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Best for iPlayer: Sky+ HD box, Virgin Media TiVo, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, YouView, Free Time from Freesat

With BBC iPlayer finally landing on the Sky+HD box this October and YouView and Free Time from Freesat launching earlier this year, it’s never been easier to catch up with shows on iPlayer in your living room.

But which is the best device for watching iPlayer when you’re stretched out on the sofa? We’ve taken a close look at the most popular ways of getting iPlayer on your big screen in the living room or on your laptop, and compared the pros and cons of each.

If catching up with the Christmas Day broadcasts of Doctor Who and Eastenders (not to mention the Queen’s Speech) are essential for surviving the seasonal period, then you’ll want read on to find out which we think is the best.


A few notes about BBC iPlayer…

To get BBC iPlayer working anywhere you’ll need a download speed of at least 2Mbps. Obviously the faster your download speed and the less busy your home network the better, as you’ll want to be able to stream programmes smoothly and where possible stream HD programmes.

All HD content available from BBC iPlayer, where available, is streamed or downloadable in 720p (1280 x 720).

In most places you’ll know when a programme is available in HD, as it’ll have an HD logo next to it.

While streaming standard definition (SD) content from BBC iPlayer requires a download speed of 2Mbps, for streaming HD programmes you’ll need a download speed of at least 3.2Mbps.

In every case, the quality of programmes entirely depends on the download speed you’re getting and the overall quality of your line. Before trying to stream anything, do a line speed test and make sure your home network is set-up properly.

We tested out all of these devices at iBurbia Studios in Chiswick on a pair of 100Mbps Virgin Media lines, and out of our homes on 3-5Mbps ADSL lines. 

BBC iPlayer on Sky+HD

What We Like

  • Consistent quality
  • Seamless integration with Sky+HD menus
  • Easy to use

What We Don’t Like

  • Only catch-up for the last 7 days
  • Not instantaneous
  • No radio stations

Set-up and what you need

Sky+ HD box and a broadband connection. You’ll need to connect your Sky+ HD box directly to your router or wirelessly, using the Sky On Demand Wireless Adapter which costs £9.99.

What you get

BBC iPlayer on the Sky+HD box sits within the On Demand section of the Sky+ Planner. It’s quite different from how iPlayer looks and operates on most other devices.

For a start you don’t stream programmes, you download and store them on the Sky+HD’s hard drive instead.

Once a portion of your programme has downloaded, the Sky+HD box will let you know and you can start watching it. Sky calls this ‘progressive download,’ as you can start watching while the last few minutes of the show are still downloading, similar to how you can listen to the audio on a CD as you’re ripping it.

While this means iPlayer on Sky+HD loses some of the instantaneousness of desktop iPlayer (and iPlayer elsewhere) you’re guaranteed a seamless programme with no buffering once you start playing it.

If you’re used to the Sky+HD blue and yellow maze of menus then you’ll find that iPlayer is basically another string to Sky’s on-demand bow. It doesn’t operate in quite the same way as iPlayer does online, and searching for programmes by name isn’t very intuitive.

Finally, you only get the opportunity to catch up on shows broadcast over the last seven days, as opposed to the 30 days you get on other platforms.

Streaming and Picture Quality

Streaming quality isn’t an issue as such, for reasons which we’ve described above. For what it’s worth, BBC content in Sky On Demand plays perfectly, as good as a live broadcast.

The majority of shows are standard definition (576i) and unless it’s content taken from the BBC HD channel, there’s no option to alter picture quality or up resolution.

HD: Yes

Downloads: Yes

BBC TV Channels: BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, BBC News, CBBC, CBeebies, BBC Parliament, BBC Alba, BBC HD

BBC Radio Stations: None

Conclusion

You can’t fault BBC iPlayer on Sky+HD in terms of quality – as you have to download programmes instead of streaming them shows look a lot better than they do elsewhere but then there’s the inevitable wait which, depending on the quality of your broadband connection, could be a real drag. The lack of BBC Radio stations will also be a drag for some.

