BBC iPlayer review

Eighteen months after the BBC iPlayer’s rather messy release, the latest version of the desktop application shows a wealth of improvement. The user interface niggles have been smoothed out and we’re left with a slick application built on Adobe Air. It’s easy to use and, crucially, it’s compatible with Mac and Linux platforms.

There have been plenty of behind-the-scenes changes as well. The peer-to-peer element of the original iPlayer has been stripped out completely, meaning the only way to download TV programmes is direct from the BBC’s servers. Over the first few days of iPlayer’s release we noticed no decrease in download speeds with the iPlayer application regularly maxing out our internet connection despite relying on standalone servers.

There are new options for downloading content. By default, anything you download goes straight into iPlayer’s desktop application, but you can now opt to download programs in DRM-protected WMV format – useful for watching on an Xbox 360, for instance, or compatible streaming devices. Portable devices are catered for as well, with specially-compacted video files available for a range of media players.

Video quality has also received a bump. At its most basic, the iPlayer will stream at 500kbps, and will automatically set itself to this if it detects restricted bandwidth. But the iPlayer also sports an 832 x 468 full-screen mode for both streaming and downloading which uses 1,500kbps. The BBC claims the new mode is “close to TV quality”, and we can’t fault that. The occasional compression artefact means that iPlayer content will never blow you away on a 40in LCD TV, but it’s fine for watching on a laptop.

Those with large screens will be pleased by the appearance of the BBC’s HD channel, which allows you to stream H.264 1,280 x 720 video through a web browser or download it into the desktop application. It looks fantastic, although the amount of HD programming on iPlayer at this point is limited, and there’s no way to download high-definition WMVs.

All this video comes at a hefty data price, of course. The BBC’s HD video streams at 3.2mbps, or roughly 1.5GB per hour of video, and the 1,500kbps mode adds up fast too. Luckily, the BBC has wised up to download caps, and we were greeted with a warning within the first few hours of use, reminding us to check with our ISP about our download limit.

Unfortunately, the iPlayer isn’t weighed down with extra features. For instance, it might nudge you about your data use, but there’s no way of checking how much you’ve used in the application itself. It’s also disappointing that there’s no scheduling facility built in. So if your ISP allows you unlimited off-peak downloading you’ll have to go to the added effort of finding a third-party download or task scheduler to take advantage of it.

it_photo_27948There’s no way to set a maximum download speed, so if you’ve got a few networked PCs and one of them starts downloading a program, your entire network will be at the mercy of the iPlayer application. And neither is there any way to automatically record an entire series. So, if you watched The Apprentice this week, there’s no way of telling the iPlayer that you’d also like to download next week’s as well. A final note of disappointment goes to the BBC’s vast radio output, none of which can currently be downloaded, even though much of it is available as podcasts.

The greatest application in the world wouldn’t be able to mitigate a poor selection of content, and the BBC does at least have this in its favour. The ability to stream or watch such a colossal amount of top-drawer content for free is hugely appealing, besides making your £148.50 TV licence better value. It’s fair to say that iPlayer is still a little disappointing, but that won’t stop it being a huge success.


Software subcategory Media software


Processor requirement 1GHz Pentium

Operating system support

Operating system Windows Vista supported? yes
Operating system Windows XP supported? yes
Operating system Linux supported? yes
Operating system Mac OS X supported? yes

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