(Pocket-lint) - BT has bolstered its TV subscription package with the introduction of the BT TV Pro Box - the standard for new customers from 24th September 2021 onwards - bringing native support for 4K resolution with high dynamic range (HDR, including Dolby Vision), Dolby Atmos surround sound, plus Wi-Fi connectivity and a fancy new Bluetooth remote control.
As we pondered with the earlier iteration of BT TV: with such an abundance of streaming content available in today's world via various apps and platforms, why do you need a pricey pay-for subscription service? Well, we can think of a few key points: the ability to record all your favourites in their native quality (up to 4K HDR) on the set-top box's 1TB storage; an electronic programme guide (EPG) that pulls all your content together for ease of use, including rewind/fast-forward; and access to heaps of sports content that you can only get on BT (or Sky).
The big question, as ever, is whether the ongoing costs are worth it? Here's our review of the BT TV Pro Box, how it improves upon the older BT TV set-top box package, and why once you're invested that you most probably won't ever want to leave.
- BT TV Box Pro box included - with Ethernet & Wi-Fi connection options
- Aerial recommended for Freeview content (via YouView platform)
- £20 activation fee and £9.99 postage fee (2021 pricing)
- Broadband connection - 30Mbps minimum advised
- Bluetooth remote control included
- No dish required
Unlike Sky, which requires a dish on the side of your house in the UK - yes, there's ongoing talk of a cable-only version, but that's still not a solution in this country (yet, at least) - BT TV doesn't need anything of the same degree.
Indeed, you could run BT's TV subscription packages with just the set-top box - an elongated black pill-shape box (that measures approximately 34cm x 14cm x 4cm, minus the cable protrusions to the back) which arrives in the post as part of your £29.99 activation fees. That initial cost is lower than it used to be, but it's still over a tenner more than Sky charges - so we still think that BT is missing a trick here and that free activation would be the way to go, even if the postage continued to be £10.
It almost goes without saying that a good broadband connection is an absolute essential. It can't be less than a 5Mbps sustained download speed, otherwise quality can't be assured for HD content (an aerial can cater for real-time broadcast up to HD as a backup, but not catch-up services of course). For 4K/UHD content that speed needs to be 30Mbps. If you're running multiple other devices also tapping into the web at the same time then you'll likely want something even faster.
Thankfully the 2021 set-top box adds Wi-Fi connectivity, in addition to the wired Ethernet connection on the back, so if you don't want to trail cables everywhere, or don't have a nearby media panel port on the wall, then this might be a tidy option for your setup - just make sure your router has a strong enough signal.
We're wired up to BT's Fibre 2 package, at a cost of £32.99 per month (24 months minimum contract, increasing after 12 months), which delivers around 70Mbps down consistently. It's better than any Virgin Media connection that we've ever had to suffer. Even after over a year it's been rare to never that this BT connection cuts out (save for having a powercut, but that's a whole other issue). We're also lucky enough to live in a BT Gigabit home broadband area, so we could have speeds of up to 900Mbps - but that would cost £54.99 per month just for the connection alone, no TV services included. Maybe when 8K gaming becomes the standard, eh?
If you've got an aerial installed then the box will tap into Freeview and, depending on your signal strength and quality, that will provide additional channels. Back when we installed an aerial in 2020, we used BT's aerial install service - a one-off, priced at £59.99 - for an internal loft fitting. While the signal strength isn't amazing - according to the set-top box's own settings readings anyway; although we could improve that with a booster - it gets us the basics of what we want, including all the UK big five channels in HD quality. Usually, however, for the fullest 4K HDR quality, we're watching via a stream.
- BT VIP: £65pm for 24 months
- Now TV Entertainment, Sky Sports Pass, Sky Cinema Pass, BT Sport, BT Entertainment
- BT Big Sport: £40pm for 24 months
- as above minus HD for all Sports, no Now TV Entertainment or Sky Cinema
But you're really not investing in BT TV to get hold of the UK's main channels - as you can do that in so many other ways. Yes, it's nice that they're contained within an easy-to-use electronic programme guide (EPG), but you'll probably be spending most of your time scrolling down towards the real meat on the bones: sports and entertainment.
If you're into sports in a big way then there's only really two ways to get it in the UK: BT or Sky. Whichever provider you may go for, you can buy into the opposition's key package too, so you don't really lose out - you merely swell your costs is all. With BT TV you can have all the Sky Sports channels, meaning - with BT Sport also on board - that you get full Premier League access, plus F1, golf majors and plenty more besides (such as Moto GP, which you'd usually subscribe to separately, which we've been enjoying watching the last couple of seasons).
BT does this by compiling Sky's Now Sports packages. However, this means you can't get Sky channels in 4K - that's a Sky-only benefit - but then Sky won't get BT's 4K channels either. So it's six of one, half a dozen of the other on that account.
If you opt for Big Sport, at £40pm, then you won't get the Sky's content in HD either - you'll need instead to opt for BT VIP, at £65pm, for that 'Boost'. Indeed, even BT Sport channels won't be HD/4K unless you opt for VIP, based on what the company's website says. So be sure to check what you're adding and what quality you expect it to be. With a VIP package you'll get BT Sport Ultimate on channel 465, which delivers 4K HDR top-notch quality - as supported by the latest set-top box.
Beyond sports there's a heap of entertainment on offer too. The VIP package, which is BT's priciest as outlined above, may seem like a lot, but then it delivers a lot - including Sky Atlantic and Sky One premium channels. There's Sky Cinema, too, to plug into up-to-date movies that have, for us, been a godsend during lockdown months. And if you find you're not using certain chunks of your package then you're free to lop bits off to save cash during your contract as suits, so there's flexibility.