BBC iPlayer on Virgin Media TiVo

What We Like

  • Adaptive bitrate & 10Mbps modem minimise interruptions
  • Familiar user interface
  • Easy to find what you want

What We Don’t Like

  • TiVo remote can be awkward
  • Moving between menus can be clunky
  • Search function feels slow

Set-up and what you need

A 500GB or 1TB Virgin Media TiVo box and a Virgin Media TV subscription.

What you get

BBC iPlayer on Virgin Media TiVo boasts a simple menu design that’s very similar to the desktop BBC iPlayer.

A home screen featuring the latest and most popular content sits in the centre and you can easily jump to your favourite TV channel or radio station or use the search tool to look for your favorites.

Even the TiVo remote, with it’s many many buttons, is easy to use here; you simply use the arrow keys to move through the menus and press OK to select and back to go back.


Streaming and Picture Quality

Where available, you’ve the option to switch between SD and HD streams in a programme once you’ve got it going. Most of the programmes are available in standard def.

iPlayer on TiVo uses adaptive bitrate technology, meaning that if your network is congested, the quality of the streams will drop slightly in order to avoid programmes pausing or stopping altogether. This means on occasion you’ll see programmes sharpening in detail as the line becomes less busy, or decreasing accordingly.

Though this means that streaming programmes often fluctuate in quality, you’re almost guaranteed a constantly streaming show. However, TiVo has a dedicated 10Mbps cable modem with reserved broadband capacity, so this should be less common than if you’re using a standard consumer broadband connection.

The Virgin Media TiVo app is easy to navigate and programmes take a couple of seconds to load. Occasionally the app can feel a little clunky when moving between menus and selecting programmes and the search function feels a little sluggish. Aside from that everything else feels polished and slick.

HD: Yes

Downloads: No

BBC TV Channels: BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, BBC News, CBBC, CBeebies, BBC Parliament, BBC Alba, BBC HD.

BBC Radio Stations: BBC Radio 1, BBC Radio 1Xtra, BBC Radio 2, BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 4 Extra, BBC Radio 5, BBC Radio 6, BBC Asian Network, BBC World Service. 

Conclusion

As a standalone BBC iPlayer streaming service, the Virgin Media TiVo app does a good job, delivering reliable streams. It’s a little fiddly to use and can take time to get used to. 

BBC iPlayer on Microsoft Xbox 360

What We Like

  • Great interface
  • Up to 30 days playback
  • All BBC TV channels and radio stations are present

What We Don’t Like

  • Random pixellation ruins playback occasionally
  • No support for Xbox SmartGlass
  • No downloads

Set-up and what you need

Xbox 360 with an Xbox LIVE account (Free or Gold), Ethernet or wireless internet connection.

What you get

The layout of BBC iPlayer on the Xbox is very similar to that of Virgin Media TiVo and YouView. You get Featured content front and centre and access to all the BBC channels through a dedicated menu and a search function.

The search tool works quickly, generating search results based on the first three characters you put in – just as well because the standard text input method on the Xbox 360 is pretty awful. Shame there’s no Xbox SmartGlass support for iPlayer just yet.

The simple grid UI is very easy to navigate with a 360 gamepad and swishing through the menus is very nippy. The Xbox 360 isn’t exactly an underpowered piece of kit and BBC iPlayer is as slick on here as any other video on demand app.


Streaming and Picture Quality

The quality of streamed programmes was a bit lacking compared to what we’re used to on the desktop versions of the app. Even on the 100Mbps line, we were experiencing random micro-freezes every now and then. On slower connections this was slightly more frequent. Overall, the time it took to load a programme was a few seconds longer than on other

Pausing, playing and skipping forwards through streams is easy – tap the A button to bring up a simple to use DVD-style menu.

As with Virgin Media TiVo, you can toggle between SD and HD on a selection of programmes that are broadcast on the BBC HD channel, but not elsewhere.

