The last thing we need to check out on the new iPlayer is its performance. Obviously it’s hard to offer an opinion here that will reflect every user’s experience, due to the massive differences in broadband speeds across the UK. Indeed, we’ve seen a lot of evidence in online ‘chatter’ to suggest that many people are struggling with the new iPlayer. Our personal experience, though, has been a mostly very positive one.
Standard definition streaming has been almost perfect throughout our tests in terms of not suffering with stutters or pauses, at least after the first few seconds of a stream starting. The picture quality of standard definition streams is a touch disappointing, though, suffering with some obvious MPEG blocking artefacts that can soften the picture, cause flickering over bright or detailed areas, and make skin tones look patchy. It’s certainly not unwatchable, particularly if your TV isn’t particularly big. But the slight mess on the standard def pictures will likely tempt most people with an HD TV to try their broadband connection out with HD streams.
We didn’t hold out much hope for such streams via our normal, rather rural 6000kbps (measured) BT service. But actually, it didn’t do badly at all.
On the downside, there was a lengthy pause - 15-20 seconds, usually - between pressing play and the HD streams actually starting, and the opening few seconds of what you’re watching fairly commonly stuttered. Once an HD stream had properly kicked into gear though, although there was a small amount of general judder, actual pauses and distracting stutters happened surprisingly rarely.
Or at least that was the case if we didn’t use fast forward or rewind. Shuttling forwards or backwards through HD streams caused them to break down so badly in terms of huge pauses and stuttering that we either had to quit the stream and re-enter it, or leave it on pause for as much as a minute before the stream settled down again.
It also has to be said that the fast forwarding or rewinding process with HD (and it’s hardly perfect with standard def either) is so imprecise that it’s almost pointless.
Getting back to the good news, the quality of the HD pictures is very good. The MPEG noise seen with standard definition feeds is massively reduced, while detail levels and the image’s general sharpness both increase dramatically. We’re not talking Blu-ray levels of perfection by any means, but the quality increase is sufficiently high that we suspect even people whose broadband connections can only handle HD streams with a minor pause or two will prefer that sporadic irritation to the general MPEG noise levels visible with standard def material.
During our tests the sound quality seemed better on HD feeds too; sometimes the audio accompanying standard definition streams sounded warbly and digitised.
The amount of trouble some people seem to be having with the new iPlayer makes us wonder if it’s as clever at adapting to different broadband rates as the previous iPlayer seemed to be.
However, if like us you’re lucky enough to enjoy a seemingly stable broadband feed, It’s hard not to be impressed by what the new iPlayer achieves. Its interface is far more intuitive, speedy and browsing-friendly for TV users than the previous one, and the new search, recommendation and especially favourites systems potentially turn the iPlayer from a mere convenience tool into a central part of some households’ daily TV routine. All for free. Um, except for what you already spend on your license fee, obviously...