BT is attempting to woo new broadband customers and lock in existing ones with a tempting offer -- a 160GB Freeview PVR with added on-demand content, all for almost no cost. To get BT Vision, you have to be a BT broadband customer and have a BT Home Hub, which comes free with most BT packages.
The BT Vision V-box (the PVR itself) costs £30, plus an optional £60 installation fee, where a BT engineer comes and installs the V-box for you. Learn more at BT's Web site.
BT has launched Vision to compete with Sky, and it has done a smashing job of creating an intuitive user interface to rival the well-regarded Sky+ system.
The electronic programme guide goes ahead two weeks instead of the usual one. Unlike many other EPGs, you can't move ahead two hours or a day at a time using the coloured Teletext buttons -- instead there's a very useful search option, with which you can find programmes or specific cast and crew. The remote's number buttons have letters, like a mobile phone, to make this easier. This is a big plus over Sky, which doesn't have a search feature.
Recording programmes is extremely simple, although we had some difficulty with the record series function. The box recognised that Oprah was a series and faithfully recorded the homely wisdom and glamorous celebrities every day. But when it came to The Daily Show it didn't want to know -- perhaps Jon Stewart's brand of topical wit leaves it cold. Or maybe the programme makers provided incorrect information.
On-demand is difficult to browse. It's subdivided into film, TV, music, kids and so on, and further divided by channel or genre, but you're left with long lists of titles, most of which are confused by series and episode designations. You can use the search function, or take a shot in the dark, but ultimately a TV remote control is not the best device to browse content and there's no real way around that.
The box itself is ugly and cheap-looking, with its front and sides different shades of silvery grey -- a simple matte black would have been much more elegant. On the front is a collection of unresponsive buttons and a tacky flip-down cover over two top-up card slots for expanded services such as Setanta, which is showing live Premiership football next season.
On the back there's a Scart out, aerial in and outs and, fortunately, an HDMI output. This means the box can output copy-protected high-definition (720p or 1080i) on-demand content -- if BT ever puts any on there.
We found a few faults with the box. Firstly, it crashes on a fairly regular basis -- a couple of times in the two weeks we tested it. This means unplugging it and plugging it back in, resulting in the need to retune all the channels, which takes about 10 minutes. Tremendously annoying.
Secondly, the hard drive doesn't stop spinning, even when the box is on standby. This means it kicks out a fair amount of heat 24 hours a day, which won't be kind to your electricity bill.
The remote is much better built than the box, fortunately. Its wide, tapered design and sturdy, glossy white plastic reminds us of a halibut, but it feels trustworthy and the buttons are all a decent size.
The 160GB hard drive offers around 80 hours of recorded Freeview and the usual time-slipping functionality, so you can pause and rewind live TV. You don't get a choice of recording quality, but 80 hours should be plenty of space, and the box automatically deletes your oldest shows to make room, unless you tell it to keep them. Thanks to dual tuners, you can watch one channel and record another, or record two at once.
On-demand video is just as simple. You press the on-demand button on your remote and navigate through the menus to whatever you fancy. At present, most of the TV shows are free to view, so you can watch them whenever you like. The movies and concerts are either £2.99 for recent titles such as An Inconvenient Truth, Nacho Libre and Children of Men, or £1.99 for older titles such as Back to the Future II, Happy Gilmore and Memento. The cost is simply added to your BT bill.
The range of content is rather thin. BT hopes to sign up more movie studios and TV stations as more people use the service, but it's still in its infancy. If you see it as an add-on to your usual entertainment options, then everything's a bonus -- we were certainly pleased to see Band of Brothers on there for free, although like many other series, not every episode was present.
You can also pay extra for top-up channels such as kids' cartoons and Channel 4's 4oD on-demand service. But if it means choosing between this and Sky or even Virgin, there's no contest -- although this is very much cheaper.
Videos start playing as soon as you select 'Yes, I'll pay' and you can watch them over again for 24 hours. None of the content has advertising embedded, and we encountered no problems with stuttering. Of course, it is reliant on a working Internet connection, so if you have trouble with your broadband it will affect this as well.
You need to have the BT Home Hub router physically plugged in to the V-box, and an Ethernet cable is included if your Hub is in the same room. If your Hub is elsewhere in the house, a pair of Comtrend Powerline adaptors are also included, which plug into standard power sockets and carry the video signal from the Hub to the V-box over your domestic power lines. These have been added to the BT Vision package recently in response to customer feedback, so we haven't tested them.
The V-box's picture quality is utterly dependent on the output you use. We found that Freeview looked worse through Scart than it did from the built-in tuner in our Samsung LCD TV. Jagged edges were apparent, smearing was common and blocky artefacts appeared whenever there was motion. Football, a key test of Freeview picture quality, was practically unwatchable.
Fortunately using an HDMI cable -- which isn't included in the box, but should only set you back about £15 -- makes a drastic improvement. The picture was just as sharp and colourful as with our built-in tuner, and it handled the high-speed movement of Formula One with no smearing or artefacts. We found recorded content to be of exactly the same high quality.
The same is true of the on-demand content. None of it is high-definition, but it was crisper than a Walkers factory, with very smooth movement and no artefacts. The only slight trouble is with contrast -- the subtly gradated green background in Al Gore's lecture theatre in An Inconvenient Truth showed some blockiness -- not unlike the one-time next President himself.
Even with the £60 installation fee, BT Vision is a bargain if you're an existing BT broadband customer. You'd be hard-pressed to find a 160GB dual-tuner PVR for that price, and apart from the niggles we had with crashing (which BT is promising to fix with a software patch), it's a very good one -- its menus are simple and elegant and overall a pleasure to use. The on-demand content is thin on the ground, but if something pops up that you fancy, well, it's saved you a trip to the video shop, hasn't it?
On the other hand, if you're not a BT customer there isn't much here to make you go through the rigmarole of changing your ISP. In that case, we'd recommend stumping up more cash and going for a DVD/Freeview recorder such as the Panasonic DMR-EX77. And if you're prepared to pay a monthly contract for the kind of content that Sky or Tiscali's Home Choice provides, then this simply doesn't compare.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield