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BT TV 2020 Review

New, flexible packages from Now TV let you add and subtract premium channels at will, but BT TV will be a little too niche for some

Verdict

With its deal with Now TV, BT TV offers a flexible way to add premium content to the mix, alongside the option for AMC and BT Sport channels. It's also the only medium through which you can record content from live Now TV channels, so that they appear like the regular Freeview channels the set-top box supports. However, a reliance on a poorly supported streaming protocol means this service may not work if you don't have a BT router, and there isn't as much Ultra HD content as we'd like.

Pros

  • You can change your subscription at will
  • BT Sport available in Ultra HD
  • Can record or stream Now TV channels
  • Wide-range of Sky channels

Cons

  • Streamed channels don't work with all routers
  • If you don't want BT Sport, Now TV is cheaper
  • 500GB hard disk

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £12
  • Dual-tuner 4K YouView box
  • 500GB hard disk
  • Premium channels through Now TV
  • BT Sport in Ultra HD

Sky and Virgin may have most of the premium TV market sewn up, but BT has continued to quietly offer an alternative, with channels (including BT Sport in 4K) delivered via your broadband connection. Today, BT TV has a range of flexible packages on offer, letting you add and remove channels as you want them, which makes it an interesting choice for those who wants to dip in and out of content.

There’s a clever mix of streaming channels, provided by Now TV – and, for the first time, you can record the live streams. However, the ageing box and some annoying problems with streaming – a result of the router you may have – mean the new BT TV service is a mix of brilliant and occasionally frustrating.

Related: Best set-top boxes

BT TV design – A slightly dated box with a small hard disk

BT powers its TV service through a YouView box, originally called the BT YouView+ Ultra HD. It was the first 4K set-top box to launch in the UK, and the new version is basically the same as the existing unit I own. It’s impressively small (273 x 152 x 43mm), and is easy to place anywhere.

It’s a little dull; the flashy, curved Sky Q box looks much better. And for those who think this is easily solved by placing the box out of sight – you can’t,  as the bundled remote is IR, not Bluetooth.

There are a few cosmetic differences between the box I have (the original) and the new model, including slightly different logos on the front. You get the same array of ports at the rear, with an aerial input and a passthrough to your TV. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.

A single HDMI 2.0 output can be found on the rear: it supports HDR (not Dolby Vision) and Dolby Atmos via Dolby Digital Plus. There’s also an optical S/PDIF audio output and Gigabit Ethernet. There’s no Wi-Fi, though, so you’ll have to plug this box directly into your router.

The YouView remote is near-identical to the unit that’s been around for years, except for a BT Player button. You can also use the buttons on the front of the box to navigate through menus, record and toggle power.

The updated BT TV box comes with only a 500GB hard disk, which is half the size of the 1TB disk featured in the original 4K box. That works out at around 300 hours of SD recording, reducing to 125 hours for HD TV and just 30 hours for 4K.

BT TV channels and apps – Everything you can get on Now TV, plus a little more

The core of the offering includes all of the standard free-to-air Freeview HD services, but you can then layer premium channels on top. AMC and BT Sport, the latter of which you can get in Ultra HD with the right package, are the draw of BT TV, but you can also add Sky content via Now TV.

The advantage of using Now TV is that you get access to a wider range of channels. In addition, your BT account is linked with your Now TV one, so you can watch what you’ve paid for via the apps, too. With the old BT TV service, your choice of channels was locked to the box.

BT has a few subscription packages available, all of which have a £29.99 set-up fee with the set-top box detailed above included. I’ve listed the regular prices; there are offers from time-to-time, but they’re time-limited, so check out  the current deals. Packages available right now include Sport (£10 a month), where you get BT Sport and BoxNation, plus AMC; and Big Sport (£40 a month), which adds all 11 Sky Sports channels.

The Entertainment package (£12 a month) gets you the standard Now TV Entertainment pass, which includes Sky Atlantic and Sky One, plus AMC and Sky’s boxsets. Big Entertainment (£22 a month) adds the Sky Cinema channels and on-demand movies.

With all of these packages you only receive the live channels and Now TV in standard definition; you’ll have to pay £5 a month if you want to enable HD. Buy the VIP package (£65 a month) and you get all of the Sports and Entertainment content, everything in HD – including Now TV, and you get some BT content, too.

You’ll pay a slightly reduced rate if you buy direct from Now TV, but you’ll miss out on some features, such as the ability to record (see below), and there’s no BT Sport. The main advantage of BT’s packages is that although you’re under contract for two years, you can change your subscription at will, dropping down to a cheaper package when, for example, there’s no football on.

What you really miss out on is 4K content, with BT Sport the only major channel provided in this way. And, that’s only if you have good enough broadband: you need at least 30Mbps to stream BT Sport at its highest detail quality.

