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BT Vision Streaming Service Review

Pros

  • Get free YouView box if you subscribe to BT Infinity and TV Essentials package
  • HD picture quality is strong
  • Streams are stable

Cons

  • Have to subscribe to BT Infinity or BT Broadband to get Vision
  • Only available through YouView or BT Vision receivers
  • Feels a bit expensive

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £18.00
  • Video streaming via BT
  • Box Office pay per view movie section
  • HD available on some films
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 audio on some films
  • Comes with free YouView box to new Infinity subscribers

Introduction

It’s been far too long since we last pored over the
BT Vision video streaming service. Way back in 2009, in fact. So it’s
high time we went back to it, to see how far it’s advanced. Especially
since BT recently kicked off a new promotion whereby you can get BT
Vision via a free YouView receiver.

To
get started, we need to explain all the complications of BT’s current
availability and cost options for BT Vision. The first – and in our
opinion most troublesome – point is that in order to access ANY BT
Vision content, even the pay per view stuff, you need to be signed up to
BT as your home internet provider. We’ll get into why we find this
problematic later.

Limited viewing device options

It also
remains the case that you can only watch BT Vision via either BT’s own
Vision receiver or a YouView box. There’s no support for iPads, Android
devices, Smart TVs or even PCs. This too seems rather limiting in this
day and age.

BT Vision

There
are essentially three BT Vision packages available: a basic TV
Essential subscription, a TV Unlimited service, and a Sports package.
Frustratingly, the latter option is currently only available if you get
one of BT’s Vision boxes rather than a YouView receiver, though the
service is due to become available via YouView by next summer.

It’s
also the case that you can now only get the Sports pack (unless you
already have it) if you live in an area served by BT’s fibre-based
Infinity network.

Sports Complication

So if you
fancy the Sports package – which currently comprises Sky’s Sports
channels – we’d probably recommend you go for the YouView/Infinity
option now if you’re in a suitable area and just manage without the
sports channels for a few months. After all, the BT Vision box doesn’t
offer either YouView’s brilliant ‘backwards EPG’ functionality or its
extra streaming players – like Sky’s Now TV.

To get a ‘free’
YouView box, then, as well as a ‘free’ TV Essentials BT Vision package,
you need to become a new subscriber to BT’s Infinity broadband service -
something that will cost you £18 a month if you’re one of the 11
million households and businesses currently covered by the fibre
network. If you can only get one of BT’s standard broadband services on
your local exchange then sorry, but there’s no free YouView box for you.

BT Vision

You
also aren’t entitled to a free YouView box if you’re already a BT
Internet subscriber; instead you’ll have to wait until you’re out of
contract and then take up the Infinity service as part of a completely
new contract.

You should also note that both the YouView and BT Vision receiver options carry a rather aggravating £49 ‘activation fee’.

Essentials

With
the TV Essentials package you get pay-per-view access to all of BT
Vision’s on-demand TV shows and Box Office movies, with TV episodes
costing between 50p and £1.10 a time and films starting at £3.50, and
going up to £4 for HD versions. These rentals are usually yours for 48
hours.

Splash an extra £12.50 a month to bag the Unlimited
service, and you don’t have to pay for any on-demand TV shows – they’re
included. Also you get an extra Vision Film section featuring more than
250 ‘back catalogue titles you can watch for free. At the time of
writing titles here included Air Force One, The Aviator, Kick Ass, The
English Patient, Face off, and Magnolia.

Doesn’t eat away at your download limits

One
last price-related issue we need to cover is that stuff you watch via
BT Vision is not treated as part your download allowance if you have one
on your broadband deal, so you won’t find yourself running out of
capacity after a couple of HD movies.

When you fire a YouView box
up now, it will automatically recognise if you’re a BT broadband
subscriber and if you are it will present you with a large BT Vision
icon on the home screen. One click of this and you’re straight into the
menu of services on offer.

BT Vision

This
menu is reasonably well presented and thought through. You get a
‘shorthand’ list of options on the left, with fuller menus associated
with the highlighted left-hand option on the right. The categories on
the left comprise: Vision Box Office, Vision Kids, Vision TV, Vision
Music, Vision Film, Vision Sport, and something called Essential on
Demand.

The stuff on the right side of the menu usually
comprises highlighted content for each of BT Vision’s areas, while also
providing other ‘jump offs’ to further content.

Handy OS features

Further
features of the menus that we greatly appreciated during our tests were
‘People who watched this title also watched’ recommendations, the
ability to create playlists (especially useful, of course, with the
music content) and the ability to bookmark favourite content so you can
find it more easily later.