HD: Yes

Downloads: No

BBC TV Channels: BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, BBC News, CBBC, CBeebies, BBC Parliament, BBC Alba, BBC HD.

BBC Radio Stations: BBC Radio 1, BBC Radio 1Xtra, BBC Radio 2, BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 4 Extra, BBC Radio 5, BBC Radio 6, BBC Asian Network, BBC World Service.

Conclusion

BBC iPlayer on Xbox 360 is nicely integrated with the console’s existing UI. Finding what you want is a breeze and you get access to everything that you’d get on desktop iPlayer. Our only gripe (and it’s a minor one) is that occasionally there are some hiccups when streaming shows, even on superfast connections. 

BBC iPlayer on Sony PlayStation 3

What We Like

  • Well designed app
  • Good quality streams
  • Easy to control

What We Don’t Like

  • Only 7 days’ worth of TV
  • Can take a while for HD streams to load

Set-up and what you need

Your Sony PlayStation 3 connected to your home broadband router via Ethernet (wired) or wirelessly. PlayStation Network (PSN) account needed to download BBC iPlayer app, but not needed to use it.

What you get

The PlayStation 3 was the first living room device to get the current design of BBC iPlayer as seen on most connected devices (Virgin Media TiVo, Xbox 360 and YouView) and as such it’s a very slick operation.

Everything is laid out in a logical format which making picking up your favourites and searching for content a breeze. Navigating the iPlayer’s menus feels perfectly natural on the PS3’s pad – press X to select, press O to go back.

When you’re watching a programme, a quick tap of the left or right buttons skips backwards and forwards by a minute and repeatedly pressing in either direction skips back and forwards by 10 per cent.

In terms of content you get just 7 days’ worth of catch-up instead of 30, which is a bit of a let down. At least you get the full pick of the BBC’s TV and radio stations.

Streaming and Picture Quality

Streaming quality on the PS3 is pretty decent, and toggling between SD and HD on programmes that support HD takes little time. Both SD and HD streams look remarkably crisp on the PS3 iPlayer but as you might imagine, the time it takes to load an HD programme is longer than SD streams – quite a bit longer actually. Even on faster, more secure broadband lines this was still the case.

Subtitles and programme info are also quick to load. Almost everything about the PS3 app is remarkably polished and your commands are actioned with a satisfying quickness.

HD: Yes

Downloads: Yes

BBC TV Channels: BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, BBC News, CBBC, CBeebies, BBC Parliament, BBC Alba, BBC HD.

BBC Radio Stations: BBC Radio 1, BBC Radio 1Xtra, BBC Radio 2, BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 4 Extra, BBC Radio 5, BBC Radio 6, BBC Asian Network, BBC World Service.

Conclusion

The PS3 iPlayer app is one of the best TV iPlayer apps going. It’s a slick service that lets you get to what you want quickly and is easy to use. HD programmes can take a while to load (perhaps to be expected) but once they’re streaming everything looks very crisp and sharp.

BBC iPlayer on YouView

What We Like

  • Easy to access on-demand shows
  • Catch up from the programme guide or the menu
  • YouView remote and interface feels natural

What We Don’t Like

  • Occasionally slow and clunky
  • Last 7 days of programmes only
  • No radio content

Set-up and what you need

If you’ve set up YouView correctly – plugged it into your aerial cable, plugged in your Ethernet cable – then BBC iPlayer should be good to go – it’s an integral part of YouView so there’s no extra installation or set-up needed.

YouView currently doesn’t support wireless connections to routers, meaning you’ll need to use Ethernet cable or a Powerline adapter.

What you get

One of the features of YouView is the ability to move backwards through the programme guide and pick up on programmes you’ve missed out on from the last seven days.

Skipping back through the BBC channels on the programme guides on YouView is effortless and something that’s pretty special – it is the main selling point of the platform so you’d expect this to be good.

You can also access the BBC iPlayer directly from the on-demand menu of YouView. It’s easy to navigate with the YouView remote. Everything’s easily accessed using the direction controls and the menus have a nice lateral feel to them.

