YouView from TalkTalk

YouView - for those unfamiliar - is a TV service that wraps up digital Freeview channels with online catchup services such as BBC iPlayer and plenty more.

TalkTalk's YouView service - as offered through its Plus TV package - includes the Huawei version of the YouView box, which delivers a 500GB hard drive capable of recording up to two TV programmes simultaneously. This can be scheduled up to a week in advance and a total of around 200 hours of footage can be recorded. It's even possible to pause live TV on the current channel and rewind it.

But with YouView billed as a "subscription free" service by its makers - with no less than celebrity-meets-businessman (or is the other way round?) Lord Sugar at the helm - does it make sense to invest in, er, a YouView "subscription" via TalkTalk? There's a lot to consider, in particular as there are so many other competitive TV services out there at varying price points.

Pocket-lint has been living with TalkTalk's YouView service for a few weeks, so read on to see what we make of it.

YouView: OverView

YouView boils down to two primaries: what it can do, and how much it costs. We'll deal with the service part first, and address the pricing and competition in the latter half of this review. As a preface, however, we can say that one does inevitably spill into the other and you may find yourself in a chin-rubbing ping-pong mindgame with your own grey matter as to whether it's the right service for you.

At its core YouView is a souped-up Freeview HD box meets PVR (personal video recorder) meets online catch-up services. Roll that all into one, stuff it in a little black box with a 500GB hard drive, dress it up with an easy to use EPG (electronic programme guide) and, da-naa, you've got YouView.

It's everything in one place; everything in its right place in many respects. You might already watch BBC iPlayer on your computer, have a PVR under the TV, and/or a Freeview box to deliver more than the basic channels to your telly. That's a lot of methods and boxes, and YouView is here to untangle them. But is that really something you want to pay out the extra for if your current solution already works? If it ain't broke...

For most people, however, we'd wager that YouView isn't going to be a replacement. It's going to be that new box of tricks that allows for cool perks such as pausing TV while you make a cup of tea or for series record to be activated to ensure you won't miss your favourite shows that you can't always justify being in for every night of the week. Heck, plenty of people in the UK have only just had to upgrade from the analogue to digital signal - and that's where YouView missed its initial mark: It arrived two years too late to have made as big an impact as it could have.

TalkTalk Remote and Interfaces

But we can't hold its arrival date against it, as that's not what this review is about. It's about what's been delivered - and TalkTalk YouView sure does have some common perks as well as individual quirks.

The provided remote control - which can easily be synced to a variety of tellies to avoid the need for yet another controller stacking up and adding to confusion -  includes all the usual TV controls, as well as a Guide button to access the EPG. You can adjust volume, turn the TV and YouView box on simultaneously, and so forth.

The Guide button is the basic access point to the EPG, which delivers content in a clear fashion that's easy to read and understand. Unlike Freeview it's also possible to "go back", just to double check if you did miss that programme an hour ago. If you have, other catch-up services mean it's likely still possible to watch it.

The remote also includes DVD-like controls, in the form of pause/play, stop, rewind, fast forward, and slow frames forward/backward, to play around with live TV or any recordings that you have made.

Recording channels is possible by clicking the remote's red-coloured "R" button which will record the current channel that you're watching (but only from that moment in time, as it can't travel backwards in time) or - and this is its best use - when used from within the guide menu to select programmes to record in advance. Prompts for single record or series record and even SD or HD (as appropriate) will pop up on screen, and these recordings then end up in what's called the MyView section.

It's the "Y" or "YouView" button that will access the MyView and other prominent sections of the YouView service. Although it's only a small button, dwarfed by the ultimately less important TalkTalk one - which opens up the TalkTalk Player - to the centre of the remote, the Y button will be your essential ticket into the main hub of the service and its extras. It includes access to On Demand players - including BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD, Demand Five, and Five's Milkshake (for kids) - as well as settings and other options, including a secondary route of access to the TalkTalk Player.

That big TalkTalk button towards the centre of the remote is the shortcut to the TalkTalk Player which, after taking an age to load, opens up additional pay-for content, as well as overviews of TalkTalk's services (essentially just a bunch of adverts built in) and special services. There's quite a lot available: whether NowTV, Sky channel packages, adult services, Asian channels and plenty more besides. But all these will incur extra one-off costs for a given month period, and the prices vary vastly.

We see the biggest use for this being single pay-per-view of movies or, where available, boxing or football matches and similar content.

There is other potential here, too. Seasonal promotions and freebies could be opened up for customers should TalkTalk and associated partners choose to do so. For example over the Christmas period 2012, from Christmas Day, TalkTalk, in association with LoveFilm, will unveil a new film every day for twelve days which will be available in the TalkTalk Player. A nice freebie, but we'd like to see more exclusive content throughout the year to make the most out of it.

The TalkTalk button is harmless, but it functions more as a subconscious reminder of the service provider as, frankly, it's not needed in addition to the YouView button. Having two paths to this pay-for content - which, for our money, isn't as important as the MyView recorded content - shouldn't be the case as it's potentially confusing.

There are other subtleties that we find irksome too. For a service that's connected to the internet, the fact that the likes of Help and NowTV require you to head to a computer to sign up just feels plain lazy. If YouView is a complete service then surely it should act as the access point to all points of services.

The Box

TalkTalk's made a good decision with selecting a Huawei box, rather than the Humax box that first launched the YouView service. The Huawei is small, light, inconspicuous even, and has a small purple light - or three lights that fade on and off in rotation, in that given TalkTalk style when it's recording - indicates that it's on.

