When Cable & Wireless launched their digital cable service, Interactive TV was the main attraction and focus for the platform.
Cable & Wireless teamed up with Liberate to deploy it’s eNavigator middleware client for their set top boxes. Liberate had already made deals with many US digital platforms for both Motorola and Scientific Atlanta networks, and had partnered with Acer & Thomson/RCA for their own set top box / internet tv devices. These allowed for the internet to be browsed on a TV itself, similar to a webTV or the Bush Internet TV. With that in mind it made sense to go with Liberate for its interactive platform, with many of the interactive being HTML based, essentially being microsites being designed to be useable on a PAL TV screen, as well as being usable on the set top box hardware itself. By using a HTML based system, it would be easy for existing web developers to adapt their websites for cable interactive TV.
The main interactive developer portal, viewed within the Cable & Wireless interactive browser. This also showcases the browser interface, note the lack of address or URL bar, since this service was designed to be a walled garden. Instead a url bar is provided on the developer portal, likely to allow developers to test their websites.
An interesting oversight is if you sent an email with a hyperlink embedded into it to a website such as Lycos or Google, you could use that link to open the browser to that page, and if its a search engine you could use that to load other websites that are not part of the service
Not much to say here, the developer portal provide links to documentation details the requirements and limitations of the TV internet platform. This goes into details the specifics of the Liberate eNavigatior platform.
Viewed in Internet Explorer 5
A look at the services…
Unfortunately the screenshots are of a low quality and resolution since they have been extracted from the PDF documents above but give a general idea of the scope of the service provided. Some screens have the browser banner at the top of the screen, I’m assuming these are portals to the microsites.
Another view of the interactive home screen, this may be from a later redesign
TV Internet Home
Similar to the Open… home screen, provides links to various services available
Sports Main Menu
Provides links to other sports themed websites,
Email Main Menu
Menu options are Check Email, Write Message, not sure of the third items, Drafts? Templates? Deleted?
The STB had a built in email client, designed for the C&W email service
Two Way TV
Looks like a games service, hard to tell because of the resolution
A resource for traffic information and a route planner
Looks like some sort of holiday broker
Provide links to holidays, not sure if this goes directly to the sites themselves?
News headlines, and weather from various sources.
When the consumer division of Cable & Wireless was acquired by ntl in 2000, the interactive platform continued it’s development. In 2002 ntl deployed the Liberate 1.2 middleware which bought improvements to the browser rendering engine, and the TV guide was rewritten to take advantage. ntl would later spend time developing services for the Langely platform, which was originally planned to use the PowerTV platform, but chose Liberate instead. This was done to ensure parity between the two platforms.
The Sky Guide user interface has been though a lot of changes ever since its launch in October 1998. Being one of the first Digital TV platforms in the UK, however despite having numerous software updates throughout the years, its core design remains the same albeit with certain alterations being made in light of new feature being added to the service.
Screenshots below are captured off a Pace 2500S5 running EPG software version
Search & Scan
Pressing the blue button cycles through the selected favorite channels, Personally I’ve never understood why it cant just open up a small menu showing favorite channels along with what’s being broadcast now, the way it’s been implemented seems like it was tacked on at the last minute, and if you have nearly 50 favorite channels it can take a while to cycle through them all.
If you wondered what the messages button does, It just shows the message above. Originally it was supposed to received broadcast style messages to the digibox, informing customers of any changes to their service
Low battery icon, supported on 2001 and later revision remotes
Main grid style view, programmes highlighted in white have audio description, this can be changed in the Language & Subtitles menu in the Services section.
Pressing i on the remote brings up a synopsis of the program selected. Also wtf is going on with modern Simpsons?
Sky added further categories in 2005 to accommodate the amount of channels. However in 2021 some of these genres are redundant, there’s only one channel in the Gaming & Dating category for example.
Viewing channels based on genre
No more Lifestyle & Culture channels, Sky merged the genre back into Entertainment
TV Guide: A-Z Listings
Viewing A-Z list of programs by genre. This has always been a mess since the same programme is repeated multiple times due to the advent of +1 and HD simulcasts, Ideally Sky should have combined the same program title into one per channel, instead you can have pages of the same program if it is repeated on multiple channels at different times.
