If you are thinking of purchasing the Safaricom Big Box this weekend, don’t.
I arrived home excited with my shiny new Safaricom Big Box a couple of weeks ago. At the Safaricom shop I had inquired about antennas, and the set top box’s DVB-T2 functionality. I was concerned specifically about it’s ability to work with my building’s common antenna. As is often the case, I soon realized I had been worried about the wrong thing altogether.
Straight out of the box, the Big Box picked up all the available digital channels. The initial setup was pretty straight forward to my pleasant surprise. After connecting the box to the common antenna, and an initial scan, I now had digital TV. I could access channels carried on Signet, free to air PANG , ADN and even a couple of Bamba channels. Nice. I could watch DW and Al Jazeera courtesy of Bamba. I had access to the local Big 3, Citizen, NTV and KTN. So far, so good.
Then came the hard bit. Connecting to the Internet.
Of course if I had wanted to watch TV, I could just have copped a Bamba TV set top box. What drew me to the Big Box, was internet access, and the prospect of free YouTube.
I selected YouTube from the menu, and was somewhat disappointed to find that there was no YouTube app. What was there was a browser window that linked to YouTube.com. I could live with that, I thought.
And there it was. Glorious YouTube. For a whole 5 minutes. Then it all took a turn for the worse. I attempted to view a video. The video would not load. I got an network connectivity failure error instead. A second attempt failed. I tried to connect to the Internet from the default Android browser. This failed too.
I contacted Safaricom’s fairly responsive Twitter customer care team. I received a call a little later from a Safaricom customer care representative. I was advised to reset the box. I dutifully did so, but then nothing. I was still unable to connect to YouTube. Or to the Internet for that matter.
I complained to customer care again. This time after a long phone conversation I was asked to go to “Settings” and provide the rep with the Big Box’s IP address. I was then advised to disconnect from 3G/4G and reconnect. I had been assigned a new IP address.
I was able to connect to the Internet for a full 15 minutes. After that my connection went to shit. I was unable to connect to the Internet at all.
I contacted customer care a third time. This was quickly turning into some sort of terrible joke.
In the 18 days since, I have spoken to customer care on a dozen different occasions. To my dismay, I have learnt what anyone who has dealt with Safaricom’s customer care on a few occasions knows. Safaricom customer care have a script. Switch off the box, switch it back on. Disconnect from 3G. Switch to wired. Turn off the box. Turn it back on. We will escalate with our network team and revert. Meaningless platitudes. Rarely does anything get resolved. It’s good PR, but little more.
Safaricom’s 3G network is excellent in my area. I have gotten speeds of upto 245KBps on a phone that I had placed on top of the set top box. So there was no weird network vortex or “dark spot” where I had positioned the Big Box. So why couldn’t I connect to the Internet, I kept asking.
A visit to the Safaricom Shop I had purchased the box from established that my line was yet to be registered. I had provided ID when I purchased the box, and filled and signed a registration form. The line had not been registered two weeks on. There was also an issue with the tariff I was on, I was informed. Taking two weeks to register a line was unacceptable they concurred. I was given 650 MB of data to get me through the night, as my issues were being resolved.
The fact that Safaricom’s customer care hadn’t realized in 2 weeks of calls that my Big Box line was not registered is in itself perplexing. Safaricom’s right hand didn’t seem to know what it’s left hand was doing. Or simply didn’t care.
The situation had not improved a week later, and I visited the store again. My line had not yet been registered. This time I ensured that they had registered the line while I was in store. I also confirmed that the 6GB bundle I had purchased along with the box was intact.
I went back home and finally after 16 days, a dozen calls to customer care and 3 visits to the Safaricom store where I bought the box, I was able to connect to the internet.
But wait there is more.
I managed to watch just the one video. Attempts to connect to the device’s hot spot from my laptop failed. I switched off the Big Box and reconnected to Safaricom’s 3G network again. Finally I was able to connect to the Internet from my laptop via the Big Box’s hot spot. A few minutes later I ran into a new, annoying hurdle. Safaricom’s weird traffic shaping seemed to disconnect me from the 3G network once my usage hit 100 MB or so. I then had to disconnect and reconnect to the network so I that I could be assigned a new IP. This involved switching off the box on occasion and disrupting any TV viewing in the living room. For folks that are offering free YouTube, the 100MB cap is bizarre. How many YouTube videos are those?
I wonder what exactly could be gained by cutting off access for people who are paying for their internet by the megabyte once they hit a certain cap. I would be okay with Safaricom limiting access to free YouTube. But limiting access to my email on a bundle I paid for is infuriating.
Safaricom sells the Big Box as a smart media consumption device with great internet connectivity and free YouTube for the first three months.
What you do get with the Safaricom Big Box is a DVB -T2 set top box with PVR functionality. The PVR functionality means you can record TV shows and view them later. The box also comes with built in DLNA support so you can connect to your UPnP media server, though I am yet to test this.
The TV watching experience is not without annoyances. Blinking message envelopes keep popping up on your screen. You will have to go to the menu, leaving your enjoyable Mexican telenovella, to access these cryptic messages. The messages themselves read like AT commands, and they typically mean nothing to you. So why would anyone want to be notified of AT commands being sent to their device again, Safaricom?
The box itself is pretty standard set top box/mini PC fare. It runs Android 4.x. There is no information in the settings on the exact version of Android it is running or the kernel. The box comes with 1 GB of RAM and 4GB of internal storage. These specs read like those of the average Alcatel One Touch phone. It has an SD card slot if you need extra storage. OTG works great on the device so you could just plug in a flash disk or hard disk via the single USB port. The SIM card is internal meaning you are locked to Safaricom’s network.
It works fine as a router too. But then, so does your stock Android handset.
I have since learnt that I had purchased The Big Box the day after it’s launch. I have been punished accordingly for that mistake. It has been one of the most frustrating experiences I have ever had with any device.
The Big Box looks increasingly like a hurried product. There are so many kinks, network or otherwise, that are yet to be worked out. You are supposed to dial *422# to check your bundle balance but I am yet to come across a dialer on the device. Calls to the 422 customer care number do not go through. I doubt that any Safaricom engineers actually took the box home with them for testing. I find the internet connectivity bits particularly irksome.
Zuku and company need not fret it seems. Judging from my experience, Safaricom isn’t about to eat anyone’s lunch.