Having recently spent some serious time exploring the home movie experience offered by Sky’s HD service and the Xbox 360 download platform, today I turn my attention to the BT Vision service. Something I might actually have done some time ago, except for one small problem: I only recently went online with BT’s own broadband service.
Whether you like it or not, you have to subscribe to BT Broadband in order to get BT Vision. It’s easy to understand BT’s commercial thinking with this approach, and I appreciate that it makes the download element of the BT Vision service easier for BT to manage technically. But I also suspect that many of the people who read TrustedReviews might not like the idea that they can’t pick separate broadband from this HD home entertainment solution if they so desire.
The fact that BT Vision is only open to BT Broadband providers limits its audience in a way the Sky and Xbox services do not. This could potentially making it tougher in the long term for BT Vision to use subscriber numbers to lobby content providers when it comes to securing content. That said, we have little doubt that many, many people in the UK end up signed on to BT Broadband almost by default…
The BT Vision package starts to look more attractive with the discovery that its ‘V-Box’ receiver is actually a Freeview PVR as well as an Internet TV box. The 160GB of HDD storage space it carries is decent too – that’s on a par capacity-wise with Sky, and slightly more than even the top-spec Xbox 360 offers.
In terms of connections, the V-Box carries a couple of Scarts, a composite video output, an optical digital audio output, an RF antenna input, an S-Video output, two stereo audio output, a CI card slot for adding pay TV services to the Freeview package, crucially, an HDMI output and an Ethernet port.
The HDMI output is, of course, used to pump out HD from the V-Box, in 720p or 1080i. Rather aggravatingly, you have to manually set the box to output HD – it box can’t figure out for itself from its HDMI handshake with a TV the optimum resolution to output.
In fact, I had real problems getting my Pioneer reference TV to ‘see’ the V-Box at all during initial set up. So much so that I had to connect it first using a Scart lead, and then turn to HDMI once I could see the V-Box’s menus. Incidentally, the key menu option where you have to tell the V-Box to output HD is rather unhelpfully hidden within a ‘Screen Aspect Ratio’ submenu.
The Ethernet port is, naturally, the point where the V-Box communicates with BT’s online service. And in a rather nice touch, BT provides a pair of Ethernet-over-power extenders, so that you can send Ethernet signals from your router via your mains power ring to your V-Box without having to worry about trailing a long cable all through the house, or rely on a potentially unstable Wi-Fi connection.
One thing that certainly is not a nice touch, though, is the BT Vision box’s design. With its drab silvery plastic finish and style-free lines, it really is a travesty, especially compared with the glamorous, glossy beast that is the latest BT Wireless modem. It looks more like some dirt cheap box than a cutting edge piece of AV tech.
The V-Box’s operating system looks dated compared to the new Sky+HD EPG and Xbox 360 NXE front end. The V-box does at least go to the trouble of downloading cover art and solid synopses of programmes and films you might be thinking of watching, but the data is not as intuitively organised as on the rival platforms. And rather aggravatingly, the information you’re given about doesn’t tell you the file size of a film or TV show you want to grab, which could be problematic if you start filling up your HDD.
Even after a couple of days, I never entirely ‘clicked’ with the way the various BT Vision listings, options and programmes are organised in the V-box’s onscreen menus, despite the presence of an acceptable electronic programme guide. The best thing about the operating system is the remote control, which although a little plasticky and lightweight is actually very thoughtfully laid out. I was relieved to find that the onscreen menus generally update their content fast enough not to feel sluggish.
As you’d hope, the Freeview PVR part of the BT Vision box allows you to set series links, pause, rewind and record live TV. Plus it has two tuners so that you can record one Freeview channel – in, it has to be said, rather average picture quality – while watching another.
When it comes to pricing, the BT Vision proposition is hit and miss. You can get just the V-Box, if you wish, for an attractive all-in total of £58.72. This leaves you with a functioning Freeview PVR, but having to pay individually for each and every programme or film you want to download from the BT Vision on-demand servers.
Prices for these individual programmes and films range from 96p for a TV show, to £2.88, £3.37 or £4.84 for a film, depending on whether it’s a new or back catalogue title, and standard or high definition. These individual film prices look a bit steep compared with the prices of Sky’s Box Office movies – though of course, you have to also pay a high subscription for Sky’s service on top of the its prices.
More troubling is the fact that BT Vision pay-per-view movie prices are a touch higher than the prices of the Xbox 360’s pay-per-view movies. And crucially for the purposes of this article, you don’t get any HD films provided within any of the BT Vision subscription packages outlined over the next couple of paragraphs. There are a few HD TV shows available within the subscription packages, but HD movies are always, to quote BT, “classed as premium,” with pay-per-view charges attached.
Coughing up for an HD movie – or any downloadable content, in fact – buys you a two-day rental of the download that thankfully starts not when you download the programme/film, but when you elect to pay for it post-download (with the cost added to your next phone bill).
The three BT Vision subscription packages mentioned a moment ago stack up like this: £13.70 a month for two channel ‘packs’, £17.61 a month for three packs, and £19.57 for all four available channel packs. These prices start at £6.85, £10.76 and £12.72 a month for the first three months of your subscription.
