BBC iPlayer – Review

iPlayer LogoA few days ago the BBC’s much discussed iPlayer went live to a beta audience. For now, I’ll stay away from the controversy the iPlayer has caused (and the irony that the “iPlayer” won’t work on an “iPod”, “iBook” or “iMac”, despite Apple popularising the “i” moniker) and just concentrate on the service itself. For the sake of balance (the first time that’s been genuinely used in conjunction with BBC? I jest.) I’d recommend reading this along side the Joost review I posted a few months ago. For ease of consumption, I’ve split the review into multiple, hopefully logical, sections. So let’s start at the beginning. (Click on an image to enlarge)

Installation

iPlayer Terms and ConditionsFirstly, a disclaimer. Despite the best efforts of the BBC, I was running the iPlayer on a MacBook through the excellent Parallels Desktop. This didn’t cause any problems in and of itself but is worth pointing out. Probably most relevant to this review is the fact that my XP installation is pretty bare. It has everything that comes with Windows, FireFox, Safari, IE 5.5 and IE 6. That’s it. It is also fully up to date (or so I thought) and has ClamWin AntiVirus and ZoneAlarm Firewall installed, updated and running.

If the online video movement is to gain traction, installation needs to be as quick and painless as possible. Joost provides a decent model, it’s a standalone application that you install, run, login and then that’s it. With the iPlayer being built as a plugin to Internet Explorer, it was never going to be as straight forward. This isn’t a commentary in the BBC or Microsoft, it’s simple maths. Joost is one app that’s stand alone, the iPlayer relies on Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player and the DRM layer.

iPlayer Installation - LibraryInstallation did not go as smoothly as I had hoped. Firstly, there were reasonably complicated instructions in the invitational email which meant I had to not only sign up for, and get a user name and password for, the iPlayer Beta but also the BBC.co.uk site itself. Why they can’t just tie one to the other is beyond me. This caused a problem after installation where the iPlayer has to be manually refreshed after logging in (again, why?). Getting this application up and running is a multi step process. Firstly you have to download the iPlayer library, then the player itself and finally and Windows Media updates that may be required. IE Script ErrorThe library installation seemed to work but upon first accessing the application I encountered one of the infuriating IE script errors. It’s one of those useless errors which sets you off on a continuous loop that can only be escaped by killing the taskWindows Media Upgrade Prompt through Task Manager. After running the new iPlayer library shortcut that found its way onto the desktop (I don’t remember saying to put anything on my desktop) the library fired up, which was of course empty. To cut a long story short, I had to install one more component as well as an update to Windows Media. The later came as somewhat of a shock as I had a fresh download of Windows Media Player but a few short days ago.

IE Run PromptAs an aside, I think I may know why the iPlayer is yet to be ported to Windows Vista. I write a while back that Windows Vista goes a bit overboard when it comes to the security warnings and if the iPlayer installation on XP is anything to go by, most users would just give up after the 80th Vista prompt. Off the top of my head I think I came across three prompts, some modal and some appearing at the top of the viewport. But after all that, I finally had it all up and running.

The Interface

Single Day ViewIf you’ve been following the iPlayers development at all, you would have no doubt noticed the modern, sleek look. High contrast colours, gradients and sans-serif fonts, yes it’s a Web 2.0 style all right. Whether you take to the look is always going to be a personal thing. I like some aspects but not others. Some of the images such as the delete and help buttons have a distinct low-rent feel to them, which lowers the perception of quality in my eyes. It’s also worth noting that there are three separate areas to the iPlayer. Firstly there’s the Library, which is where your stored and downloading content is held, then there’s the catalogue browser which is where you select new content, and lastly there’s the player itself. It’s best if I cover these as separate entities.

7 Day ViewYour first point of call will be the catalogue. It’s fairly standard faire. You can browse by channel (BBC1, 2, 3 and 4), day of the week (for the past seven days only), category or by show title. Initially I found it slightly confusing that the listings by date are automatically filtered into morning, afternoon and evening. You really have to look around the interface to find this option and it’s not immediately clear that the filter is even there. There is a nice rollover effect which lets you know how long you have to download each show, personally I would have preferred more details on the show but that doesn’t fit with the BBC’s focus on DRM, and not usability. Overall, it’s fairly easy to use once you get used to it. The speed does seem to take a hit at times, which I am convinced is down to the BBC’s servers and nothing locally, and that can get frustrating. There is also a handy search feature and the multi-classification allows for easy browsing.

iPlayer LibraryNo doubt you would have now found a show you want to download and have set it off. At this point it will be added to the Library. The Library displays a list of shows currently downloading and those that have completed. Shows that have downloaded are accompanied by a play button, which is where the simplicity ends. Once you have started watching a show, the “new” label is replaced by a bar which indicates something. I have no idea what it indicates, but it must mean something. Each show is grouped by series and can be expanded to reveal a summary and size. You can also see the expiry date and length of the show in the Library. I’ll come back to Expiry a bit later, because it’s anything other that straight forward.

iPlayer Media WindowsOk, so you’ve got your show downloaded and now you want to watch it. Cue another IE window containing the Windows Media Player and a whole bunch of options. The video is initially a small Windows Media control in an IE pop up but can be expanded to fit the full screen or you can spawn a new stand alone Windows Media Player window. The full screen option didn’t work correctly for me, with the video bunched up in the top left hand corner, only filling about two thirds of the screen. Which is a pain.

