Hands on: BBC iPlayer for iPad review
10th Feb 2011 | 10:50
Licence fee payers rejoice, the apps are a-coming
BBC iPlayer on iPad: Main features
After a year in the making, the BBC has finally begun rolling out its iPlayer apps, and first out of Television Centre's revolving doors is iPlayer for iPad.
The Android iPlayer app is already available for download (we're testing it while you read this), and an iPhone-friendly iPlayer app is due to follow at a later date.
For the moment, the iPad's iPlayer app is available only in the UK. A subscription-based app for the US App Store is on the way, but for us righteous, licence-paying Brits, the app is free to download and to use.
That said, it's also free if you're a BBC-hating TV licence-dodging shadow-dweller. After all, the Beeb has openly admitted that it doesn't have any kind of licence-enforcement strategy relating to its new mobile iPlayer apps.
Legally speaking though, you are required to have a TV licence to use the app for live TV streaming.
iPlayer app in use
The iPlayer iPad app itself is a masterpiece in simplicity. The content sits at the forefront at all times and the albeit slick-as-you-like interface sits very much under the surface. The on-demand offering is exactly the same as you'll find elsewhere, with TV shows available to stream for seven days after they were originally broadcast. There is no download option.
There are two main sections in the app - one for TV content and one for radio.
Each section has two sub-sections - a 'Featured' screen which showcases (debatably) the best shows currently available, a self-explanatory 'Most Popular' section as well as a 'For You' screen which seems to do nothing other than recommend the same shows you saw in the other two sections.
The 'For You' section presumably draws its content according to what it knows you've been watching in the past. However, we skimmed through a variety of sports-related shows and even after time passed and we restarted the app, the 'For You' section was still trying to make us watch episode one of Outcasts. Not a chance.
Other than that very minor issue which may well resolve itself over time, the iPad's iPlayer app is an absolute delight to use.
Touch a thumbnail and you're instantly given a few more details about the episode you've selected. One more press of the play button and the episode will play - it took an average of four seconds for the stream to buffer and start playing.
The quality of the video is first rate. It's not high definition, but on the iPad's screen it looked as good as you'd ever need it to be. Sound quality too was as good as you can hope to expect from a video streaming app.
It's also very easy to skip forward and back. Dragging the progress bar moves things on immediately and it only took a split second for the app to begin playing from the new position again.
Wi-Fi or 3G?
If your iPad is a 3G model, you'll be sorry to hear that the iPlayer app will not allow you to stream video over your mobile data network - at least not to start with.
You can browse the app over 3G, but as soon as you attempt to watch something you'll get a polite 'switch to Wi-Fi' message.
We attempted to trick the app by connecting it to a full-signal Galaxy S using Android's Mobile AP feature, but even that didn't work. It's possible that the BBC will eventually strike some deals with the mobile networks to allow iPlayer access over 3G, but that could be some way down the line.
BBC iPlayer on iPad: More features
Unlike the web version of iPlayer which has worked on the iPad for some time, the official app also allows you to watch live BBC TV and radio channels.
To use this feature you need only select the 'Channels' option at the top of the screen and you'll be presented with a mini EPG containing all eight BBC stations. The radio section works in exactly the same way, but you only get access to nine live national and DAB-based stations - local stations are not available for the time being.
Radio streams load up and start playing a bit quicker than the TV streams - usually it takes two seconds or so, but that will depend on how fast your broadband connection is and the strength of your Wi-Fi signal.
As well as the thumbnails of the big shows in the three main sections, you can also browse and search by selecting the 'search & categories' option. Here you can either enter a search term or browse through shows in each category.
It's all very slick and smooth, with no waiting time for search results to be returned.
The Favourites section is also present. On every episode's preview screen there's an option to save to your favourites, so that you can go back and watch later. However, if the episode has been on the system for seven days, it'll disappear without a trace.
We tested the app with Air Playto see if we could stream iPlayer to other devices.The audio worked well enough, but there was no video and no amount of tinkering could get it up and running. We think this may be a limitation of iOS and that iOS 4.3 may fix the problem.
And that's about it. Licence fee payers can rest assured that the BBC has spent your money on an iPlayer app that oozes quality. We would love to have seen a download option so that you could take shows with you on the road, but that's our one minor gripe in what is otherwise a flawless app.