YouView is a new service that aims to seamlessly combine on-demand services such as iPlayer and 4oD with a Freeview HD digital TV recorder.
It sounds pretty simple on paper, but it took a combination of four broadcasters, three communications companies and a total investment of £70m to put it all together. Even then,at the last minute to get the thing out of the door.
It had all the makings of a distinctly British type of technological shambles, and probably was. But the surprising thing about the new £300 YouView box, also known as the Humax DTR-T1000, is that it's actually rather good.
Electronic programme guide
YouView is all about combining on-demand services from the four terrestrial broadcasters in the UK -- BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 -- with the usual line-up of channels you get on Freeview HD. Unlike a lot of smart TVs, it doesn't zone-off on-demand content in a separate section that you access from another menu -- the whole lot is integrated.
This is best seen in YouView's clever electronic programme guide (EPG). The EPGs on most digital recorders allow you to only move forwards in time. They show you what's currently showing across all channels and what's coming up, so you can schedule a reminder or instruct your box to record a show. The clever bit with YouView is that you can move back in time in the EPG, as well as forwards.
So, for example, if you missed a show that was on earlier in the day, you can go back in the EPG and just click OK on the remote to watch it. This feature only works if it's available via the broadcaster's on-demand services. If not, you'll see a 'not available' indicator above the EPG.
The DTR-T1000 also acts as a Freeview HD recorder. The recording functionality is well integrated into the overall system. As you would expect, you can schedule recordings just by selecting them in the EPG. If a show is part of a series, you're given the option of having the DTR-T1000 catch all of the episodes in a season automatically. Cleverly, the EPG is updated with any shows you record, so if you move back in time in the EPG to a movie you've recorded, it will show as available to watch, which is neat.
You can record two channels at a time and watch a third if it's on the same multiplex as one of the channels you're recording (because groups of channels are broadcast together in a block on Freeview). Alternatively, you can watch an on-demand programme while these two recordings are working away in the background. If you try to record another programme while there are two recordings in progress, the box gives you the opportunity to either stop one of the existing recordings or it'll suggest you record it at a different time if it's being re-broadcast later.
You can also watch the start of a show while the end is still recording, which is handy if you get home late from work but want to dive right into EastEnders. Naturally, the box lets you pause live TV and it buffers the current channel it's tuned to, so you can instantly rewind if you've missed something.
The model I had in for review has a 500GB hard drive, which is large enough to store up to 300 hours of standard-definition programmes, but Humax will also offer a 1TB version later for those with insatiable telly-viewing appetites.
As well as scrolling back in the EPG, you can access on-demand content directly by calling up any of the four on-demand players for BBC iPayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand 5. There's integrated search too, so you can search across all the content in all the on-demand players in one go.
YouView splits up the content so you can browse through just the movies, or select the TV option and then choose Comedy to see what shows are available. These aren't listed by broadcaster, but instead you're shown everything that's available across all the on-demand platforms. It's this level of integration that sets YouView apart from the competition, as it's something you don't get on games consoles or the current crop of smart TVs that support on-demand TV.
YouView's interface is very slick. The menu system is dynamic, moves smoothly and looks a lot better than what you get on the vast majority of today's digital recorders.
It has a blue and black colour scheme that's new and fresh. When you hit the YouView button in the middle of the remote, it calls up a menu at the bottom of the screen that's overlaid on the programme you're watching. From here you can quickly access all the main features of the box including the EPG, your recordings, the settings page and on-demand services.
As well as being clever, the EPG looks fantastic. It has a traditional layout with channels listed down the left-hand side of the screen and upcoming programmes displayed to the right. There's also a thumbnail video window showing the currently selected channel. Scrolling around is quick and smooth and you can speedily call up extra information on programmes.
Switch to the recordings library and you'll find there are some useful touches. For example, it automatically marks your programmes as you watch them, so you can see those you've started viewing but not yet finished, as well as ones you've already seen all the way through. This is especially handy if you've recorded a whole series of a TV show, but aren't sure which episode you last watched.