The highest quality option actually produces a picture that’s often very close in quality to a decent quality Freesat broadcast. Colours and contrast are both reasonably rich and believable, for a start. But this can be said too of most of the programmes as they appear on the Net version of the iPlayer.
Where the High Quality video option on the Freesat box scores points over the Internet-based iPlayer is with its sharpness and relative freedom from compression artefacts. Regarding the sharpness, foreground objects, at least, possess levels of detail and clarity never witnessed when watching on the iPlayer either online or via a web-based games console like the PS3 or Wii.
There’s a little softness in background areas, as you’d expect with any intelligent compression system. But it’s relatively low level, seldom leaving the image as a whole feeling soft. What’s more, the amount of softness seems actually well judged, since it tends to helpfully smooth away the majority of MPEG blocking noise that inevitably tends to accompany any heavily compressed video image to some extent.
In fact, MPEG noise only crops up to a distracting extent using the High Quality option relatively rarely - more often than not where there’s an expanse of a single colour, such as a skyscape or background wall. Or where there’s mist or smoke swirling around a scene.
Another pleasant surprise is how free of streaming judder the High Quality pictures were. As I noted before, my broadband connection is much faster than the 1,500kbps of the High Quality feed, so I guess the iPlayer stream wasn’t under any pressure. But even so, the Freesat feed streams with surprisingly little evidence of the subtle stuttering that I’ve noted on, for instance, the PS3’s iPlayer feed.
Switching to the Standard quality, 800kbps stream, its shortcomings versus the higher quality stream are immediately obvious. The image looks generally softer - especially but not exclusively over background image elements. This softness becomes more obvious, too, when there’s a lot of motion in the image, as moving objects blur quite noticeably. Presumably, the relatively heavy compression engine simply doesn’t have the output bandwidth available to it to handle rapid changes in the image content.
Now that I come to think of it, there was occasionally a trace of this motion blur with the higher bandwidth stream too. But it’s rare enough and subtle enough with this stream not to really distract. In fact, if you have a relatively low spec LCD TV, you’ll probably struggle to discern where your TV’s motion blur ends and the iPlayer feed’s starts.
The motion blur certainly can distract with the 800kbps feed, though. Not to an extent that the picture becomes remotely unwatchable, but enough to remind you that you’re watching a streamed online feed rather than a broadcast.
The Standard quality feed also suffers more with block noise than the higher quality feed, but again this is sensibly handled, being restricted almost exclusively to monotone backgrounds. Contrast levels in the standard feed look comparable with those of the higher quality feed, and colours look as natural too. The only distinction is that there’s slightly more evidence of colour banding/striping, especially, again, in background areas.