(Pocket-lint) - EE, the mobile network operator and internet provider, has always included entertainment as part of its offering, from movies to cinema tickets. With EE TV, the company makes a bigger play for home entertainment, offering a greater incentive to opt for its broadband service.
To get EE TV you'll have to sign up for an EE broadband package, but the good thing is that the set-top box is free to new subscribers and there's no cost for using it, other than the £9.95 a month broadband fee, and £15.75 monthly line rental.
In many ways, EE TV is more of a natural rival to BT and TalkTalk's YouView offering because it is Freeview based, although naturally there's some crossover with dedicated TV services from Sky and Virgin Media.
That makes EE TV and attractive proposition at first glance: it brings a dynamic approach to Freeview+ HD, with a smattering of smart TV functionality thrown in, with some very clever second screen functions.
But is it actually a good option for boosting your television watching?
Design and build
The EE TV box is a Netgem N8500 set-top box (STB), measuring 210 x 210 x 45mm. It has a plastic body, finished in black gloss and matte, with a central LED indicator to the front glowing red or green depending on device's status.
The top of the box is a dominated by a metal grille, for providing plenty of ventilation for the internals, which is more or less see-through given the perforated design. That's the main mechanism for cooling, along with a rear vent to aid airflow. Once installed it's best not to place anything on top of the EE TV box as you'll be blocking the ventilation.
Although the set-top box is fan-free, it does contain a spinning 1TB hard drive that you'll hear whirring, along with the associated purrs and clicks. We didn't find it to be excessively noisy, however, so it's unlikely to cause a disturbance.
The overall build is typical of a set-top box. It isn't quite as substantial as a typical Sky or BT YouView equivalent, more akin to many of the affordable Freeview options you can pick up on the high street.
That's really not an issue, however, because once installed you're unlikely to give it a second thought. The only comment we have is that the front LED is brighter than it needs to be, and we'd love to be able to dim it through the settings, so it's less like an evil eye staring back at you.
As we'll reveal later on there's an app for control, as well as a conventional remote control. The remote is of reasonable quality and comfortable to use, if a little quirky in design, but we found it to be responsive enough in operation.
Around the rear of the EE TV box are all its connections. The box contains four Freeview HD tuners - meaning multiple channel record and playback options - which is a step beyond some of the two or three tuner competitors out there. Great for families wanting to watching multiple channels on a number of devices at the same time.
You'll need an aerial to connect it to receive broadcast TV programming. It has full pass-through, so if you want to keep using the tuner in your TV, that will work just as it did before, whether the EE TV box is on, off or unplugged.
The connection to your TV is via HDMI and there are digital optical and analogue stereo audio connections, should you want to connect to an external sound system.
There's an additional Mini-DIN on the rear and if you don't have an HDMI-equipped TV, or you can get an EE TV SCART cable that connects to older televisions. This doesn't come in the box, though, so you'll have to contact EE to order one.
There are three sound options on the EE TV: Best Fit, Home Cinema, and Digital Stereo. Advice is given for the best use case for each setting relating to how you're connected to other AV equipment. If you're connecting to a receiver via HDMI, you'll want Home Cinema, for example.
There's an Ethernet connection designed to be connected directly to your EE Bright Box router, in addition to Wi-Fi for wireless connectivity. Although a cable connection is recommended to avoid the vagaries of wireless, we found that Wi-Fi performed well enough.
Much of this, as ever, will depend on your setup; from the walls in your home, to location of router, and so forth. Some might find that Powerline adapters - which use the electric cabling run through the house to boost signal weak spots (check out the Devolo dLAN 500) - are the tidiest option to avoid a long run of cable through the house.
Finally there is a USB connection. This detected a USB drive we inserted, but then didn't offer access to any files; however, it is powered, so useful for supplying juice to a Google Chromecast or similar.
What we've covered so far is common it just about any set-top box. Where EE TV is looking to differentiate is through the user interface and the connected second screen experience that comes with it.
First it's important to make it clear that this is, principally, a Freeview+ HD device. On setup you'll scan through your aerial and tune in all those free broadcast channels, including the HD, +1, radio, and other variants on offer.
You can pause and rewind live TV, as well as schedule recordings, either of individual programmes or full series record, just as you can with other Freeview+ HD devices. But the EE interface is much more sophisticated.
We found the performance to be good, with no unexpected problems thrown up during use. It's the speed and fluidity of the interface that really impresses.
