It might not be a surprise that the BBC iPlayer is the best and most popular catch-up service in the UK. It’s free, simple to use and now works on every major computer platform -- as well as quite a few other pieces of hardware. But the truth is, the world of TV doesn’t begin and end with the BBC.
So we wanted to look into the other services that are available and how they stack up against the market leader. Although the chances are that you’ll go the site that has the show you want, we've given a score to each one because, well, why not?
We tested each of the main broadcaster's streams on a standard Windows XP computer using an LCD monitor. Picture quality was compared based on the relative detail, sharpness and quality of each stream. In terms of content, we tested modern, digitally produced TV shows rather than archive TV and we watched a selection of different programmes to get a better idea for the overall quality of the product.
We feel compelled to say at this stage how absurd it is that we have to hunt around and use different players for different channels. It's like having four different TVs to watch BBC, ITV, C4 and C5. There should be a central, Freeview-esq system that keeps everything together, and offers content from other, smaller broadcasters too.
But with that rant out of the way, read on to see what we think of the iPlayer's competition.
Of all the on-demand services we looked at, ITV Player has the lowest picture quality with a smaller video window than the other broadcasters. Our measurement of the video window size, achieved by taking a screengrab and using PhotoShop to to determine the dimensions, told us that the video window is around 512x288 pixels, making it the smallest on test here.
There are some good things about ITV Player though. It doesn’t time out -- which means if you pause a video and come back to it later, it will still be there, ready to play. We also, bizarrely, quite appreciated the ITV Player progress bar, which tells you how many advert breaks you should expect.
There is some archive material on ITV Player too, with episodes of older shows like Surgical Sprit and The Saint, which makes it quite an attractive option for fans of older shows -- and a potential draw for ITV's older audience.
The trouble is that, although ITV player really could be very good, the picture quality is a bit of a let-down. There's no option to download, which is a crying shame, plus it's the only service from a non-BBC broadcaster that doesn't have some sort of option for rental or other pay content.
Our verdict: 4/10
Sub-par selection of shows, worst picture quality of all the player.
There are two ways to watch Channel 4 shows on 4oD. You can either stream them, in a regular web page, as you do with ITV Player and iPlayer, or you can use a download service that’s similar to the old iPlayer downloads which the BBC has now abandoned. Ever since we first tried to look at 4oD we’ve always had terrible trouble with the software. On our test machine it refuses to install, and that’s really quite frustrating.
In terms of picture quality, 4oD promises a bit more than ITV player, but actually delivers about the same. Subjective picture quality is better than ITV, but the frame size is similarly tiny. Channel 4 does something slightly more irritating than ITV though -- because the video window size is larger than ITVs, but the videos all play in a cropped region within that. The actual dimensions of video is around 512x287, whereas the main video window is actually 625x352 pixels.
One major irritation with 4oD is that if you leave it paused for a long time, when you come back to carry on playing the video, it won’t cooperate, generally presenting you with an error.
Despite Channel 4 offering HD programmes via Sky, there is no apparent move to offer these via 4oD. This is a great shame, and yet another thing that puts Channel 4's service behind the BBCs. That said, it would be unfair of us not to forget that that the BBC gets 3 billion quid a year off the public, which gives it a lot more to play with.
Oh -- and one more thing. When we were using the site, there was an advert for B&Q, and there was something wrong with the audio on it. So we got nasty audio blasting into our ears every time it played. Totally unacceptable.
Our verdict: 8/10
A really decent selection of shows, but the variable quality is slightly annoying.
Demand Five has a great deal of potential -- not least because it offers a decent amount of premium US content in the form of NCIS, CSI and The Mentalist. If you like the sort of thing on Five, then it goes without saying, you'll love its online catch-up service.
The service has some nice features. For example, registered users can rate shows. It also tells you the amount of data you’re going to transfer -- which is especially handy if you are on a capped broadband service and need to monitor what you download. Our tests also show that the video window is around 567 x 319 pixels, the largest of the commercial on-demand services. Only iPlayer beats it on size, and of course, the BBC does HD, which slaughters everything else available.
To our eyes, the Demand Five video was the softest we’d seen. It’s not bad in a window – but full screen it can look a little blurred. That said, we still think it’s probably a tie between Five and Four for the best quality, with ITV lagging.
Like 4oD, leaving the player on pause for any significant amount of time will result in the player refusing to resume your video. The BBC has got this down now, where even if you accidentally close the browser window, you can resume from where you left off.
We also liked the fact that you can optionally buy older episodes of TV shows. For example, most things are free for 30 days after they air, but if you want to watch older shows, you can rent them for 99p. If you buy, you have 14 days to watch the show and can view it an unlimited number of times in a 48 hour period before it expires.
Our verdict: 7/10
A nice selection of shows, including US imports and the option to buy impressed us.
Okay, we’ll admit it, this is a total cheat but YouTube has the potential to be everything these on-demand services aren’t.
As a start, YouTube can be quite high quality when the source material is similarly decent quality. HD videos on the service may not be proper HD in the strictest sense, but they are at least quite high quality for web video. Even clips with the HQ enabled are actually pretty watchable on a computer screen. Size-wise, the window is 640x361 for normal video and 853x480 for HD videos.
What’s more, YouTube has a massive advantage over the players from the major broadcasters. It’s available on a multitude of platforms. You can watch clips on phones or enjoy its videos on TVs via aor . It won’t be long before every TV sold has a YouTube gadget built-in.
So why fight it? All the broadcasters need to do is make sure their content is geo-IP locked, and they are good to go. Piracy fears are sure to cause some concerns -- but lets be honest, it’s all flash video, and if we can see it and hear it on our PC, there’s bound to be a way to nick it. So perhaps we should abandon all of these specialist players and go with YouTube? As always, your comments are encouraged.
Our verdict: 9/10
All YouTube needs is authorised, high quality content. It’s independent of all broadcasters so regulatory problems aren’t likely. It could very well be the future. That or Hulu arriving in the UK might help.