BT was 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, before expanding into other 4K content from streaming providers, like Netflix.
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.
The Ultra HD service has recently seen an update, bringing a new user interface for BT TV users, as BT looks to remain competitive against Sky Q, Virgin Media and the growing omnipotence of smart TVs.
BT Ultra HD review: DTR-T4000 set-top box
- Humax-made set-top box
- 4K HDMI, optical, Ethernet
- Antenna passthrough
Starting with the box, the T4000 is the hardware you'll need get to BT's 4K service. Of course, you'll need a television that supports 4K too, and since launch these have dropped in price, added HDR and generally got better and better.
There's a wide range of 4K (or UHD) TVs available, but some of the early or cheaper 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 Ultra HD badge on the front, just so you don't forget you've got a super-charged box. The new interface lands on the same box, so although the on-screen experience is changing, the hardware is not.
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.
One of the recent additions for BT TV has been the move to support Dolby Atmos. This is rather rarer and again you'll need a system that supports this audio format. Dolby Atmos support is again starting with sport, giving you an immersive stadium experience when watching at home.
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, although there has been a slight refresh to the remote to make the BT Player button purple and changing the buttons to a slightly more clicky feel.
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 as more 4K content becomes available, but that hasn't happened and 4K content is still rather scarce.
BT Ultra HD review: Channels
- BT Sport Ultra HD
- ESPN, AMC
- Free to view channels
- Additional channels to buy
The real meat of any 4K sandwich is 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. BT launched BT Sport Ultra HD, the UK's first UHD 4K TV channel and it was a year before Sky joined the party offering 4K content, with Virgin Media catching-up a little later.
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. That's the same as Sky Q whose 4K content also arrives by wire.
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 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.
Beyond this, BT's Ultra HD service seems to have stalled slightly. The initial excitement around 4K has slightly abated and apart from BT Sport, you're looking at streaming services like Netflix and little else that embraces the highest 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 Iron Fist or Narcos. Currently Netflix 4K is available on some 4K televisions, as well as devices like the Xbox One S or PS4 Pro, 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 a TV fan, 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 through the same search system as the rest of YouView. That makes 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.
It's a shame that Amazon Video isn't also included, as the selection of Ultra HD content there is excellent too, but the universal truth remains, that BT hasn't expanded its content offering for Ultra HD subscribers.
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 content options. This is where the system has evolved recently, shifting to an HTML5 platform with aim of making it more dynamic and faster to operate. That's also brought about a range of changes to the layout and visual design.
Gone are the solid dark tones in place of overlays, and the new YouView menu gives you access to Players and Apps more readily, with thumbnails showing you what's on across a range of different channels at a glance.
One tap of the YouView button pops this new menu up, giving access to Guide, Players & Apps. MyTV, BT Player and Settings. Scrolling down again takes you to the full EPG guide. What's obviously changed in this latest version is more pronounced BT branding, with the company getting a BT TV logo in the top left corner, and YouView branding relegated to bottom right.
Things are much faster, even if the move to offer an icon-based settings menu doesn't really look like a step forward. It's probably designed to be easier for customers, but we prefer the text-based version there was before.
It's still very much about that EPG though, being able to scroll back and forth thorough the week and see what you've missed, set recordings for the things you want, or press play on content you've missed to instantly swing into the catch-up service for that channel. This is where live TV watchers will spend the most time and it's here that YouView really works the best.
BT has also extended this into an app experience. You've been able to link a YouView app to your box for some time, but this has expanded through the BT TV app that not only gives you the programme guide, but lets you watch some live TV, lets you watch subscription services on catch-up, like AMC, record future programmes and in some cases (All4 and My5) lets you jump over to catch-up apps on your phone to watch programmes you've missed.
BT Ultra HD review: Apps and services
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 and has done for years. 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.
As we said before, BT's inclusion of everything into YouView's search feature really offers premium service here, helping you find viewing options across a range of content sources.
BT hopes, of course, that you'll buy content directly from the BT TV Player, which has a range of the latest content available for you, with the costs going straight onto your bill. That's great if you want to watch a movie on demand with minimal fuss, but can soon get expensive if you want to binge watch the latest blockbuster series.
BT made a step into the future with the launch of its Ultra HD TV service in 2015. It stole a lead from Sky and Virgin Media, but still only offering the one part-time sport channel as its unique 4K offering hasn't really continued that momentum. A new interface brings a faster box, but this is very much about watching broadcast TV, having the integrated and dynamic system that YouView offers, with an Ultra HD twist for sport fans, with added bonus of Dolby Atmos too.
Netflix is the only other bastion of top-quality content, with BT's own BT Player lacking next-gen content, and Netflix is hardly unique: a Chromecast Ultra would do just as much, but your smart TV probably already has that app. We're left wishing that BT and YouView had moved forward to embrace other sources, like Amazon Video, to serve a wider platter of 4K treats.
At its heart, this is still a great system for those who want to browse the regular broadcast channels, record or catch-up. But with Freeview Play strengthening its offering and getting integrated into more televisions, BT TV still feels like it needs to be offering more to broaden its appeal.
First published in December 2015.
Alternatives to consider...
Sky's comprehensive reworking of its system resulted in Sky Q, now offering Ultra HD/4K content. Sky Q is very much focused around a model of recording content, with lots of tuners, allowing multiple channel streaming and playback in different locations around the house, if you have the mini boxes to extend it. There's 4K on offer for TV shows and movies, although you have to download and play, rather than stream. There's also 4K sport, like F1, which looks great. There's no Netflix or other services, it's very much about Sky's content, through Sky's subscriptions, which can be expensive.
Read the full review: Sky Q review
Virgin TV V6 review
Virgin Media's TiVo has evolved into the V6, a newly-equipped box that's 4K compatible, although it lacks 4K content to serve you, apart from Netflix 4K. There's a lot of clever stuff on offer and plenty of other content. TiVo offers some charming recording features and there's support for multiroom too, but the interface does look a little dated, even if it is nice and fast.
Read the full review: Virgin TV V6 review