Overall the interface does a job. It could have done with a usability expert at an early stage, because some strange decisions have been made. The most baffling is the need for three separate windows. They are all essentially IE windows and seem almost completely unrelated as far as the iPlayer is concerned. They can spawn each other, but that’s where the interactions end. For example, if you are viewing your Library and decide you want to add another show, there’s no easy way to do it. You have to fire up another IE instance and go back to the iPlayer yourself. There is a link to the page in the Library, but it’s a dumb link and doesn’t even log you in. Essentially, by the time you get to watch a video you will have a minimum of three IE windows open, and for no good reason. It seems tome that the BBC have gone for the prettification before getting the fundamentals of usability down. I mean, why have everything at your fingertips when you can spread it across three windows right? As a very minimum I’d like to see a catalogue tab in the Library for easily adding shows, and a way to open a full screen version of the video also directly from the Library. I can’t tell you how much of a pain navigating the three windows becomes.

Content

A Full Screen Capture of an iPlayer videoThere are two aspects that need to be considered when evaluating the content. Firstly, we have to consider the shows the BBC have decided to make available. Secondly, there is the quality of the shows in terms of audio and visual fidelity. Seeing as the content is downloaded to your machine at a rate of approximately 130Mb per 30 Minutes, I had set my expectations above that of Joost. The reason is simple, Joost streams content over your internet connection so you would expect smaller file sizes and more aggressive compression. My initial impressions are the iPlayer videos are better quality than Joosts. It’s not a gaping chasm, and I’m sure most people won’t even notice, but there is a difference. Probably more noticeable is the fact that the iPlayer doesn’t stutter or skip, which Joost can do on anything other than a ninja internet connection. There also seems to be an increase in sound quality over Joost. You can clik the image to the left to see a full screen capture of an iPlayer screen (warning: it’s large).
As for the shows currently available, I was a little disappointed. I don’t think this reflects entirely on the iPlayer selection but more on what the BBC is currently producing. There is a load of kids shows, some of the popular soaps, a handfull of prime-time shows and then lots of fillers. I was hoping for a wider selection, even if it was only to celebrate the beta launch, but instead had to make do with some Doctor Who reruns, a few reality TV shows and an episode of Little Britain I’d already seen. I had a look at the BBC schedule and I couldn’t seen anything I’d rather see on there, so I guess they did a decent job.

Summary

I think it’s important to remember that online video of this nature is still very new, and this service itself has only very recently hit beta, so I’m going to try and go easy on it. It does some things well, the quality is good and the selection of programming is representative of what’s currently available across the BBC network. Certain aspects of the interface are also well designed, the catalogue, when taken in isolation works well and guides you along to the program you are looking for. Where it may fall down is where you aren’t necessarily looking for something specific, but I’m sure that’s more down to the beta nature of this release and the lack of a full editorial team to flush out what’s currently available. Downloads are also reasonably quick and, excellently, subtitles are available on most shows. I also like the ability to add multiple downloads to my queue but the absence of some sort of prioritisation system is an oversight.

Some of the less successful aspects would have come across in the bulk of the review. I still have a real problem with the DRM restrictions and some of the technology involved. I could go on Bit Torrent right now and get a copy of a BBC TV show faster than iPlayer can provide it, in better quality and with a smaller file size. Alternatively, if I don’t want to keep the file, which I don’t, I can fire up Joost and watch however much I like without any of it being saved. One the one hand I can understand the BBC’s decision not to stream content, but of they don’t want people to keep the files surely that was the easiest, and most universal, way to go. There is also a nasty taste left in my mouth when I think about how complex the entire thing is. Downloading and watching a video, even without the overly long and complicated installation procedure, is a multi-step process. I’m struggling to think of any other video provider that is quite so complicated (Joost, nope. YouTube, definately not. iTunes, nowhere near).  Another thing worth pointing out is that this is clearly not ready for widespread public consumption yet.  Crashes are frequent and often unrecoverable, script errors are even more common and some feature don’t seem to work yet.  There are also some performance issues.  I put these down to the beta nature of the product, so I won’t hold them against the iPlayer.  It’s to be expected when dealing with a true Beta application, as opposed to the ready-for-release betas we tend to see in the We 2.0 world.

iPlayer categoriesI mentioned earlier that the DRM controls can be a bot confusing, so let me explain why. When you are browsing the Catalogue, moving your mouse over each show lets you know how long you have to download it. Confusingly, this is not the amount of time you have to watch the show once it has been downloaded. The amount of time you have to watch a show appears in the Library, and this changes depending on whether you have started to watch it or not. Therefore, you have three distinct expiration periods on a show, just one show. If this service gets popular I can’t imagine how complicated it’s going to get when you’ve got more than a handfull of videos. To add to this already confusing situation, some of the shows you’ll be able to re-download, yet others you will not. It’s all dependent on the first expiry date (not the second, or third). I have a degree in computing, and I’ve been using the internet for many, many years, including all forms of DRM and, I don’t get it. And if I don’t get it, how do they expect the average BBC viewer to get it?

Anyway, those are my views on the iPlayer. I’ve broadly covered the DRM controversy before but when you see it in action, it’s not only terrible on a freedom of use level, but also on usability level. If you have any questions or views, drop them in the comments. And before you ask, I don’t have any invites to give away.