Programs can be viewed by subgenres, which can be selected using the bottom row of colour buttons.
TV Guide: Personal Planner
The Personal Planner was introduced in 2001, and serves as a timer and reminder feature of Sky Guide. Programs can be added here and the digibox will remind you when the program starts. Autoview will make the digibox switch over to the channel automatically, useful for recording programs to a VCR (remember those?). Series Link automatically adds the next program to the personal planner, like the Season Pass feature of the Tivo.
To be honest, I found the Personal Planner to be buggy, many series links will randomly disappear over time.
TV Guide: Favorite Channels
The Digibox can store up to 50 favorite channels, which a separate EPG being introduced that lists the favorite channels exclusively, introduced in the EPG 3.4 update
Sadly Sky axed it’s Box Office Pay-Per-View in 2016 in favor of its on demand service. So this part of the guide is now dead.
Shows telephone numbers for broadcasters and departments on Sky. I thought this was a wasted feature since how often do you contact these broadcasters?
A better feature would be to allow the user to enter and save their own phone numbers, then should a contact call, a small message would appear with the callers phone number and name, like a caller display feature. It would certainly give customers a good reason to plug the Digibox into the phoneline. The only time I’ve seen this feature implemented was on a BT Freeview box.
Services: System Setup
Second Location Picture Format refers to the RF2 output, if the second TV is 4:3 with the main set being 16:9
On-Screen icon timeout referrers to the red button props that appear for interactive. Previously the red button icons would stay on screen unless the user pressed the Backup key
Model number referrers to the driver stack implemented on the digibox, and varies for each box model and revision
Version Number – First two characters refer to the Digibox manufacturer, the next two are the major revision (model/CPU chipset), the last two refer to the minor Digibox hardware revision. This field is static and remains the same throughout
Serial Number – identifies the digibox uniquely
Viewing Card Number – Refers to the viewing card number currently inserted
Operating System – the core operating system on the digibox, using a modified OpenTV1.2 with the NucleusOS realtime kernel
EPG Software Version – Version of Sky Guide currently running
Signal Strength – How much signal is being received, determined by the size of the dish, quality and length of the cable run and the quality of the tuner used in the box.
Signal Quality – Signal to noise ratio
Lock Indicator – If the digibox can decode the transport stream
Network ID – Used to identify the satellite the user is on, Astra 28.2 is 0002 with Astra 19.2E being 0001, Hotbird 13E is 013e
Transport Stream – The transponder that the digibox is tuned to
Services: Installer Setup
This menu is hidden in plain view, since it can technically disrupt normal operation of the digibox.
LNB Setup – To change tuning parameters of the LNB if a non standard LNB is being used, not needed if using a Sky Minidish.
Default Transponder – The transponder where the Digibox loads its TV listings upon bootup
Telephone Settings – If the user need to specify a prefix to access the outside line
RF Outlets – To change the RF output channel
Manual Tuning – Manually tune a frequency, similar to Add Channels but shows the signal strength and quality.
Services: Auto Standby
Services: Other Channels
Other Channels lets you add channels that are not on the Sky EPG, but are broadcasting on the 28.2E satellite. These could be regional channels not populated on the guide, or test channels.
In theory you could use this feature to watch channels on different satellite providing your dish is pointed to the satellite. In practice you are limited to two symbol rates (22.0 and 27.5) which restricts what transponders you can tune into (on 19.2E this isn’t much of an issue since Astra frequencies tend to stay consistent). The digibox isn’t a good receiver for this purpose since it wasn’t designed for it, it only barley works with the standard Sky digital service.
Services: Favorite Channels
Lets the customer program up to 50 favorite channels. This was originally 20 channels with the limit being increased in 2005.
Pressing i gives you a channel description, this also appears when you access a channel that you are not subscribed to.
