something that really improved our lives and that the morons killed it by some malignant design process.

    The world has now completely accepted that on most modern TV’s, the aspect ratio will never be right, automatically or even manually, and also that hi-fi audio quality is now unknown to an entire generation of MP3 users. Quite clearly, the industry has decided that all consumers prefer quantity to quality and we are in a dark period again.

    On the other hand, people do buy Apple products, so some people CAN afford quality. But just look at their i-pad without a phone and their appalling PVR attempt. Even THEY have lost the plot- just don’t try to tell them this on an i-phone 4 left-handed! You just couldn’t make this incompetence up!

  12. I’m glad andy mentioned the PSU thing. As far as I am aware I was the first person to have a PSU go pop. I followed the issue closely for some time, even going so far as to keep a tally of units mentioned on the forum who had been known to go bad. It was an still is a big problem for the device and the reluctance for Turbosat or Topfield to acknowledge the problem meant that I stopped recommending the unit to friends and family as it was just too problematic.

  13. I have had a 5810 for a few years now & with the non standard firmware, taps & mystuff it is a very good stable machine.
    I previously had a Pace twin, one of the first pvr boxes with twin tuners. The software was full of bugs that never got addressed by pace engineers despite a bugtrace website being setup by users. Pace eventually dropped the twin. I still have mine in a cupboard.
    It rather sounds as though Topfield is going the same way which, as others have said, is a great shame.
    Looks like we have to either stick with standard definition & toppy, or unfortunately, move to another make. With the toppy being relegated to the cupboard with the pace twin !! A growing collection !

  14. Nigel, did Topfield every released the SRP-2100 in the UK? If so, why did it not take off? If not, then why do Topfield keep releasing products for the German market, and not the UK? (There’s also the SRP-2410 for the Germans.)

    Do you know anything about the SRP-2100, is it any good?

    1. I believe Turbosat has sold the 2100 in the UK, but I’ve not played with one myself.

      I would suspect that, like most non-platform satellite kit, it will have sold in relatively small numbers, to enthusiasts. That’s one of the key differences between the UK and the rest of Europe – for most people here, satellite reception is tied to a platform, originally Sky and now Freesat as well. Historically, that hasn’t been the case in other countries, and without a platform to push the technology in a certain direction, any receiver is fine, as long as its based on standards.

      As the ongoing sagas of the MHEG engine and Freeview Playback show, Topfield don’t seem to do terribly well when they have to incorporate specific functionality for a platform, and pass certification tests.

      In Germany and Australia, two countries where that hasn’t been essential, they’ve done pretty well. The introduction of more stringent testing with Freeview Playback/+ is where things started to go rapidly downhill here. It will be interesting to see how they fare in Australia with the new requirements of their Freeview system. And indeed in Europe where the growth of companies like Sky may see more platform-based functionality in future.

  15. Thanks for the reply Nigel. Very interesting – I wonder this would be the trend for the 3view box…

    I see that the SRP-2100 has been taken further and at least in Germany, there’s the SRP-2410 now…

  16. I have both a 5800 and a 5801. The only good thing about the 5801 is the hdmi upscaler.

    The electroletic capacitiors failed on the 5800 psu causing missed recordings but changing them is easy.
    The 5801 firmwear is inferior to the 5800 and freezes when running “mystuff”. I then have to reformat the hard drive and reset factory settings. What a shame for a otherwise nice machine.

  17. Am I unique? I’ve had my 5800 since 2006 updated with Freeview+ firmware – and have had very few problems with it. maybe the TV companies are getting better with their start stop markers but I’ve only missed 1 or 2 programs using the series link in the past 18 months or so. The only problem I can’t resolve is the habit of purging the buffer when a recording starts so that if running a delay on a live program (chase TV?) that channel jumps to live TV when a recording starts on the other tuner. This used to happen on the original firmware (predating Freeview+) but was cured by one of the later Toppy.org firmwares. Wish there was a similar patch for the Freeview+ firmware. Otherwise i love the box. Even the original 160GB disc is sufficient given the ability to easily transfer recordings to the PC and onward to DVDs when required. Pity there’s nothing out there that allows easy transfer to PC. Bought my elderly mother a Humax as it was slightly easier to set up and use but it doesn’t have a usb link to transfer files (although I thought it did until i took it out of the box!)