The overall look of the menus is bright, colourful, spacious, inviting and for the most part logically laid out.

There
are a few issues with the OS, though. For starters, the menus are a
touch sluggish and they don’t show many video link icons on screen at
once. Also the service doesn’t do as much as it should to highlight HD
content. It turns out you having to go into the Search By Category
section before you stumble across a way of filtering films by whether
they’re HD or not.

Content

HD will surely be of interest to anyone reading this article, so we’re pleased to say that at the time of writing around 83 of the films available in the PPV Box Office section are available in HD. However, with 571 Box Office titles in total, that makes the HD proportion around 20%. Which isn’t as high as we might have hoped.

Luckily that’s not the end of the HD film provision if you’re an Unlimited subscriber, though. For the Vision Film section of archive titles features 116 HD films, out of a total selection of 250 titles. That’s a much more impressive 50% or so HD hit rate for the back catalogue movies.

One bit of bad HD news is that there aren’t currently any HD TV shows on BT Vision, which is a shame given how many shows are available in HD via Netflix, for instance.

BT Vision

Finding films you want to watch is reasonably straight forward, thanks to the provision of plenty of genre based filtering options, and a solid if not exactly state of the art text search filter.

Highlight films

Among the Box Office titles that caught our attention at the time of writing were Arthur Christmas, Men In Black 3, The Lorax, The Hunger Games, Warrior and Prometheus.

Running through the other key content categories aside from the Box Office and Vision Film categories, the Kids section contains around 158 titles taking in such classics as Scooby Doo, Angelina Ballerina, Chowder. and Ben 10.

The TV section comprises 302 titles divided into Ambient (!I), Comedy, Drama, Documentary, Lifestyle, Nature, Reality, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, Stand-up Comedy, Animation, Crime, Adrenaline, and Late Night themes. Channels covered include BBC, ITV, National Geographic, History, Sony Retro, Comedy Central, Warner TV, ABC, MTV, Discovery, CBS, Eden, World of Redbull, Sony Entertainment, TNA Wrestling, Really, Good Food, Home, Crime and Investigation. Though in many cases there aren’t many titles available from each broadcaster.

TV talk

The TV section also features a few ‘boxsets’ of full and sometimes multiple series. Key titles here include Dark Blue, The Forsyte Saga, Reaper, Spooks, The Shield, Ashes to Ashes, Vampire Diaries, Dirty Sexy Money, League of Gentlemen, The Killing, Black Adder, Doctor Who, and Grey’s Anatomy.
The Music section is a bit weird. It has this week’s top 40 as its main attraction, which is fair enough, but outside of that you only seem to get around 1000 videos. This might sound a lot, but it doesn’t take much exploring to realise that it’s far from comprehensive.

BT Vision

The biggest problem with the music section, though, is that each video you want to watch costs 50p. And this only gets you a 24-hour ‘rental’. This hardly makes commercial sense when you consider you can buy tracks permanently for not much more than that on iTunes!

Sports stream

Moving swiftly on to the Sport section, this has 195 streamable titles. But most of the content is very niche; think wrestling, poker, extreme sports and so on rather than mainstream sports fare. To be clear, this sport channel is not to be confused with the Sky Sports offering available with the Sports pack.

More weirdness is in store with the ‘Essentials on Demand’ section. This seems to be a repository for anything that can’t be classified anywhere else, such as Karaoke versions of Frost the Snowman and Last Christmas’;and a Happy Mondays Call the Cops concert. Items here cost around £1.70 each.

Performance

Exploration over, it’s time to see how the BT Vision service performs. Streaming three or four of the headline titles and TV shows (you don’t download them anymore like you used to have to with the old BT Vision system), we were mostly pleasantly surprised with the results.

BT Vision

For starters, the streaming is impressively solid and stable – provided your connection is up to the job, of course. Speaking of which, if you choose to watch an HD title, the service runs a speed test on your broadband service first to see if you’re likely to be able to watch HD content satisfactorily.

Smooth streams

With our national average 6Mbps broadband connection there was a pause for three or four seconds after we’d selected a title, but then it started streaming smooth as silk with none of the sort of stuttering and glitching you can get with some rival services in the early moments of a stream. In fact, we suffered not even a momentary buffering pause throughout our tests – even while watching the HD version of Prometheus. Simultaneously using both an iPad and laptop for Web browsing also failed to disrupt the stream’s quality.

Picture Quality

This picture quality is best described as solid with standard definition and strong with HD. Starting with standard definition, the image scores strongly on its brightness, avoiding the dark look noted with one or two streamed services. Colours look reasonably rich and believable too, and the image looks passably sharp and clean for most of the time.