A list of interactive services, or service. Sadly this menu used to be full of different service that were available back in the day (Playjam, Sky Active, QVC, DirectGov, Gky Gamestar)
Unfortunately MySky no longer loads
Pressing i gives you a description of the service
What happens when you disconnect the sat feed, the box cannot load listings, showing that the full listings are not cached in the digibox itself
A weird glitch, BBC Alba and Premier Sports on channel 65535
I believe this is due to a channel being restricted via the encryption, yet the customer is enrolled on the package. Could be due to area/post code restrictions,
Low battery message, supported on v4 remotes and later
Nag screen that appears when you boot up the digibox without a telephone line connected, since Sky have axed all of the interactive services (except for BBCi which does not use the telephone) they might as well remove this prompt
Appers when you switch on the digibox from the mains
All regular Sky digibox’s can only decode MPEG2 SD channels, if you go to an HD channel you simply receive this message. You used to be able to get tv listings for HD channels but Sky remove this to conserve memory since they were running out of EPG spaces
Appears when you insert the viewing card backwards, rumored to charge Sky for the subscription rather than the customer
When you have no signal being received for that channel transponder
Sometimes the digibox can’t load the program information, this message will be diplayed for a few seconds before the synopsis appears.
One of the many Digibox’s Pace produced over the years, and one of the first to have the tuner integrated on the mainboard, previous models had the tuner enclosed on a separate metal box fixed onto the board, or as a ZIF style socket module.
Another box from the same era was the PaceDi4000N for ntl, although this is a cable receiver you can see some similarities in the design.
Its quite a minimal clean design compared to the other boxes Pace have produced, like the Di4001
Back to the 2500S5, you can see the CPU of the box
The main, and only processor STi5512SWE. This chip incorporates the CPU (ST20) running at 60Mhz, MPEG2 decoder and graphics processor, basically a receiver on a chip. I’m not sure how it compares to other digibox’s of the era in terms of speed, considering this box was made in 2002.
ST processors were stupidly popular in many satellite receivers, and this one seems to be an NDS variant
Not sure what this chip does, maybe I/O for the RS232 port?
The unused PCMCIA slot
Flash memory chips (right) that store the EPG software and operating system. Each chip is 2Mb for a total of 4Mb Flash. There are two unpopulated banks for a potential of 8Mb. The chip at the top left, above the Omega chip is part of the RAM.
View of the dual card slots, the bottom is for the viewing card, whilst the top is for the interactive card.
Appears to be the modem used for the Digibox’s return path. This allows for the digibox to communicate back to Sky for box office events and interactive. Unsure of the port on the right
The front of the box with the panel removed, showing the location of the remote sensor
Connecting an old ntl box running ancient (by cable standards) software to a modern Virgin Media network. Whilst Virgin Media is the sucessor to ntl there are a few possible roadblocks to this;
VM no longer broadcast their channels in MPEG2 with the exception of a few off air slates and radio channels.
The DVB-SI that VM broadcast may not be consistent with what the software is expecting
The STB itself may be looking for something that VM are no longer transmitting
Getting the box to boot was a struggle itself, just connecting it to a cable feed is not enough since the box will get stuck on the starting up screen, I left it overnight and the box was still trying to start up
Forcing a boot (holding Up+Down and letting go once LDR appears on the display) wouldn’t work either
What worked in the end was to power up the STB will the cable feed disconnected, this will cause the box to display NIT on the front panel LED display. Connecting the coax feed, the box will then proceed to the start up screen and after around 5 minutes a channel will be displayed.
Well the box managed to load something, lets see what we get…
The main EPG, showing the many channels or streams Virgin broadcast
What’s disappointing is nothing can be tuned, you can select a channel but nothing will play, not even radio channels. Potentially this could be the NetID mismatch causing this , since the STB originated from a different area of the network.
Looks like software update streams for the various tivo box models currently in use with Virgin Media.
To breakdown what works and not
Channels Numbers exist but its not the order that Virgin use, the STB seems to place them consecutively in the EPG, i.e starts at 1 and goes up to 350
There are issues selecting channels over 255 in the guide, trying to select a channel number over 255 causes the box to pull a channel from the top section of the EPG, i.e selecting channel 260 causes channel 5 to get selected instead.
