This picture quality is best described as solid with standard definition and strong with HD. Starting with standard definition, the image scores strongly on its brightness, avoiding the dark look noted with one or two streamed services. Colours look reasonably rich and believable too, and the image looks passably sharp and clean for most of the time.
The only real let down comes when there's a lot of motion in the frame, at which point the amount of MPEG compression 'blocking' and mosquito noise increases considerably. During the shot at the start of Prometheus, for instance, where the camera runs up a river to a waterfall, the surging surface of the water looks a blocky and noisy mess. Camera pans too can look a little messy versus relatively static footage, and general compression noise is also sometimes noticeable during dark sequences.
Making the appearance of such levels of compression artefacts harder to understand is the degree to which they all but disappear if you watch HD on BT Vision. There's a small residual flicker of noise over really, really tough stuff like the aforementioned Prometheus river shot, but for most of the time compression artefacts are few and far between with an HD stream - even when showing dark scenes. So clearly bandwidth from BT’s servers isn’t the issue with the standard def feeds.
HD pictures also look much sharper than standard def ones, as you would expect, and colours look even more natural and subtly rendered, despite there still being a little residual 'striping' over some background colour blends. Even motion looks surprisingly fluid, avoiding the juddering sometimes witnessed with streamed HD.
There is one major bum note to report, though, namely that BT Vision doesn't seem bothered about aspect ratios. Prometheus, as with all Ridley Scott films, was shot using a Cinemascope/2.35:1 ratio, but the BT service streamed a version reformatted to the 16:9 shape of your TV. This might not bother some, but it's nothing short of sacrilege to serious film fans.
All in all though, despite this ratio faux pas, we'd class BT Vision's HD feeds as among the best we've seen from a streamed service, easily rivalling NetFlix and Now TV, and comfortably outperforming LoveFilm.
It's not just BT Vision's HD pictures which impress either. For we were also seriously pleased to find many of the titles on offer being streamed with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks. Initially outputtable via the YouView box's digital audio output, you should also be able to output Dolby Digital 5.1 via HDMI by January.
Technically, then, there's much to like about BT Vision’s interface and AV quality. And it's not doing badly content-wise either (though both LoveFilm and Netflix in particular are ahead of it, especially where TV shows are concerned).
We do, though, have a problem with its price. The £12.95 a month you need for the Unlimited service is more than the cost of Netflix and LoveFilm combined - and if you get those two services together, you've got a quantity of content that dwarfs what you can get on BT Vision. What's more, each of those services are playable on a wide range of devices, meaning they're not locked to just one TV in your household like BT Vision's effectively are.
Then, of course, there's the fact that the £12.95 a month is actually only part of your associated costs. For you can't get BT Vision without stumping up at least £18 a month for a BT Infinity Internet connection.
Some of this high cost can be offset initially by the fact you get a £300 YouView box for free if you’re subscribing to Infinity. And you will know from our review of this box just what an excellent bit of kit it is. But still, in the long term we're not convinced that the BT Vision price structure really stacks up.
Nor, really, are we convinced that the core idea of using an online video service as a marketing tool to sell a broadband service really stacks up any more. There are just too many alternative video sources out there with more content on them that can be watched on multiple devices through any broadband connection you fancy.
Even Sky has woken up and smelt the coffee in this respect this year, by first of all opening up its On Demand services to people not subscribed to its own broadband service, and then launching the Now TV platform so that even people not subscribed to Sky’s TV services can pay a smaller sub to get access to Sky’s movie content. BT, though, responded to a direct question about this to the effect that it has no plans to make any of its content available on pay per view or subscription terms to anyone without a BT broadband connection.
There is, of course, an elephant in the room here we haven't discussed yet: the amazing coup BT achieved earlier this year by bagging the rights to more than 30 Premiership football matches, breaking Sky's total dominance of the Premiership footie scene. Personally we still have our doubts that even this huge lure will be enough to persuade people to sign up for BT's broadband services as well as its online content services. But it shgould at least be enough to keep the platform in the public and media consciousness next year more than it otherwise would be.
BT has drastically improved both the technical capabilities and content level of its BT Vision since we last looked at it. In performance terms, in particular, it's now one of the best video streaming platforms around.
However, it looks expensive and limited with its playback options versus Netflix and Lovefilm, And ultimately we can't help but wonder if the whole BT Vision business model of ‘get broadband from us before you can get at our video servers’ is really sustainable in today's world where so many cheaper, less restrictive online video services are available elsewhere. Guess we'll just have to wait and see what next year brings.