BT is the first television provider in the UK to take a step into the future of entertainment, launching its own Ultra HD 4K service. It started, appropriately, with BT Sport Ultra HD, but entails much more than just signing up for a new channel.
BT's Ultra HD offering means you need a new set-top box, the DTR-T4000, but it also needs to you to have the company's Infinity broadband to complete the package and bring you super-sharp TV.
So sit back, relax and let us guide you through the 4K future. Is it all its cracked up to be?
BT Ultra HD review: DTR-T4000 set-top box
Starting with the box, the T4000 is the hardware you'll need to change to get the service. Of course, you'll need a television that supports 4K too, and BT has a range of suggested TVs on its website (you also get a 15 per cent discount voucher for an LG 4K TV upon signing up to the service).
There's a wider range of 4K (or UHD) TVs available, but some of the early sets don't have the full range of compatibility, so it's worth checking in advance of spending any money. For those who are technically minded, you'll need HDCP2.2 compliance and HDMI 2.0 to support the 2160p50 resolution to get the full experience of BT's service. HDCP is like a digital handshake, incorporated to protect broadcast material.
The DTR-T4000 is the same design as the previous BT YouView box, so it's nice and compact measuring 237 x 152 x 43mm. It's designed to fit in with BT's other devices, but wears a new 4K Ultra HD badge on the front, just so you don't forget you've got a super-charged box.
In terms of connectivity, it's a conventional arrangement of HDMI to connect to your TV, Ethernet to hook-up to your router (there's no Wi-Fi on board), RF passthrough for the aerial you'll need to receive Freeview HD, as well as optical should you wish connect the audio to a separate receiver or existing system that won't accommodate the HDMI. There's also a USB connection, which we've used to power Google Chromecast, but otherwise serves no customer purpose.
Gone from the rear is the Scart and Composite options because, let's face it, if you're getting this 4K-capable box then you're not going to be using those legacy connections. Whereas the T2100 (the "normal" set-top box) needs to cater for all users, the T4000 is only for those looking for the latest technology.
The remote and the top controls are the same as the previous T2100 box, because it's the same YouView system underneath that works in exactly the same way, as are the status lights you get glowing from the front to tell you when it's awake, recording and so on.
There's a cooling fan in the rear, although usually it isn't loud enough to disturb our watching, but we've sometimes found after it has been on a long time and is recording and viewing, the combination of fan and disc whirring might become noticable. We've found the remote to be responsive as it was on the previous box - so really good - and there's 1TB of storage available, so you can store a lot of content. Naturally, if you're recording 4K content, you'll get through it a lot faster than regular HD.
BT says that you'll get 600 hours of SD recording, 250 hours of HD recording, or 60 hours of UHD 4K content. In reality, it will be a mixture of all content types, but you can see how quickly it could fill in the future as more 4K content becomes available.
BT Ultra HD review: Channels
The real meat of any 4K sandwich is going to be content. You'll have heard the argument that there's no real 4K content out there apart from what you can stream from YouTube, Netflix or Amazon. That was until BT launched BT Sport Ultra HD, the UK's first UHD 4K TV channel. The BT Ultra HD box also supports Netflix 4K too as an additional paid-for service.
We mentioned before that you'll have to hook up to your router and that's because this channel - like the other BT Sport channels - isn't broadcast over the air, it's broadcast down the wire. It's an IP channel, arriving via your broadband connection, hence the need for a wired connection to your router and good, fast, broadband.
We tried passing the Ethernet connection through PowerLine adapters, and although you can view the HD channels, the Ultra HD channel wouldn't play. There is, fortunately, a long Ethernet cable in the box for you to run to your router, but it does use a lot of bandwidth and you'll probably notice other internet tasks slowing down when you're watching BT Sport Ultra HD. For that reason, BT advises that you don't leave it sitting on that channel when you're not using it.
BT Sport Ultra HD is the only 4K channel there is and unfortunately BT Sport Ultra HD doesn't broadcast all the time: it's the preserve of sporting events. We've watched Premier League football, as well as the Moto GP and some squash in 4K, but the vast majority of the time it's showing looping trailers for the service and little else.
The final point on the BT Sport Ultra channel is you have to pay to be on the Entertainment Ultra HD service, and that will cost £15 a month (on top of other package costs, like line rental and BT Infinity costs). That's not just for BT Sport Ultra HD, because you get more in the package, including 50 premium channels, 13 of which are in HD.
Still, you're paying a premium for that sport, so in these early days, you have to be a mega sport fan for this to be of interest. If you are, then you'll also get the regular BT Sport HD channels, ESPN and BT Sport Europe, and BT has the rights to a hefty slice of sports content, including a lot of football and rugby, so there's plenty to keep you entertained.
It's worth noting, however, that BT Ultra HD doesn't have exclusive content - it's also shown in HD on BT's other sports channels. So you're literally paying extra for the extra resolution.
BT Sport Ultra HD review: Can you see the difference?
We can definitely can see the difference between the Ultra HD 4K channel and the HD equivalent. As 4K is four times the resolution of regular HD there's a lot more detail, and it's delivered at 50fps using 10-bit colour sampling rather than the regular 8-bit you'll get for HD.