Only now and next information is loaded, no further schedule information is available
Subject search does not function
Channel genres do not work, selecting Entertainment or Sports shows no channels.
Various hidden streams and channels appear in the guide
Changing channels using the + and -, the list is out of order and the STB seems to jump between different channels.
Program reminders work and can be set
Maybe changing the Net ID will at least allow the radio channels to be opened
The replacement to CR2 software that saw the launch of interactive services for the bromley platform, CR3 saw a rewrite of the guide software, with everything now being written in the Liberate browser, and Two Way TV support for downloadable applications, whilst Liberate being used for interactive. This software would form the basis for Langely CR3, and would be the next step in unifying the platforms in terms of feature set.
Sadly not all areas had access to CR3 with former Videotron areas in London being stuck on pre-interactive CR1 blue to the networks inability to support a return path connection. ntl would have to upgrade and repull the network in order to provide support for broadband and on demand services, all of which are dependent on a return path.
The software here is running on a Pace Di4000N
The user interface of ntl digital, not a fan of their purple/pink colour scheme and the bad thing is that its everywhere, thankfully they changed the scheme by the time it can to Langely.
Interesting is the listing for interactive settings, rather than be part of the list it looks like a separate link,
Now & next
Unfortunately the purple makes it’s way onto normal viewing, with the now and next bar
I’m not sure why these early cable TV software did not allow for the volume to be changed via the STB remote, since the Telewest side also did not support changing the volume. One theory was that customer would complain to ntl about how they were unable to her any sound through their TV, unaware that the volume on the analogue box has been set to a low level or mute, so to prevent further calls that disabled the feature.
In the end they enabled the volume control in a later build ofCR3, along with Telewest. Maybe they got fed up of the support calls asking why the volume control isn’t working on their box. In hindsight they should have followed the Sky design where the STB remote controls the volume on the TV at launch (they ended up doing this later, with the newer remotes)
The options button gives a small menu, allowing for access to the help function and a shortcut to the diary. The audio Language lets to changed the language of the audio, or enabled narrative audio description, Sky would later implement a similar feature in its Sky Guide.
The main TV guide grid. No channels here since the box is not connected to the cable feed.
Here would have been a list of all channel genres, such as Movies, Sports, News, etc
Pressing the i button shows a short description of the program
TV Guide: Diary
The diary is ntl’s version of the personal planner, and is used to store reminders for future events and shows. Future PPV events appear here.
The subject search feature can be thought of as an alternative to the A-Z listings of Sky Guide, showing programs rather than the channels themselves. The idea is that the customer can find a program they like by the genre of the show.
Sadly the TV guide only has 3 days of TV listings, compared to the 7 days offered by Sky Digital.
A list of subgenres
Searching for a specific program via text
The on screen keyboard, not sure if this is the way it’s supposed to look since a lot of the text to the right being cropped off.
ntl customers could also purchase an optional keyboard to make it easier to enter text.
One nice feature is the ability to save personalized genre lists, here you choose the type of programs to like to see and you can easily search for that list without having to manually select categories.
Trying to load interactive services which sadly no longer exist. the Liberate middleware was used to deploy the interactive microsites, with the TwoWayTV middleware being used for the interactive applications such as games.
Looking for PPV events, this was before true video on demand had launched
The parental control feature
Changing TV settings, not sure what Enhanced Programming corresponds to?
The favorites feature, very similar to Ntl Langely CR3
There’s a help system but with no content stored on the box.
