4th Jul 2012 | 11:57
The IPTV service is finally here - but was it really worth the wait?
Three years is a long time to wait for anything, but in the world of technology it's an eternity.
In this time Google has managed to release eight different updates to its Android platform, Apple has created a new computing sub genre with the iPad, Sky has launched a 3D channel, Virgin has teamed up with TiVo, TV manufacturers have launched and then gone quiet over 3D-capable sets, then revealed Smart TV is the real future of television… it's fair to say the tech climate has changed dramatically since 2009.
And this is what YouView is up against. Formally Project Canvas, an IPTV venture that was raked from the ashes of Project Kangaroo, YouView has gone through more delays than your average London Underground commuter and because of this, the reason for the service on the outset has become diluted.
It was meant to bring the web and traditional TV together in one easy to use set-top box, which to be fair is exactly what it does but in 2009 - this was when the BBC Trust greenlit the BBC's involvement in the service essentially making way for YouView, the box was then meant to make its debut in 2010 - this idea was a wholly original one. Now Sky, Virgin, BT Vision, Xbox, PS3 and myriad connected TV sets offer a strikingly similar offering.
Which leads us to the question: is YouView outdated before it even hits the shops? TechRadar was given access to a pre-production box this week at an indisclosed location and also had some more time with it at the YouView event and the short answer is: there is a lot of work to be done to make this a must-have service but it's a decent try.
At launch, the box that will be available to customers is a standalone one made by Humax and this is the one we have played with.
Confusingly, this won't be the same version of YouView you get if you decide to get your box from BT or TalkTalk – two major partners in the service.
These boxes, which will be coming later and rumour has it these will be made by Pace and Huawei respectively, will show off a YouView that will offer featured content from the ISP which will come in the form of a dedicated area on the service.
From this portal you will be offered featured content that's currently still under wraps.
If you are an early adopter then what you get is a standalone box with no ISP ties – which means no-frills when it comes to the extras, unless you already have a BT or TalkTalk connection. If you have this, then it has been confirmed you will get the extras. Plug in any other ISP and you get a no-frills version of YouView.
The look of the Humax box is nothing out of the ordinary - it is what you would expect from the company's Freeview box range. On the front is a USB slot - though there's no new features for this at the moment, it could be used for a future Wi-Fi dongle - there's two tuners inside and 500GB or 1TB of storage space within the chassis.
In our initial hands on with Humax YouView box we played with a 1TB version. As YouView is tied to Freeview there are only four HD channels available this amount of space does seem a little needless, so we were pleased to see that the first one to be released will be the 500GB version. It looks as if the RRP for th 500GB box is a wince-inducing £299, though.
Turn the box around and you will notice that you have to plug the thing into a DTT signal, so you better hope there's an aerial to hand in your front room. Oh, and you will also need to have an Ethernet connection nearby as you need to hard-wire your broadband connection to the box.
As we have noted, there will be a dongle option in the future but for now YouView is all about the wires.
In our demo, from switching on the YouView box to it actually waking from its slumber was around 40 seconds. It would have felt longer if YouView hadn't put up a 'nearly there' sign when the box was almost ready for us to play around with it.
Nearly there? YouView has been 'nearly there' for three years guys – we are hoping this was a not-so subtle in-joke to the amount of time it has taken YouView to go public.
Once loaded, the YouView user interface is something of a looker. Bathed in the blue that the YouView logo has been slathered with, it is uncluttered and the EPG will be familiar to anyone who has used a Sky/Virgin/Freeview box in the last 10 years. This can only be a good thing. YouView is looking to target the 16 million odd people that don't subscribe to Sky, Virgin or BT - essentially those who are not that adept with a premium set-top box. If simplicity is key then the Humax box and the YouView UI are definitely a compatible lock.
The accompanying remote is plain and simple too – it's definitely not been designed with aesthetics in mind but ergonomically it sits well in the hand and the layout is more-than functional.
There's the fast-forward, rewind and play buttons on the top with the normal numerical pad below this. Sandwiched in the middle is a blue YouView sign, which acts as a Home button for the service.
Most people will use the big directional button in the middle of the remote, which offers decent one-button access to most of YouView's features.
YouView can lift its head up high when it comes to the EPG. It is great to look at and there is picture-in-picture functionality, although the live TV box situated in the top-right-hand corner is a little on the small side for our liking.
We were impressed by the calendar dates at the top of the EPG, so you know at a glance what day you are on. This is needed considering that YouView uses a backwards EPG. So, not only can you go forward seven days, you can also go back.
It's the backward bit that we were interested in. This is where the on-demand section of the service kicks into gear. Again, anyone with a Virgin TiVo box will be familiar with the concept of going back in time with your EPG but this will be new for many who will purchase a YouView box.
Skip a few days backwards and the programmes that are available to you are highlighted with a white play button. Click on this and you are transported to the relevant on-demand service – so if you click on BBC1, then you will be transported to that episode on the iPlayer.
Essentially you get the iPlayer within YouView. It's the same player as you get on any smart TV or set-top at the moment, albeit one with a few design tweaks – tweaks that will be coming to the remaining third parties soon.
