Brilliant and massively popular though the BBC iPlayer is, up to now it’s really been a PC-centric feature. As a result, the shift over the past two years to smart TVs hasn’t been particularly kind to the original iPlayer interface, making it clear that operating system principles that might work on a PC don’t tend to work on a TV driven by a simple remote control.
So it is that finally this week, after a typically protracted Beta testing process (the Beeb’s public service remit means it has to make absolutely sure something works properly before launching it - a sadly dying attitude in the AV world!), the new BBC iPlayer is here. And it’s been designed from the ground up to work on big-screen tellies rather than mouse- and keyboard-driven PCs. So we thought we ought to have a look at it.
Doing so requires us to fire up our PS3. For at the time of writing, the new service has only been approved for use on Sony’s console; presumably the usual banks of compatibility tests still haven’t been completed on all the different ‘smart TV’ platforms. The version of the new iPlayer that ultimately arrives on smart TVs, though, will closely resemble if not be identical to the one now sported by your PS3 (assuming you’ve applied the latest firmware update).
According to the BBC, the new iPlayer’s improvements are focussed around three key areas. First, the new service is supposed to be ‘just like TV’. In other words, its HTML5-driven interface has been redesigned to be highly visual and as straightforward as channel surfing.
Next, the new service supposedly makes it much easier to find the content you want, thanks especially to an improved search tool; favourite lists giving you quick access to your favourite shows; and a recommendations system.
Finally, the Beeb has tried to make the new iPlayer experience feel more personalised, with the new favourite programmes feature again to the fore in this respect.
As you would hope, signs of the iPlayer revamp become apparent as soon as you fire it up, in the shape of a new home menu dominated by a scrollable window showing five featured programmes, with a list of other search-aiding categories running along the bottom of the screen. Having five programmes at once visible and accessible on screen is a great improvement over the rather clumsy previous ‘home’ screen, which only showed one title at a time in full.
Choosing to play a programme on the Featured list is effortlessly achieved via your PS3 joystick or PS3 TV-style remote, using just the typical navigation and ‘Select/OK’ buttons. And once you’ve selected something to watch, you get a ‘header’ screen featuring more information on the show including its air date, running time and remaining iPlayer availability schedule. Plus, of course, there’s the playback icon, and options to switch between HD and standard def playback, and add a show as a favourite. Again, selecting between these latter options is a doddle, and it’s very clear which option you’ve got selected at any time.
The iPlayer menus respond well to PS3 joystick or remote commands, too. The sluggishness we frequently suffered when using the old iPlayer on various devices seems to have been ironed out, at least for this PS3 incarnation. It’s great to find, too, that if you hit pause during playback, you get the option to change the picture definition and the programme’s favourite status without having to quit back to the service’s header menus.