Compared to the BT Sport HD, BT Sport Ultra HD is noticeably better looking. It delivers on that promise of offering more detail and we love the fact that you can sit or stand close to your TV and enjoy that detail. That's part of the impetus behind 4K: it will let you have a bigger TV in a smaller room and you'll have the resolution to keep things looking sharp.
The Moto GP was noticeably sharper from the overview cameras and watching the bikes snake through the corners is an absolute joy. However, soaking up the crisp and punchy views is set into contrast by the on-bike cameras. Yes, we all know that those small live cameras in F1 or Moto GP are shaky, break up and don't offer great quality, but the switch from crystal clear to generally poor is a real jolt. There's also a difference in other areas: Craig Doyle's commentary in the Moto GP paddock was set in contrast to visual overlays showing ranking. The former is fairly soft, where the latter is incredibly sharp.
We still have this reservation that 4K UHD TV will be at its best when its delivering a wider range of content. Yes, we love sport, and watching Premier League matches that are so much more vibrant and detailed is exciting, but we're still left begging for more content.
BT Ultra HD review: Netflix 4K
An update following launch added Netflix 4K, or Netflix Ultra HD to the offering, meaning you'll be able to access higher definition content, such as Breaking Bad or Narcos. Currently Netflix 4K is available on some 4K televisions, as well as devices like the Shield TV, but inclusion here sees it totally integrated with the rest of the YouView service and no need to switch to another box to watch your Netflix content.
You will need a Netflix subscription however and it will need to be the 4K subscription, costing you £8.99 a month, on top of what you're already paying for your BT services. If you're an early adopter, there's a good chance you already pay a Netflix subscription and the additional few pounds a month to unlock to top resolutions won't be much of a hardship.
The incorporation of Netflix on the 4K service here is the same as it is on BT's other YouView boxes. Although you have Netflix in the Players and Apps section, it's also fully searchable (as pictured above) through the same search system as the rest of YouView. That make finding content even faster. If you're feeling festive and want to watch Home Alone, search will show you the viewing options across your box, rather than searching each content source individually.
The think to bear in mind is that Netflix uses variable bitrate to deliver video content smoothly. It detects what speeds the line can handle and adjusts accordingly. As a result, although you're paying for 4K, it might be arriving at a lesser resolution if it can't get up to speed. This is a universal truth of Netflix's service and in our opinion, it doesn't look as sharp as BT Sport Ultra HD and that's probably the reason.
However, it's a very welcome addition and enhances this set-top box and service as a next-gen content device.
BT Ultra HD review: YouView at its heart
We've long been fans of YouView. It's an excellent system that offers a clear electronic programme guide (EPG) and makes it really easy to find content with search across all the different options. The implementation of YouView in BT's Ultra HD setup is the same as it is elsewhere, with the only real difference the extra channel in its slot, and the inclusion of HD & Ultra HD as a filter in the guide.
One of the big elements of YouView is the integration of catch-up services. Where some smart TVs and set-top boxes don't offer a full range of UK channel catch-up, YouView does. That means you have BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4 and Demand 5 from the off, along with some other services, like UKTV, which includes the channel Dave.
Then there are subscription services, like Now TV, as well as BT's on-demand offering (all in Full HD rather than 4K), and Netflix 4K. Another advantage of the BT box offering streaming services like Netflix is that the streaming data isn't deducted from any monthly data limit you might have, as it's covered by the fee you're paying for BT TV. On the other hand, streaming through a smart TV smart app would see that data counted.
One major 4K service that's omitted is Amazon. Amazon's video service hasn't been offered by BT previously on YouView, with Amazon preferring to offer it's own solutions, like Fire TV. So there's less of a certainty as to whether it will appear in the future as part of the UHD service, but again, it's a 4K offering that we'd love to see included. Fingers crossed.
Outside of those services, we've found that YouView on the DTR-T4000 to be slick and fast. It's a service that's been getting progressively faster, and the simple and clutter-free approach adopted by the platform pays dividends as we find it faster to use than some other rival platforms. With Virgin Media and Sky yet to start offering 4K, BT currently has a slight lead.
BT Sport Ultra HD is the first step in the future of television. There's a lot of talk about 4K, and just as people were excited about the step to HD, there's plenty of reason to be excited about a 4K future. If nothing else, BT Sport Ultra HD is a clear demonstration that higher quality content is worth pursuing.
At the moment it's very much limited to fans of sport however - and those with a decent enough wired internet connection. With 4K content being limited, it's BT Sport Ultra HD that's the unique offering here. If you were looking for an excuse to buy a 4K TV, then watching sport in higher quality might be justification enough.
The addition of Netflix 4K to the service following launch is a major step forward, but with the threat of a big 4K push from Sky Q in 2016, BT Ultra HD's time at the head of the pack might be short lived.
With all that said, the rest of BT's YouView TV offering is as strong as ever, meaning that when you're not watching BT Sport Ultra HD, there's plenty more decent HD content on offer.