As we wait – don’t worry, we’re only talking about a few seconds – for the iPlayer to boot after typing in the access code, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on why, perhaps, it’s taken the BBC quite so long to get the Freesat iPlayer up and running. Obviously, it’s tempting to think that some of it might be down to the BBC being a largely public-funded enterprise that’s creating the iPlayer with no profit in mind, meaning it hardly has the same sort of resources to throw at the problem that the likes of Sony or Panasonic might.
But let’s not forget, either, that it’s had to be created using an MHEG ‘language’ that was very much developed first and foremost as a broadcasting standard. Any interactive wares that MHEG has started to peddle have been very much ‘bolted on’, and certainly don’t come naturally to it.
Then there’s the fact that the Freesat boxes – some of which are seriously cheap and cheerful – are hardly PCs in terms of their internal memories and programmability.
And finally, of course, the BBC has had to wrestle with the fact that the iPlayer really does have to work on all the Freesat HD boxes released to date. Freesat can ill afford any of the box breaking debacles that have befallen Freeview over the past year or two.
With the iPlayer now suited and booted, let’s have a look what it has to offer. The front end will be familiar to anyone who’s used the Internet version of the iPlayer, with the Beeb sensibly following the same core layout of having search options along the top of the screen, and a small, scrollable selection of highlight shows – represented by large stills – dominating the majority of the screen.
Of course, there are none of the huge amount of further options you get with the World Wide Web version, with the Most Popular list being particularly sorely missed. But of course, the only tool at your disposal for navigating the Freesat iPlayer is your trusty Humax (or whatever) remote control. So if you had many more options than those already provided, using the Freesat iPlayer would probably turn into a chore galling enough to put people off using it.
As things stand, the system really is very easy to use, and that’s the way it needs to stay if it’s to be the widely used success everyone wants it to be.
The search options I mentioned earlier consist of a channel-based filter, a genre-based filter, and even a text search if you know the title of a programme you’re looking for.
Once you’ve selected the programme you want from an estimated 450 total hours of material, you are taken reasonably swiftly to the playback screen. Here you get a little basic information about the programme – running time, synopsis, date of first airing, and date it’s due to be removed from the iPlayer – as well as, rather startlingly, a choice of two different playback qualities.
We’d really only expected the Beeb to provide one video stream option, inevitably specified to a pretty low level given the rubbish nature of the broadband connections still found in many UK households. So it’s really quite a treat that as well as the standard quality option – which carries an 800kbps bitstream – we’re given the option to watch a Higher Quality option that almost doubles the bitstream to 1,500kbps.
With my own broadband connection miraculously managing around 5Mbps these days, I was comfortably able to play both options – and found both to deliver markedly better picture quality than I’d expected.