Ryan is a UK-based IT consultant and blogs regularly on digital content.
After much frustration, I finally received my iPlayer beta log-in details late last Friday. This allowed me to access the walled area of the BBC website that contains the mythical iPlayer. So, after a week of testing, here’s what I experienced, and, finally, what I think of the iPlayer.
The first thing I should mention is that there maybe some confusion between the iPlayer beta login details and the bbc.co.uk membership details. The former just allows you to have access to the beta area where you can download the iPlayer Library application, whereas the latter allows you to log in to the iPlayer, the iPlayer forums and also other areas of the BBC site. Which set of credentials you need to enter at each stage is not made particularly clear. I assume that when the beta ends, only the bbc.co.uk username and password will be needed.
Downloading the Library application should have been more straightforward — you need to first visit the online program guide in your web browser and then try to download a program! Offering a direct link to the download first, and then redirecting you to the program guide afterwards, would have made a lot more sense.
I use Firefox as my primary web browser, which worked fine when looking through the iPlayer guide. However, when I tried to request a download, I was told that my system only met two of the three requirements (Windows XP and Windows Media Player 11), and that I needed to use Internet Explorer. I tried using IETab in Firefox but the website still refused to co-operate. I begrudgingly switched to Internet Explorer 7 and I was finally offered the iPlayer Library download.
Once the Library had finished downloading, I ran the executable and it installed happily enough. However, it was unstable until I uninstalled all other Kontiki-based applications i.e. 4oD and Sky Anytime. [Ed. Kontiki is the peer-to-peer technology that powers a number of video download services, which now includes iPlayer]. I’m not sure if this was a peculiarity of my system or a general problem with the iPlayer, however, other people have reported similar problems when using the application with 4oD installed.
The Program Guide
The program guide lets you browse a selection of programs broadcast in the last 7 days and then choose what to download to your machine. The guide has three sections:
Last 7 days — this lets you view which programs were broadcast on a particular day in the last week. These views are then conveniently broken down into Morning, Afternoon and Evening.
Categories — this places all programs into one of 7 categories: Children’s, Drama, Entertainment & Comedy, Factual, Music, News & Weather and Religion & Ethics. The resulting list of programs can then be sorted by most recently transmitted or alphabetically.
A to Z — this option gives an alphabetical directory of all programs on offer.
As well as the three options above, there is also a search box, which I suspect will be the most direct way to find a program if you already know what you want to download.
Downloading a Program
After choosing a program to be downloaded, an entry appeared in my Library showing the size of the download and the percentage complete. Programs downloaded can be stored for 30 days, but the DRM will delete the download 7 days after the first viewing.
I decided to download BBC News 24’s computing and technology program, Click. I found it in the program guide using the search box, clicked on the Download link and sure enough it appeared in my Library. The download started almost immediately and took about 20 minutes to complete, and I was informed by a popup alert in the bottom-right of my screen when it had finished. The 30 minute program was 136MB in size.
Viewing a Program
To view a downloaded program it was just a matter of clicking on the “Watch Now” button. An “Are you sure?” box popped up to confirm, because the 7 days viewing window starts ticking from the moment the first frame is played.
After clicking through the dialog box, another window pops up. This is the “viewing” window, which contains an embedded Windows Media Player and the program information.
On some programmes there are also options to turn subtitles on and off, which I thought was a nice touch as I haven’t see subtitles implemented on any other internet TV applications. You can put the video into full screen mode, or, if you wish, open it in Windows Media Player separately.
The picture quality was OK, but I have noticed it varies from program to program. Doctor Who suffered less from being expanded into full screen mode, but the file size reflected this. It will be interesting to see how this payoff between quality and file size will pan out, certainly in the short term, or will the BBC always offer more prominent programs at a higher image quality?
Overall, I quite like the iPlayer application. At first it seems a little awkward using the website to choose programs, but I understand that it gives a more universal interface and reduces on the size of the iPlayer application. However, having to use Internet Explorer is annoying and hopefully support for Firefox and other browsers will follow.
At the end of the day, it’s the volume and quality of the content that makes the iPlayer special. With the possibility of live and on-demand streaming, and access to archive programs in the future, I believe the iPlayer will lead rather than follow. There are still lots of questions regarding the use of DRM and portability of the videos, the availability on other platforms, and the restrictive use of Microsoft products — issues which have already been covered here on last100 and elsewhere.
On my personal wish-list of features is the ability to subscribe to a series, much like a podcast, and have the next episode download automatically when available. I’d also like it if the DRM kicked in only after a certain amount of playing time has been reached, maybe 30 seconds, in case I accidentally start a program.
Also see: Five UK Internet TV offerings compared