Compared to the PS3 and Xbox 360 apps, the YouView app (on the Humax DTR-T1000) feels sluggish. That’s perhaps to be expected as the games consoles are high-end multimedia devices which outstrip the Humax box performance wise. Thankfully this doesn’t really impact on the quality of the streams, just the presentation.

There’s no option to watch anything beyond the last seven days of programming so far, so no catching up on old TV series. There’s also currently no support for radio stations through iPlayer on YouView.

Streaming and Picture Quality 

Standard definition programmes look okay and while suffering from pixelation on slower connections, the overall experience is pretty smooth. Where available (i.e. on programmes shown on BBC HD) it’s possible to switch to an HD stream mid-programme which is nice. This usually takes no more than a couple of seconds though again we noticed the odd incident of hanging on slower connections.

The pause/play and skip controls are optimally positioned at the top of the YouView remote and lend a DVD-like quality to streaming programmes.

HD: Yes

Downloads: No

BBC TV Channels: BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, BBC News, CBBC, CBeebies, BBC Parliament, BBC Alba, BBC HD.

BBC Radio Stations: None

Conclusion

While accessing iPlayer content on YouView is effortless, it can take time to sift through the clunky menus and get programmes streaming. Once things get going, quality is as good as you’d expect it to be.

BBC iPlayer on Free Time from Freesat

What We Like

  • All BBC TV channels and radio stations
  • Easy to find what you want
  • Easy to use menus and beautiful design

What We Don’t Like

  • Only 7 days’ TV catch-up
  • Streams suffer from glitches
  • Clunky menus and interface

Set-up and what you need

BBC iPlayer is installed and ready to go on Free Time from Freesat boxes, so once you’ve set up yours for the first time you should be good to go. While it’s possible to simply plug your Free Time from Freesat box into your TV and satellite dish and watch TV that way, on-demand features like BBC iPlayer won’t work unless you connect to the internet.

The only current Free Time box on the market is made by Humax and it doesn’t support wireless connections, meaning you’ll have to use Ethernet cable or Powerline.


What you get

The last seven days’ worth of BBC programmes are easily accessible through the Free Time from Freesat on-demand menu. You can easily cycle through menus of favourites and popular programmes, search by channel or even search manually by entering the first three characters of a show or programme.

Being a service that’s rather similar to YouView, you can also access the BBC iPlayer directly from the channel guide as well as the on-demand menu.

Moving through said menus on Free Time feels pretty slow especially compared to the Xbox 360 and PS3 apps (again, another thing in common with YouView).

There’s no option to watch more than the last seven days of TV programmes which is a shame but for those who listen to radio stations on their TV will be happy with the amount of BBC radio content available through iPlayer on Free Time.

Streaming and Picture Quality

In our initial review of Free Time from Freesat we noted that the on-demand services – particularly BBC iPlayer – weren’t great. Since then things have improved and many of the issues we were having, specifically when it came to streaming programmes, has improved.

Things still aren’t amazing though. Pixelation and long buffer times are still fairly frequent occurrences. Not as frequent as they used to be mind but more frequent than we’d like. Like YouView, we expect that much of this is down to the the platform being new and will no doubt improve with time.

Despite this HD streams are viable on Free Time and with a bit of coaxing will work fine – just be prepared for a wait.

HD: Yes

Downloads: No

BBC TV Channels: BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, BBC News, CBBC, CBeebies, BBC Parliament, BBC Alba, BBC HD.

BBC Radio Stations: BBC Radio 1, BBC Radio 1Xtra, BBC Radio 2, BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 4 Extra, BBC Radio 5, BBC Radio 6, BBC Asian Network, BBC World Service. 

Conclusion

BBC iPlayer on Free Time from Freesat is easy to access and lets you get to what you want from the BBC’s TV channels easily. Unfortunately you don’t get anything beyond the basic 7 days catch up, streams can take a while to load and aren’t the best quality. 

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