The four packages available for you to pick from are PictureBox Film, Sport, Music, and Kids, with standard TV shows and Replay TV also included with any of the channel package deals.
Replay TV is, as its name suggests, a service that allows you to catch up with a selection of shows you may have missed in the previous week from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five. For me this on-demand catch up service is one of the V-Box’s most attractive features, and one which can’t be matched fully by either the Sky+HD or Xbox 360 rival services.
Finally settling down to see what the V-Box can do in terms of making AV dreams come true, I quickly stumble across a really pretty disheartening problem: the amount of HD content available from BT Vision really is very limited indeed versus the Xbox and especially Sky+HD propositions.
In fact, selecting the dedicated HD menu option produced only eight films: The Bourne Supremacy, Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, The Duchess, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Kung Fu Panda, Love Actually, Mamma Mia!, and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Yikes.
The HD menus do also contain a collection of mostly nature-based HD TV series: Tigers – Spy in the Jungle, Galapagos, Extraordinary Animals, Supervolcano, Top Gear 2007: Polar Special, Earth: The Power of the Planet, Hiroshima, Planet Earth, Pride, Superstorm, Trek – Spy on the Wild, and Ganges. But within the movie focus used as the main criteria for our recent Sky+HD and Xbox 360 articles, there’s just no getting round the fact that BT Vision isn’t even in the same ball-park when it comes to HD movie content. Frankly, it isn’t even playing the same sport.
What’s particularly odd or even alarming about this is the fact that the BT Vision platform actually carries more than 600 film titles in total, but for some reason currently only carries the vast majority of these in standard definition. Aaargh!
Another real aggravation of the BT Vision system is its download speed. A 50-minute Planet Earth show in HD took a mind-numbing three hours and 20 minutes to download. And the HD version of Mamma Mia! took – drum roll, please – an incredible seven hours and 45 minutes. That’s a whole hour and 45 minutes longer than the already intimidating 5-6 hour estimated download time given within the film’s onscreen synopsis.
Compare this with the way the Xbox 360 downloaded the high definition Wanted in under two hours – using exactly the same BT Broadband line – and it’s clear that something isn’t quite working as it should within either the V-box or the BT Vision servers.
Obviously the snail-like download speeds make any sort of instant gratification with downloadable movies completely impossible with BT Vision – especially as, unlike the Xbox 360, the V-Box doesn’t let you start watching downloaded films before the download has completely finished.
I have to say, too, that having my broadband pipe clogged up for nearly eight hours by a downloading film didn’t exactly improve my mood.
Thankfully the BT Vision system tried to get back on my good side with its HD AV performance – its HD picture quality is credible. Not quite as good as a Blu-ray, inevitably, but certainly slightly better than the Xbox 360’s somewhat gritty HD video, and more consistent than Sky’s HD pictures – even if it doesn’t quite reach the same highs Sky can when it puts its mind to it.
For instance, with The Duchess, Love Actually and Mamma Mia!, the V-Box HD downloads displayed consistently high levels of sharpness and detail, having no problem resolving, for instance, the ripples on the sea during any of Mamma Mia!’s many seashore shots. And the usual clothing weave detailing that’s so apparent with HD is also clear to see, albeit not quite so pronounced as it on the Blu-ray discs of The Duchess and Mamma Mia!
HD pictures also show consistent polish, without the slight dot crawl noted with Xbox 360 HD films and the overt MPEG artefacting occasionally noted with some – though certainly not all – Sky+HD film broadcasts.
You can occasionally see some very low-level blocking and softness over notoriously tricky stuff like expanses of blue or grey sky, and the occasional low-lit skin tone. But even these rare moments don’t leave the picture looking anything less than impeccably HD.
The 1080i output from the box also arrived on our reference Pioneer TV and JVC projector with impressively little judder to mar motion, even during camera pans.
In fact, my only serious complaints with BT Vision’s HD movies are that their colours are a bit over-saturated (though you should be able to correct for this via your TV’s colour settings), and that there just aren’t enough of them!
Sonically the BT Vision proposition is absolutely on a par with both the Xbox 360 and Sky+HD boxes. In other words, nearly all HD films download with full Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound mixes. When output to a suitable receiver via the V-Box’s digital audio output these sound seemingly identically decent to the Dolby Digital tracks experienced on the Xbox 360 and Sky+HD platforms.
As usual, I’m duty bound to point out that you can often get a higher-resolution audio track from a Blu-ray version of a film. For instance, the Mamma Mia! Blu-ray carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that really does add an extra dimension to all those, ahem, ‘classic’ Abba tracks when listened to through a suitably high-end home cinema sound system. It is wholly unreasonable at the moment to expect broadcasters and, especially, download services to cater for data-intensive higher-resolution audio formats.
There are some things about the BT Vision package I really like. For instance, the way it seamlessly integrates ordinary Freeview TV viewing/recording with a true on-demand download service, complete with some HD options and ‘catch up’ channels, makes it a really tempting one-stop home entertainment solution. It does a nice job with HD material, too, and there’s plenty of potential for future development of the platform.
However, as we stand today, the severe lack of HD material currently on offer, together with the extraordinary amount of time it takes to download HD films, in makes BT Vision a borderline non-starter for the HD-loving fraternity we know make up the majority of our readership.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 8
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