iPlayer Flash – Review

iPlayer LogoToday, the BBC launched a Flash version of the controversial iPlayer. So how does it stack up given the all round beating the download based iPlayer took? The first thing is that the iPlayer is now cross platform. Well, cross platform in as much as it uses Macrodobe’s Flash technology which, while still proprietary, at least has clients on Mac OSX, Windows and Linux. This largely gets around one of my biggest gripes with the download iPlayer,t he utterly baffling DRM. In the web version, you just get a notice letting you know how much longer the show is available for. So how’s she handle?

iPlayer BrowserThe interface for finding content is largely un-changed. So my comment about a filter being applied without the user every actually realising its there still applies. I also stand by my comment stating the browsing screen should display more information about the programme. iPlayer category view show detailsIt seems particularly pointless to have the time remaining on a show when it’s presented in this format, essentially the BBC interface designer saw fit to include it as the second most important piece of information about a show, second only to the title. Surely the programme is either there, or not there, it’s not as if I can rush to download it and watch it later or anything, I’m on a Mac.

iPlayer Flash PlayerUnlike the catalogue browser, the flash video player is brand new. As far as Flash Players go, there’s very little to go wrong. The technology, interface, infrastructure and platform are all established. And for the most part, the iPlayer does a pretty decent job. The quality is certainly up to scratch. If you have Flash version 9 installed you can even go into a proper full screen mode. While you can definately tell you’re watching a web broadcast, it’s not bad enough to annoy while watching a 30 minute TV show. Switching back and forth between minimised and full screen versions can cause problems though, with the feed dropping out and the picture disappearing on occasion. iPlayer Flash ErrorI was also surprised to come across a number of other bugs, from the interface freezing through to a cryptic message telling the me the video couldn’t play and I should try later, despite the fact I was half way through a show.

The other noticeable thing is the speed. Generally, I didn’t have any problems streaming the content. However, I am on a particularly fast cable connection and it is reasonably late at night, so I’m not fighting for bandwidth. I did still experience some stuttering and the spinning dots of doom. This is largely down to the way the BBC have chosen to implement the streaming. YouTube, for example, allows you to download the entire video (cached locally by Flash) before watching it. So essentially, you can experience the entire video without any break ups at all. The iPlayer seemingly takes a different approach, instead choosing to stream absolutely everything to you on the fly. So if you do happen to have a slightly slower connection, you can’t pause it to allow some buffering. This might be a pain and I’m convinced it’s down to the BBC trying to prevent people downloading the source files, which it’s very easy to do with services like YouTube. Apart from the possibility of a stuttering/pausing picture, the other downside of this approach is that jumping between segments can take longer than it should.

The other noticeable aspect of the design is that the BBC clearly isn’t in the business of trying to increase page views. YouTube, for example, goes out of its way to related content to you, essentially trying to keep you on the site for as long as possible. The only thing the iPlayer does to this affect is list two different episodes of the same show when you’ve finished watching. The one thing they do do is brand each show. This means that before the show have to sit through a 10 second channel ident. Now I know the BBC spent millions of pounds creating these idents, but I really don’t need to see them every time. Especially when I’m watching the same ident for the fourth time in ten minutes because the player keeps crashing and I have to restart the show. This follows some of the navigational options and makes it clear that the BBC want to retain the current branding they apply to each channel individually. Personally, I think this is a mistake. If they want to compete with some of the bigger online video providers, I’d like to see them unify the channel branding for the purposes of navigation, and remove the stupid idents. The other angle we can look at this from is that fact that the iPlayer clearly has the capability built in for preceding, and presumably proceeding, a video with content. Rolling this out to other countries as an ad-supported service may have been on the mind of someone, somewhere.

Overall, I quite enjoyed the Flash iPlayer. While it looks like one of the sleekest players out there, it’s functionality can’t quite live with the best and the method of finding content is still clunky and confusingly branded and labelled. It’s also never going to be a great tool for finding new content, partly because of the poor navigation in the catalogue and partly because it lacks the social aspects of something like You Tube. I’d like to see some sort of RSS feed so I can easily see what’s available along with these features.

Have you experienced the new Flash iPlayer? What do you think? Or, if you have any questions, drop them in the comments.