Beyond live-streamed content, there are lots of apps available on the box, including all of the major catch-up services, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and even Now TV. With the latter, you can watch boxsets and live TV. And, neatly, BT automatically signs you into Now TV, giving you the right content based on the package for which you’ve paid.

It’s a shame that only BT Sport is available in HDR right now – none of the apps, including Netflix, currently support it. Where available, apps can stream in Ultra HD. Via the BT TV app you can rent some movies and content, plus you get catch-up TV from BT’s exclusive channel, AMC.

BT TV BT app

BT TV interface – Simple enough, but it’s looking a little dated

The Sky Q interface was tweaked and improved to work better on higher-resolution TVs, making it slicker and easier to read. YouView, which BT runs, is now a little behind the pack, not having changed much over the years.

It’s clean and simple, but you miss out on some nice features. For example, the TV mini-preview has completely gone from menus. YouView does have transparent menus, but it’s pretty much impossible to see what’s going on as  you move through the guide.

There are some nice touches, however. Press the YouView button and a pop-up menu lets you quickly access your main features: Guide, Players & Apps, MyTV, BT Player and Settings. Select one and you’ll see various options beneath. With Guide, for example, you get some recommendations for what to watch, while apps have quick links to some of the most popular options.

 

Jump into the Guide and you can move backwards and forwards in time. Any show that’s already been on and is available in one of the catch-up players (BT supports all the main ones) can be viewed.

Cleverly, BT TV can fill out the Guide with streamed channels, as well as regular Freeview HD channels. The list you see depends on the package to which you’ve subscribed (more on that later). Anything listed in the Guide can be recorded, with such content appearing on the MyTV page. You can’t undelete programmes – still – with the only option to turn on a warning that asks if you really want to delete something.

BT TV EPG

The power of the BT system is that even though premium channels are provided through Now TV, they’re available as streamed channels in the EPG, so they can be recorded. This, then, is the only system that allows you to record live broadcasts on Now TV.

Two tuners in the box mean you can record up to two programmes at once, plus watch a recording or streamed channel. However, you can only record or watch one streamed channel – so, for example, if you’re recording BT Sport in Ultra HD, you can’t watch a Sky Atlantic channel.

BT TV picture quality and performance – An annoying reliance on a poorly supported streaming protocol

Watch a live broadcast in HD from Freeview, and image quality is identical to that you’d see on pretty much any other box. It’s nice and sharp, and a notable step up from SD channels, which are looking pretty dire now.

HD channels streamed via the internet, such as Sky Atlantic, look almost as good as they do on Sky; using satellite, Sky Q has more bandwidth available, letting its channels look a touch cleaner. It’s a close-run thing, though. Ultra HD on BT Sport still looks amazing, with a sharp, detailed and life-like picture, improved by the use of HDR. This really is 4K at its best.

Yet, there’s one thing to watch out for: the streamed channels use a niche streaming protocol, and your router has to support BT IGMP proxying.

Of course, BT routers – including the BT Complete Wi-Fi – support this natively. Most Netgear routers I’ve reviewed support the option, as do TP-Link models – but that leaves a chunk of third-party routers that don’t have support.

Even routers that do support the feature can be flaky: you’ll probably need to reboot your router, modem and set-top box. Even so, don’t be surprised if streamed channels drop out from time-to-time. It’s high time that YouView improved compatibility of its streaming protocol.

You do have an option with Now TV channels to watch through the app on your box instead, which works perfectly. You get the same quality but lose out on the ability to record. There’s no alternative way to watch BT Sport, though.

BT TV NowTV app

Should you buy BT TV?

I wouldn’t class BT TV is a significant rival to Sky Q. Opt for Sky Q and you get a better set-top box, more Ultra HD content, and the option to watch your package from all-around your home. Of the two it’s the easier-to-use system, but you’re tied into it for a contracted period.

Think of BT TV as a more flexible friend. At its heart, you get a decent enough set-top box for watching and recording Freeview, plus all of the on-demand and streaming apps you want. Add in one of the packages, and you get content from Now TV, and you can change your subscription whenever you want to avoid getting locked into paying a huge amount for TV every month.

With BT TV, you’re also getting the only way to record Now TV channels, whilst also maintaining the flexibility to watch via the app on your YouView box, phone or other streaming devices. There are some issues with getting streaming channels to work, but this is partially negated by the Now TV app.

I recommend that you check if your router has the BT IGMP option available – assuming you’re not using BT’s router – before upgrading; and, even then, third-party router owners may still find they have problems. If you can’t stream live channels, then you’re probably better off buying a Now TV subscription direct, and watching through a media streamer, forfeiting the option to record live-streamed shows.

As such, BT TV is a rather niche product. If everything lines up, then it’s a flexible way to extend the breadth of what you can watch – but if you don’t have the right kit and router, I wouldn’t bother.

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