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.
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?
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.