The only real let down comes when there’s a lot of motion in the frame, at which point the amount of MPEG compression ‘blocking’ and mosquito noise increases considerably. During the shot at the start of Prometheus, for instance, where the camera runs up a river to a waterfall, the surging surface of the water looks a blocky and noisy mess. Camera pans too can look a little messy versus relatively static footage, and general compression noise is also sometimes noticeable during dark sequences.

BT Vision

Making the appearance of such levels of compression artefacts harder to understand is the degree to which they all but disappear if you watch HD on BT Vision. There’s a small residual flicker of noise over really, really tough stuff like the aforementioned Prometheus river shot, but for most of the time compression artefacts are few and far between with an HD stream – even when showing dark scenes. So clearly bandwidth from BT’s servers isn’t the issue with the standard def feeds.

The HD difference

HD pictures also look much sharper than standard def ones, as you would expect, and colours look even more natural and subtly rendered, despite there still being a little residual ‘striping’ over some background colour blends. Even motion looks surprisingly fluid, avoiding the juddering sometimes witnessed with streamed HD.

There is one major bum note to report, though, namely that BT Vision doesn’t seem bothered about aspect ratios. Prometheus, as with all Ridley Scott films, was shot using a Cinemascope/2.35:1 ratio, but the BT service streamed a version reformatted to the 16:9 shape of your TV. This might not bother some, but it’s nothing short of sacrilege to serious film fans.

All in all though, despite this ratio faux pas, we’d class BT Vision’s HD feeds as among the best we’ve seen from a streamed service, easily rivalling NetFlix and Now TV, and comfortably outperforming LoveFilm.

BT Vision

It’s not just BT Vision’s HD pictures which impress either. For we were also seriously pleased to find many of the titles on offer being streamed with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks. Initially outputtable via the YouView box’s digital audio output, you should also be able to output Dolby Digital 5.1 via HDMI by January.

Technically, then, there’s much to like about BT Vision’s interface and AV quality. And it’s not doing badly content-wise either (though both LoveFilm and Netflix in particular are ahead of it, especially where TV shows are concerned).

The price is wrong?

We do, though, have a problem with its price. The £12.95 a month you need for the Unlimited service is more than the cost of Netflix and LoveFilm combined – and if you get those two services together, you’ve got a quantity of content that dwarfs what you can get on BT Vision. What’s more, each of those services are playable on a wide range of devices, meaning they’re not locked to just one TV in your household like BT Vision’s effectively are. 

Then, of course, there’s the fact that the £12.95 a month is actually only part of your associated costs. For you can’t get BT Vision without stumping up at least £18 a month for a BT Infinity Internet connection.

YouView Mitigation

Some of this high cost can be offset initially by the fact you get a £300 YouView box for free if you’re subscribing to Infinity. And you will know from our review of this box just what an excellent bit of kit it is. But still, in the long term we’re not convinced that the BT Vision price structure really stacks up.

BT Vision

Nor, really, are we convinced that the core idea of using an online video service as a marketing tool to sell a broadband service really stacks up any more. There are just too many alternative video sources out there with more content on them that can be watched on multiple devices through any broadband connection you fancy.

Not changing its policy anytime soon

Even Sky has woken up and smelt the coffee in this respect this year, by first of all opening up its On Demand services to people not subscribed to its own broadband service, and then launching the Now TV platform so that even people not subscribed to Sky’s TV services can pay a smaller sub to get access to Sky’s movie content. BT, though, responded to a direct question about this to the effect that it has no plans to make any of its content available on pay per view or subscription terms to anyone without a BT broadband connection.

There is, of course, an elephant in the room here we haven’t discussed yet: the amazing coup BT achieved earlier this year by bagging the rights to more than 30 Premiership football matches, breaking Sky’s total dominance of the Premiership footie scene. Personally we still have our doubts that even this huge lure will be enough to persuade people to sign up for BT’s broadband services as well as its online content services. But it shgould at least be enough to keep the platform in the public and media consciousness next year more than it otherwise would be.

Verdict

BT has drastically improved both the technical capabilities and content level of its BT Vision since we last looked at it. In performance terms, in particular, it’s now one of the best video streaming platforms around.

However, it looks expensive and limited with its playback options versus Netflix and Lovefilm, And ultimately we can’t help but wonder if the whole BT Vision business model of ‘get broadband from us before you can get at our video servers’ is really sustainable in today’s world where so many cheaper, less restrictive online video services are available elsewhere. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see what next year brings.

Trusted Score


Score in detail

  • Value 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9
  • Design 7

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