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Wii iPlayer vs PS3 iPlayer test: which is best for free BBC TV?

iPlayer picture quality on the Wii has been awful, but the dedicated new channel could change all that. We test it out and compare it to the iPlayer experience on the PlayStation 3

Nintendo's Wii may have stormed the console hardware charts, but it's always been rather lacklustre on the heavy-duty multimedia front. Nowhere has that been more apparent than in its support for the BBC's free catch-up TV service, iPlayer.

The only way you've been able to watch iPlayer via the Wii until now is by using the clunky Web browser, and the picture quality is awful. Now, however, Nintendo and the Beeb have launched a dedicated iPlayer channel accessible directly through the Wii home screen, which promises to be much easier to use and significantly improve video quality. So, how good is it, and how does it fare against the other games console to support the iPlayer, the PlayStation 3?

The good news is that, after a nightmare setup -- with countless failed updates -- the video quality is much, much better on the new version. The main problem with the previous generation was that the Opera browser used an old version of Flash, so there was no way for the Wii to play a high-quality image.

With the new channel, the bit rate has been increased from 500kbps to 700kbps (generally speaking, the higher the number, the better the picture), and the codec changed to H.264. Why not higher still? The processors inside the Wii are relatively slow and underpowered, especially compared to a modern laptop, so the bit rate can't go any higher, or the video will become choppy.

Wii iPlayer menus

To test the video quality, we watched the new comedy programme The Impressions Show with Culshaw and Stephenson. Our test TV is a four-year old, 32-inch Sony TV, and we used a Wii component cable to wring out the best possible video quality.

Firing the episode up, the video and audio quality was just about the right side of watchable, but only just. It still started to pixellate noticeably as the camera panned across, and the picture was too soft for our taste. It's something we could tolerate for a half-hour show, but for anything longer it would start to give us a headache.

Watching the same programme over an HDMI connection using a PlayStation 3 really showed up the difference in picture quality between the two. Now, the picture was significantly sharper and much less prone to break up -- more like something we would be happy to watch a long programme or movie on. That's not surprising really, as the hardware inside the super-powerful PS3 has been optimised to play flash video at its best, and the bit rate can reach 1,500kbps.

In terms of ease of use, it's a dead heat, with each console having its own advantages. The big plus for the Wii is its controller, which makes selecting video and skipping through it really easy -- just point at the screen and click. Navigating a mouse around the screen with the PlayStation 3 controller is a bit of faff in comparison, although the Beeb has made it as easy as it can be.

But the PlayStation menus can have more detail than the Wii ones (pictured above), thanks to the console's support for a higher-resolution image, and the PS3 search (pictured below) looks much better than the one on the Wii, with small images helping to break up the results.

PlayStation 3 iPlayer search

It's also worth mentioning that the Wii doesn't support subtitles at the moment, unlike the PS3, although this is something the BBC is hoping to add later.

One interesting aside is that both consoles were beaten in the video-quality department by our Virgin V+ HD box, which did the most justice of all three to John Culshaw's uncanny Michael McIntyre impression.

Ultimately, the Wii iPlayer is an impressive technical achievement, given the limitations of the console, but we'd only recommend using it with smaller, second sets. If you can, use a PS3 or laptop for watching the iPlayer on your TV -- you'll appreciate the difference.