Channels, recording and playback
- BT TV Box Pro box has built-in 1TB: 600-hours SD / 250 in HD / 60 in 4K
- Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos and HDR native (where supported)
- TV Shows & Films collate trends and popular content
- Record any channel you wish in its native quality
- Parental PIN control
Record whatever you want - whether live, or set recordings in the future - in quality up to 4K HDR. No channel is off limits for recording, so if you want to record a Sky Cinema title then go for it - it'll just use up space on the box's 1TB storage (which, whilst double that of the older box, is still little on the small side - Sky Q offers a 2TB option).
However, the number of streams you can record at once is limited. You can record up to two shows at once whilst watching live TV - if you try and ask more of the box then it'll request you stop one of your recordings (caveat: aerial-sourced channels, i.e. the 'big four', don't count towards this quota - you can record all of those simultaneously in addition to two IPTV sources). Again, Sky has the upper hand here: the step-up 2TB Sky Q box can record up to six channels whilst you watch a seventh. Whether anyone would ever need that is up for question, but family homes can become busy places, we suppose.
The BT TV Box Pro's 1TB equates to around 60 hours of 4K recording. That's a fair lot of time, but once you've recorded three 10-part series you're already 50 per cent into the storage, so it can get eaten up quicker than you think - especially if you have certain shows the kids want to record and watch on repeat (again and again and again).
Mid-2021 and the BT TV interface updated, changing up the YouView electronic programme guide (EPG) layout somewhat. It's fairly easy to navigate, although we found ourselves fumbling after getting so used to the old interface. BT's Home button lists horizontal bars: Guide (highlights of what's on now), Featured Apps, Recordings & Watch List (what you've recorded or started watching on a catch-up app); BT Player (the subscription stuff); TV Shows (a collation of auto-picked shows not based on your watching habits, weirdly); Films (auto-collated films from various apps); and Sport.
YouView's layout is customisable, too - we chose to hide the SD versions of HD channels to avoid double-ups - a quick tap of the yellow button on the controller (when in Guide) allows you to remove channels that you'll never want to see.
Navigating all of this using the updated BT remote control is significantly improved too. The buttons on the 2021 Bluetooth remote are far larger and easier to press. Which might sound like a small thing, but it's just a huge leap in tactile interaction that we didn't even know we wanted until it arrived.
There's also a parental PIN control to lock channels as you choose - whether PG, 12, 15, 18 rated - to hide them from younger eyes and ears. However, it's not possible to entirely remove this PIN at all times of day, as Ofcom rules that any rated content pre-watershed (9pm) requires a PIN. As much as we'd like to not frequently tap in the extra digits, that's just (annoyingly) in line with regulation.
Apps and extras
- All the UK major catch-up channels: BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My5
- Includes: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Now, BritBox
- Absent: Disney+, Apple TV+
- Pay-for content available
The Apps tab is one you're likely to use a fair bit: it opens to door to the all-important Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. We used to run these through various other sources - namely PlayStation 5 - but now there's no reason to as, where available, the BT TV Box Pro will dig into 4K resolution, HDR of any format, and even decode Dolby Atmos (the last of which may not be much use unless you have a full surround setup though).
The high dynamic range works a treat too. Although BBC iPlayer fails to list it - shows are tagged with 'UHD' only - a check of source input confirms HLG (that's hybrid log gamma) is running, delivering broadcast HDR. It all looks breath-takingly good, too, as we couldn't help but notice when watching a catch-up of BBC drama Vigil. Really, really super quality.
Not everything is native 4K, though, as HD is pretty much the standard, upscaled, when it comes to broadcast. However, if that begins to update in the future then this box is, theoretically, more than capable of keeping up with such changes.
Thing is, so are many other products. Take Netflix as one example: that £13.99-per-month service (which can be cancelled whenever you please) can be acquired without BT TV at all. Which, if you're not a sports fan, can make the whole BT subscription seems pricey.
Plus not everything is yet on board: there's no Apple TV+ (we're not expecting it really) and no Disney+ access still either. This could come in the future, though, pending a deal with the providers.
There's no getting around the fact that BT TV's ongoing cost isn't small. But it's more or less in line with Sky Q in that regard - and if you want quality then, ultimately, you've got to pay for it.
The 2021 BT TV Box Pro is also now in line with Sky's entry package in terms of storage (at 1TB), and we much prefer that you avoid the need for a dish on the side of your house - this new set-top box is largely broadband dependent, using Wi-Fi or Ethernet connection for the best quality.
And when we say best quality we really mean it: with 4K (UHD) high dynamic range (HDR) support - including Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos - the sources this box can potentially provide just ooze quality when watched on a high-level TV (such as the Panasonic OLED shown in this review).
There is access to a lot of great content, too. Sports is the key player, really, with all of Sky Sports HD and BT Sports HD available in the top BT VIP package, along with 4K HDR support on BT Sport Ultimate (channel 465), meaning you'll never miss any typical Premier League broadcast, F1 race, golf championship, or plenty more besides.
Those who don't have an active investment in sports, however, can go simpler in building their own alternatives: a Freeview signal, for free, paired with a Netflix subscription (£13.99pm), will get you plenty of high-end entertainment without the long-term subscription costs to worry about here.
But if you want the full-fat ability to record all your favourite shows in top quality, along with access to channels that are out of reach for even Netflix and Amazon, then BT TV is undoubtedly one of the premiere services in the UK. And the Box Pro just hammers home that it's now easily competitive to Sky's offering too.
If you've already got a dish on your home then Sky is an altogether similar alternative. The contract is shorter, the Q box capacity potentially larger (if you pay more for the 2TB option - which also offers recording of up to six channels simultaneously), but it could then cost you more per month than BT depending on package choice.