Diag screen that shows the software an signal information
Using with Virgin Media
Somehow I was able to get the box to bootup on a modern Virgin media connection, with many Channel and TV listings being loaded. Sadly I was not able to get any TV channels to load, not even radio channels which still broadcast in MPEG2
A look at ntl’s CR3 software for the Langely Platform
CR3 was ntl’s long awaited upgrade for their Langely customers who had previously no access to any interactive services, unlike the Bromley division that had full interactivity for some time. Part of this was due to the different return path technology used, ntl had originally went with DAVIC compared to Telewest and Cable & Wireless who deployed the DOCSIS standard for their TV return path. Although they are similar in terms of functionality, the differences meant ntl could not adapt the Cable & Wireless software for the Langely platform. In addition, Langely areas also ran different software with the original EPG being provided by Pace with the Liberate 1.2 browser being installed. CR3 would see a rewrite of the entire guide with everything now being done in Liberate, this meant that the Liberate browser was loaded on start-up, unlike earlier versions where the user had to wait for the browser to load.
CR3 saw a drastic change in the user interface, with the new ntl colour scheme being adopted
Screenshots below shows the stb without any channels loaded, I have to force boot the stb by holding they down key until Boot came up on the front panel display. Sadly I was unable to get the box to load with the cable feed.
Now & Next
The main user interface layout, you can see the Sky Guide influence with its layout
Viewing all channels, this would be populated with all subscribed channels, unfortunately the STB does not pick up any channels, either it cant load the NIT or the tuner inside the box is knackered
Viewing channels based on genre, up to 7 channels can be displayed at any time
Diary function, this is like the Personal Planner on Sky Guide, you can schedule future programmes to be entered here. Unable to test further since the box can’t load any programmes
Ntl revamped replace its PPV service with a full on demand service, the programmes ordered could be watched easily. This software seems to be from before on demand was implemented as despite the menu saying ‘On Demand’ the box shows PPV options instead.
Not functional 😦
ntl had the ability for the customer to rearrange the channels in their EPG, allowing for channels to have their own number. This feature was removed when they migrated over to the Telewest based UK1 software
I can soft of understand why the feature was cut, in a family household one could easily rearrange the channel numbers which would cause issues with other members trying to figure out the channel numbers, and probably resulted in increased support calls from customers trying to figure out what had happened to their channel list.
Changing the picture settings
Never seen this before with digital TV, the ability for the box to sound an alert, with Sky boxes you can only sound a beep, and that’s only if there’s an error or if there are subtitles on programme being watched. Three alert sounds are available. Sadly this feature was cut when they migrated to the Virgin UK1 software.
Favourite channels can be viewed in a list form the channel banner
Listings for favourite channels can also be viewed whilst watching a channel.
I wanted to see if this box themself would still work on a modern Virgin media network. I’m aware that Virgin broadcast all their channels in MPEG4 which this box cannot decode, aside from some radio channels. But I was still interested if the box would work and how it worked, especially in regards to early digital cable TV.
The box itself
Pace Di4001 size comparison with the Pace 2500S5, a typical Sky box of the same era
Trying to get started
So I got off to a rocky start trying to get the box to start up in the first place, since powering it on the display would show PACE followed by TUNE. I figured that i needed to enter the boxes engineering mode to reset something. This provided impossibale since after attempting to enter the engineer mode, the box would immediately show TUNE on the front panel display
i tried different combinations that I found online to get the box to work but nothing was working. Finally i stumbled on a old forum post that held the solution;
So to summarize, If your set top box wont progress past TUNE (shown on the front panel display) and you are unable to enter into the boxes engineering mode, you may need to reset the STB’s NVRAM since it may have become corrupted. This can occur when the STB has been powered off for a while, and the battery has discharged to a point where it is running under voltage. This must corrupt the NVRAM in a way it becomes unreadable to the STB
To recover, you will need to open the box, and pull a red jumper located to the right of a large white Sanyo battery. Leave the jumper out for about 5 minutes and then reconnect the jumper. Power on the STB and hold down the UP and DOWN buttons on the front of the box for 10 seconds. You should see DIAG on the front panel display and the engineering mode should appear after a few seconds.
Doing this will clear the Netid of the box, which the Di4001 boxes are able to set automatically if they are in an original NTL area. Otherwise it will appear as *****
After resetting the NVRAM I was able to get to box to enter it’s engineering screen.