  18. My TV is a B&O which has served very well for a number of years without any trouble, then we went DIGITAL. On the advice of the then B&Oengineer I bought a Topfield 5810 and that’s where my troubles started.The hard disc failed on the first box after just seven months and my supplier asked for its return. They duly contacted me and supplied a completely new one which has turned out to be a nightmare to operate although it did work when first delivered. Then I found the Topfield Forum and lo & behold I found many fellow sufferers who were like me very disappointed. I am not at all technical where digiboxes are concerned but feel confident in my ability to operate correctly. If this box had cost £30 it would have been bad enough but £250 leaves me bereft of comment

  19. Oh dear Stuart – I would say the engineer shouldn’t have recommeded a Toppy for you – you really need to be a bit technical and willing to download and install patches from the amazing team of people who have written TAPS and firmware patches. You’re right – out of the box it’s not good at all – but stick on a few TAPS and it can transform it into the best bit of kit for your needs. Like many others, I am mourning the fact that a Toppy-like machine won’t be available for HD. I still use mine (6 years on) and it’s still top of the list for PVRs. I also have a Virgin+ box which is only used for HD.

    Everyone will have thier own opinion but for me, the EPG display for MyStuff is the best I’ve ever seen – all the manufacturers of new PVRs should look at this link:

    http://www.toppy.org.uk/~mystuff/cgi/Screenshots.cgi?shot=07g%20EPG%20with%20C3%20as%205&title=EPG with C3 as 5&t=2

    How could anyone ever go back to only being able to see 4 or 5 channels, over only 1 hour, no indication if it’s a ‘F’ Film, and not being able to see the full description without pressing the ‘i’ button – I have to do this on the virgin box all the time and it drives me mad!!!

    The other thing that annoys me is the front LCD shows the channel number on all these PVRs. I don’t want to see the channel number I’m on – I know that already!! I want to see the time. With a Toppy no probs – there’s a neat TAP that lets you choose exactly what it displays on the front.

    But yes, sadly over the years it’s meant various downloads and installs and learning new menus (which I love doing) – I say sadly because the Toppy got a lot of poor reviews from people who didn’t want to do these sorts of things (and fair play to them – why should you have to do this in the first place to make it useable).

  20. Hi
    Can’t agree more with all these comments.
    I’ve had a 5800 since 2006. One PSU fail, HD upgrade to 500Gb
    It’s still going strong. I recently bought a Samsung HD TV and was seriously disappointed with its PVR via USB capability so am now looking around for an HD PVR solution.
    If there was a viable HD Toppy out there I would buy it – no question.
    This decision would be ENTIRELY down to the fantastic work done by the toppy community.
    As it is I’m looking at Humax or possibly something running MythTV – anything as long as it’s not Sky.

    In this brave new world of convergent TV TopField must be nuts.

  21. Couldn’t agree more…

    I love my TF5810 (which replaced an ailing TF5800) but it’s long in the tooth now and I really want to move to Freeview HD or Freesat HD.

    Trouble is I’d really miss my Toppy (specifically the excellent MyStuff EPG TAP).

  22. Inote all comments seem to be about the 5800 and 5810. Has anyone any experience of the TF 7710 HDPVR.? I purchased one in june 2009 . In july 2009 it developed a fault i.e Switching itself off and on periodicaly. After repair it went reasonably until feb 2011 when it would not start up until several attempts were carried out and then it again switched itself off periodicaly.Repaired again under warranty in May 2011(PSU replaced and atuner) and ran until September 2011 when again the receiver began switching itself off completely or did eventually switch itself back on again.Needless to say during these periods the EPG was completely haywire.

  23. I too am gutted that Topfield didn’t continue the product.
    As some have suggested, there are definitely licensing issues with compliance being mandatory and FF through adverts will almost certainly be one of them…
    I heard tell of a a DVD recorder which jumped adverts, but it never made it to the high street…

    Anyway, a bit of googling and hopping about all over has found a slightly modified Freesat unit…
    http://www.avforums.com/forums/freesat/1599048-media-file-server-bundle-foxsat-hdr-release-4-0-part-2-a.html

    This seems to be primarily the work of one guy, but does a few of the things I would like to see in a Freesat box…
    It’s certainly worth a punt I think.
    Good luck.

  24. I bought a 5800 for £5 at a boot sale and am amazed at how good it is. I’ve just had to bin my Humax 9300T thanks to it losing all its settings and reservations once put into standby, so it’s come in very handy!

    I’m trying to find a decent satellite PVR, but I’m loath to buy anything made by Humax, so it’s a shame that Topfield seems to have gone downhill so.

  25. Had 3 topfield 8500 and 1 8510, the 8510 has long given up and has gone to a better place, the 2 8500 still in use Just both will not record, so may have to go I’m not very technical and do not have a computer. So come on Topfield it’s
    Replacement time

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