Considering the BBC is a massive part of the YouView family we would have thought it may bow to YouView's colour scheme but this isn't the case. In fact, it's well known that if the BBC had its way all of the on-demand players would look like the iPlayer, so it's nice this isn't actually the case. YouView told TechRadar that it is all for channels retaining their identity within YouView, so going to iPlayer seems to be all part of the experience.
At least it is a one-touch process. Yes, you have to wait for iPlayer to load but once this happens, it automatically starts the programme.
YouView has done a decent job of integrating 4oD, ITV Player and Demand 5 into the service, however. Although you go to their own sections they look like they belong on YouView and the show begins automatically, well an advert does but more on that later.
Alongside the catch-up services, there does seem to be a raft of archive content within YouView as well. Channel Four and the like have made many of their programmes available in batches within YouView, so if you are looking for the whole of, say, Peep Show, then you will be in luck - it's right there at a touch of a button.
YouView on demand
Going back in time on the EPG isn't the only way that you can view on-demand content. Beneath the EPG is a well-designed ticker that's essentially the boxes content's page. Here you can flick from the Guide, to MyView (the shows you have recorded) and On Demand.
We must admit we were disappointed when we clicked into this. This area is where all the apps should be that sets YouView apart from the rest, but all that was in the demo was iPlayer, 4oD, Demand 5 and ITV Player. That was it – on-demand extensions of terrestrial content.
Three years ago and this may well have impressed us but these are the same services we have seen of dozens of other connected devices, nothing new, nothing worth waiting for.
YouView has put a developer call out on its official website, so we are hoping it won't be like this for long, but it's still disheartening to see. And the good news is that Now TV, Sky's PAYG offering will eventually be available on YouView, as will Scottish channel STV.
But there was nothing else here to blow us away. Next to the four on-demand channels are a lot of empty spaces that will surely be filled in years to come but for now the on-demand section leaves us wanting.
And if you are looking for HD on demand then all you have is content from the iPlayer and given that YouView doesn't support adaptive bitrates as of yet - CTO Chris Bramley said that they were looking into adding this at a later date - the HD isn't optimised for those who are blessed with speedy connections.
Until then, if the likes of Lovefilm and Netflix do come aboard, they won't be thrilled that their USP of pushing the best stream out for whatever connection is available isn't actually supported.
Unfortunately there's an even bigger bugbear when it comes to the on-demand content and that is the adverts.
When we watched a programme on 4oD - in our first hands on and not the second, as we weren't shown this functionality in our demo - we found that we had to watch a two-minute advert in full before we could view our content on demand. The ability to fast-forward was frozen when the advert was on, which was frankly annoying. And then we had to sit through the same thing again half-way through the programme.
We understand that advertising funds the programming but a forced two-minute advert wouldn't have been acceptable in 2009, let alone three years later in a world where we can skip YouTube adverts after only a few seconds. And we also understand this isn't the fault of YouView but the content providers, but as user experience it isn't great.
Simplicity may be key to YouView but there are a smattering of innovative features within the service. The search functionality is great – you can pull up the search feature on every screen and find content that way.
Again, though, dig deep and you find problems. With search, it seemed to only check out on-demand content. Anything that was on the real-time TV guide wasn't coming up in our tests - a Humax spokesperson said that they were looking into stretching out the search to non on-demand shows but for now we are stuck with this.
This does make finding content something of an issue through the search bar alone. The better way to do this, we found, was to go through the category search. These are simplified into things like comedy, drama etc… then it gets a little more granular. For example we managed to search for chat shows and talent shows within the 'entertainment' banner.
While this is not a patch on TiVo's all-singing-all-dancing metadata mine, which even allows you to search your favourite actor/actress, for those who want to find decent content it is more than good enough.
You can also filter by AtoZ, Popularity and Latest but you are completely out of luck if you want something recommended. This probably has to do with YouView being an agnostic service, not offering up any one show more than the rest so we can forgive it for now.
Another great feature is the radio section. Again, this seems to rely heavily on on-demand content but it's all packaged perfectly. From comedy shows to the latest tunes, YouView makes searching radio content a breeze and other set-top makers should take note that this is how to do it properly. Radio shows also come up in the all-you-can-eat search bar. And we have been told that this will be a unified search option going forward. So when pay TV content does come on board, this will be just as searchable as the free stuff.
YouView, in its advertising, makes the bold statement that 'it will change the way you watch TV forever'. Either this was a line spun by a copywriter in 2009 and hasn't been updated or the folks behind YouView are blinkered to the fact that TV has already changed forever, and all this box shows so far is that the service is merely playing catch up with catch up.
That said - YouView does offer the most seamless non-subscription experience we have seen yet when it comes to marrying on-demand contet and live TV. If only it launched with more content partners we would be more excited by the proposition but for the moment, and to echo Lord Sugar's own thoughts, it is 'a carcass of a service' that needs a lot more meat before it justifies its £300 price tag.
The YouView UK release date is set for July. Initially it will be a standalone box from Humax but there will be subsidised versions of the service coming soon from both BT and TalkTalk. - of which we will talk more about when we have more time with the service, so stay tuned for our extensive YouView review in the coming weeks.