When YouView landed in its plain vanilla form we were whelmed. Not overwhelmed, or underwhelmed, just plain, regular whelmed. And that was because, although the user interface was pretty, and the box seemed to work well in its PVR duties, it was not an outstanding on-demand device. It certainly couldn't rival the breadth of services that Sky offers, or the low-cost of a Freeview HD recorder.
So when TalkTalk announced its offering, we were slightly concerned that it would be the same again, with a TalkTalk logo plastered on the front. Happily, it seems this isn’t the case, and the company has come up with a very interesting offering to take YouView to the next level.
First, TalkTalk has gone with a box from Huawei. The version it is giving out "free" - free, as in "included", not as in "beer" - has a 320GB hard drive and a custom design, with TalkTalk’s own remote design. The firm admits that it’s gone for lower-cost options here - hard drives are still very expensive - and that has led some of the decisions. But it’s confident there will be bigger storage capacity options later. The TalkTalk box is also fan-free, which keeps operating noise to a minimum, something we found bothersome with the Humax receiver.
As you would expect, there are the usual on-demand options from the likes of BBC, ITV and channels 4 and 5. As with all YouView boxes, you can scroll through the EPG backwards to find catch-up TV to watch, or go forward to set recordings in the future. We couldn’t see any difference in performance between the Humax box, and the TalkTalk model, it seemed fast and responsive, although we didn’t get much chance to play.
But the main event here is the service TalkTalk is offering. The company is building on expertise and technology that it has acquired from the days of HomeChoice, and later, Tiscali TV. So its own TalkTalk player offers access to lots of unique content. But TalkTalk is also the first to offer linear, streaming TV down your broadband connection. So it’s possible to subscribe to Sky1 through your YouView box, or to pay for the latest on-demand movies.
Films are provided by LoveFilm, although it’s not the same as that company's own streaming service. When you enter the portal, you’re shown a rolling trailer loop, with the new releases, and as with HomeChoice, you can opt to buy a film based on this trailer, and simply press green to start the rental process.
Pricing is also designed to be flexible. You’ll get your box included in an 18-month contract on TalkTalk Plus TV - 24 months for existing customers. Your basic service costs £14.50, but you can add Sky’s entertainment channels for £5 a month - which includes Sky 1, Sky 2, Sky Sports News, Sky Arts 1 and 2 and Sky Living. There are also kids' and music packages, which are £5 each: you get 13 kids' channels, and the usual music suspects.
If you want to save some money, then the entertainment pack includes all of that for £15 a month. The good news though, is that there is no long contract, just 30 days. As you would expect, a Sky Movies pack is more, at £15 a month, and the sports pack is £30 a month.
It is certainly the TalkTalk player that impresses most here. There seems to be a good selection of content, and although you have to pay more for much of it, there are some freebies and the usual on-demand content from the likes of Sky, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. If you can't get Sky, then TalkTalk offers a lot of the highlights through your phone line and it's impressive to see both catch-up and live TV in one place.
On the downside, you need about 5mbps broadband to use the service, and TalkTalk won't let you order it if your speed fluctuates too much, or you're in a marginal speed area. We also have some modest concerns about picture quality. The whole of YouView is delivering standard-definition content in a high-definition world. While we appreciate the technological challenges here, YouTube manages HD well, on a scale well in excess of what any of these providers is doing. We really had hoped all of YouView would be HD, but that isn't the case. For TalkTalk, it will need to be a fibre provider before that's a logistical possibility.
And of course, the biggest issue of all is that this service requires you to use TalkTalk. So for those who don't, don't expect to get this from vanilla YouView, and it will further add to the fragmentation of the service too.
Will you be signing up?