From here you can change the default frequency and symbol rate, which the box uses to look for the latest software, and possible where the ntl EPG listings are located. You can also see info relating to the software version running on the box, Memory and flash info
There are a few interesting items here, mainly the memory address section. from here i was able to find out the spec of the box. 0x1000000 converts to 16777216 which I would say is 16Mb of RAM. The Flash storage being 0x00400000 that converts to 4194304 which i’d say is 4Mb.
This model of box does have less Flash compared to the older revisions of the Di4001 in favor of more RAM, maybe the OS is compressed into Flash, which is then extracted upon boot into RAM, and runs from RAM like a Ramdisk. Alternatively, there may be a basic guide stored in flash, with the remaining components loaded from ntl either directly broadcast or using it’s DAVIC modem.
Also it appears this box is the 2A revision of the Di4001. which the boot-loader being compiled in September 2000
If you want to boot the STB without a cable feed connected, hold down the up OR down button on the front of the STB when PACE appears on the display (immediately after applying power to the box), and release until it shows boot, or after 10 seconds. This will skip the default frequency checks and will load the main TV guide interface, even without a cable feed connected.
Doing this trick allowed be to bypass the default frequency check and put the box into some sort of ‘safe mode’, this it it would load the TV guide without having any channels or listings loaded. In this mode the box is stuck on channel 0 and not all aspects of the guide can be accessed.
I’ll put up some screenshots of the guide software up later, if I can get the box to pick up Virgin’s tv guide…
One oddity was the services button on the front panel of the box, now you would think that it would take you to the main TV guide, however it just make the mini guide appear and disappear from the front panel there is no way to access the main TV guide screen…
Another oddity was that pressing the front panel buttons would cause the remote light to indicate, even though you were pressing the front panel buttons and not the remote.
Unfortunately I was unable to get the box to tune into any frequency, never-mind booting with some sort of TV guide. At first I assumed it was because the network information Virgin Media broadcast in my area was not in a compatible format, or that the box was looking for something that Virgin have since removed from the stream, however I am now convinced that the tuner in the box is most likely faulty, since entering correct frequency’s in the engineer screen yields no change to the signal levels, even after removing and reapplying the coax cable.
Also since the box is running relatively old software (from around 2005), it’s likely the box was an ex-subscription box that was never returned to ntl, or may have had it’s flash chips modified to be read only, preventing a software update from taking place.
Lifting the lid
Compared to other set top boxes of the era this ones quite busy inside considering it’s supposed to house a digital cable receiver and a cable modem in one enclosure. Ill try my beast to break down the individual processors this box contains;
The main decoding processors, the one on the left (C-Cube 600L) is the MPEG2 decoder, not sure of the one on the right?
The one on the left is an Hitachi SH3 processor, if you’ve ever opened a Sega Saturn or a Dreamcast you should be familiar with the Hitachi CPU’s. The one on the right is a mystery, its branded as Pace but I cannot find and information online regarding it. I suspect its something to do with Nagravision based on the fact its near the smart card area. Maybe Pace had to licence their own Nagravision descrambler?
C-Cube Avia-inx – Handles DVB-C demuxing from the tuners, Ethernet controller, IEEE1284 controller and has a built in graphics processor. Basically like the northbridge/chipset on a pc.
The system memory, unlike other STB’s of the era this one is designed to be upgradable but seems to be using a proprietary slot. Virgin Media could easily upgrade the memory of these units should the box be returned. This model currently has 16Mb.
DAVIC/DVB-RC decoder, was underneath the smartcard slot so I had to get a funny angle
I believe these are for the onboard ethernet and serial ports
The front panel exposed, note the two IrDA sensors
From Left – Right
Audio phono out
TV and VCR Scart
IR output and input – I think were were meant for external devices such as Tivo or VCR’s to control the STB without any dongles needed, whilst never used by ntl the box does supply power though these connectors allowing the use of red eye dongle
Ethernet – For internet access or LAN
RS232 – Only used for libdebug, never used by ntl externally. Could be used for external input devices like a mouse or keyboard
IEEE1284 parallel port – never used, might be for external disk drives, printers or modems