Aside from the box taking an age to start up - just like the Humax equivalent - it's otherwise quiet, if not silent in operation.

There is an eco mode that's set to high by default to use up less energy, but that when set to "low" (the only other option) the YouView service will load up the box far quicker. It doesn't cut out the "loading" screen, however, which is a pain, but even save-the-planet types will opt for the low option to avoid the frustration of waiting around. Who wants to wait 30 seconds for TV? It might not sound long, but things like this should be immediate.

YouView customers can also take advantage of a YouView Remote Record iOS application to schedule recordings when not at home with access to the remote or box. It's only for Apple devices at present, but up to five devices can be synced to a single box so the whole family can get in on the action. It's got some highs and lows, but is an essential download. For more info, see our separate review, below:

READ: YouView Remote Record iOS app review

Subscription-based subscription-free service… eh?

For many people the idea of a subscription-free YouView service is an attractive one. It means avoiding the monthly fees of, say, Sky or Virgin media, or if you don't intend upgrading your telly to a brand new smart TV any time soon then YouView adds some HD channels to listings that you might otherwise not have and catch-up services right from the user interface.

Only, when buying it through a service provider, such as TalkTalk, it incurs a £50 installation fee and then, you guessed it, essentially carries a subscription cost per month for the duration of a contract.

Of course you could pop down to the shops and bag the Humax DTR-T1000 YouView PVR box - that's the "other", non-TalkTalk YouView box - for a one-off £249 cost. But then you'd need broadband to get the most from the service, which would obviously cost in itself.

READ: Humax DTR-T1000 YouView PVR review

And herein lies where this is going: YouView is effectively tied to other services for full use, so the internet service providers, such as TalkTalk, are dangling the upgrade carrot for a reasonable price. Yes there's a monthly bill for services, but it's potentially attractive. Or is it?

Choices and their prices

The logic of TalkTalk's YouView service banks on the idea that you've already invested in the company's service. TalkTalk's line rental, broadband and an unlimited download "booster" package totals £26 a month at the time of writing. The Plus TV package costs £30.45 a month - £15.50 plus £14.95 line rental - making the YouView aspect of the cost just £4.45 a month for the duration of an 18 month contract. Oh, plus that £50 installation fee of course. There's always an installation fee. Not forgetting that after that the service cost doesn't come down, it'll remain the same or, given how inflation works, it may go up. However, a rolling month-by-month contract is available from TalkTalk at the same price per month once the initial contract is up.

Still, that's pretty good value isn't it? Sort of yes and sort of no. BT's YouView service is apparently cheaper at £28.75 a month but limits downloads to a maximum of 10GB a month, which is a stifling limitation. Upgrade that to a 40GB limit and it makes the TalkTalk one potentially better value overall. Although there's a lot to consider in that as BT's brodband service may well be faster in your local area and, therefore, possibly the better buy, despite the higher cost.

READ: YouView from BT review

Elsewhere there's Virgin ultimately similar package - it's a TiVo box, nothing to do with YouView - adds up to £33 a month for an 18-month contract (with the same £50 installation fee), while Sky's own service is the priciest - and arguably best with the likes of Sky+ HD and Sky Go - at £43.50 a month for the full shebang, yet more with added premium channels.

So here's something a bit naughty: perhaps Sky users who don't utilise the company's premium channels should consider downgrading and instead head over to YouView, it would save around £120 a year or more, even if the overall service is a little bit thinner.

Or there's a wholly different way: go and buy a Freeview HD or freesat box for a fraction of the cost compared to the existing YouView box options. They're not the same services, and offer less control, but these are all possible options to access a greater expanse of TV.

Verdict

YouView's "subscription free" concept is oxymoronic. As it's intrinsically tied to requiring a broadband service, and therefore the best way to buy a box is via a service provider, it can't really ever be subscription free.

The current options are: buy a standalone box for too much cash, or otherwise buy into or upgrade your BT or TalkTalk package for seemingly small sums of money. And for an extra few quid a month it is good value for a good service, but in the same breath YouView is now so close to the likes of Virgin Media in terms of cost that it's managed to become the sort of service that it ultimately was never supposed to be. Which makes it a bit of a failure.

But a sort of brilliant failure - there goes the oxymoron ticker again - as what YouView can do is great. Recording shows and series record is TV's holy grail, while the ability to plan a whole week ahead or even skip back to most shows by a full seven days is a luxury.

If you currently have a no-frills HD TV with no add-ons then the addition of Freeview channels, plus the major four in HD - which you may currently lack - is also a significant boost. If you're already a TalkTalk broadband customer then those luxuries for a few quid a month is a no-brainer, assuming you're prepared to take the plunge into another 18-month contract.

But we're a little conflicted as there are so many other good choices out there too: Freeview HD, freesat, even smart TVs with built-in catch-up interfaces these days.

Therefore our feelings of TalkTalk's YouView package are also conflicted. We genuinely like aspects of it - the all-in-one interface is great for both TV and catch-up, for example - but it doesn't yet offer next-level features such as the ability to watch shows on the go via an app, nor the ability to import or export content via its two USB slots.

Pound for pound if YouView sounds like something you want - and it will definitely suit some - then of the current three methods of purchase it's TalkTalk that we favour the most. It's the best of the bunch. There's fairer balance on the value-o-meter and download-limiter and we prefer the Huawei YouView box to the Humax one.

There's a lot of good to be had here, but with plenty of other options out there all worthy of consideration too, it's difficult to warm to YouView beyond its "is it, isn't it?" score.