Smart TV user interface
The EE TV's user interface is a little smarter than your average STB. The main menu offers a number of pages, separating the different types of content: On Demand, Live TV, Recordings and Replay.
The design looks like it has been inspired by the Xbox interface, using large tiles, and packed full of colour. The programmes are eye-catchingly presented, so landing on the Live TV page, for example, you have the current programme playing live in a large window, surrounded by five other tiles with currently-showing alternatives.
That makes it really easy to switch on your TV and see what else you might be missing at a glance. The same sort of layout applies to Recordings and Replay. It's a thousand times better than running into a list and means you can flip over to Recordings, glance and go.
We like the fact the future recordings are also displayed, as well as the number of episodes you have of something. If you want to see a list you can, but again, it uses thumbnails for shows, rather than boring text listings.
It's so fast to move around it makes some other systems look archaic, particularly once you get the hang of skipping through pages, rather than scrolling through lists. If we have a criticism, it's that the Live TV system depends on channel icons rather than names, and ranges across pages, simply labelled "Page 1" and so on. That makes it a little fiddly to find a particular channel at times through the main menu.
You can pop-up a channel guide using the arrows on the controller when you're watching something, however, with the option of either vertical or horizontal scrolling, depending on your preference. This is a slightly more conventional look, and easier to manage.
It's very much an interface that reflects the trend for touch-based interaction - and once you fire up the EE TV app, you can see why. There's the same visual design across the phones and tablets you connect, which makes for a nice and consistent experience.
EE TV adopts EE's turquoise colours and uses dots for things like the section headers - in the same way the EE logo is designed - making for some interesting typographic visuals.
There is a standard EPG (electronic programme guide) as well, allowing you to scroll back and forward, browse channels and set recordings. When scrolling back, if you have a channel set to Replay, you'll be able to hit play and watch that programme. It's rather like YouView, but with some limitations, which we'll go into now.
Replay is an interesting service, as it basically records in the background so you can return to content you might have missed. It's controlled by the user, however, so you can go in and select 6, 12, 18 or 24 hours of Replay and the channels you want it to apply to.
We selected standard-definition channels to save hard drive space compared to the HD options, and then elected to have Replay on BBC One and Channel 4. This then gives you those channels for the timeframe you selected. It's ideal for those who get home in the evening late and want to catch-up on something, and avoids having to use the internet-supplied catch-up services, like BBC iPlayer.
We like the fact that you can select the channels you want, but it isn't quite as all encompassing as YouView's solution, which offers up the catch-up service versions direct within the EPG without you needing to set anything up - you just select what you want after scrolling back, hit play and, in most cases, that content will be available. Freesat with Freetime is another similar solution.
The benefit that EE TV's Replay offers is that you don't need a separate app, so it's faster. It's just playing from the hard drive like any other recording, so it's slick, and you can forward through the adverts. If anything, you could set Replay to record ITV and Channel 4 to make up for some of the deficit in catch-up services.
On Demand content is delivered through your broadband connection to the EE TV box. But the section is a little threadbare for our liking. EE currently doesn't stack up well against YouView, or the offerings from Sky, Virgin Media, or even some smart TV platforms like that from Samsung, in that it doesn't have a full selection of catch-up services.
As EE TV is a UK-specific offering, that's a bit of shame. You get BBC iPlayer and Demand 5, but no 4oD or ITV players.
There are some other apps too, including YouTube, or Wuaki.tv is there to serve movie rentals, which is a nice option to have. But there's no Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video or Blinkbox, so you're not as fully served as you might want to be.
There's an app menu of sorts so you can install more - like Deezer music on demand - suggesting that this platform could easily expand to offer more in the future.
Second, third, fourth screen experience
But the real jewel in the crown of EE TV is the second screen experience. Or beyond, as with four tuners you have the option for up to four screens to run simultaneously, whether assigned to recording a channel or for watching live TV.
As EE is a mobile network supplier, it makes sense that it has made a strong provision for those with mobile devices to tune in. We really like this approach.
The EE TV app (available on Android and iOS) is a shining example of how things should be done. It's not only a remote control for your EE TV box, but it can stream live TV to your mobile devices, let you set and watch recordings, as well as watch Replay content. You also get things like resume play when dealing with recorded programmes, so you can pick-up where you left off.
It also goes a step further and lets you open a keyboard so you don't have to use the ridiculous on-screen effort so common on TVs and home entertainment devices to type things into search.
The design matches that of the main EE TV's user interface so there's consistency. Sometimes, however, it's a little easy to be in the remote section of the app and tap the Menu button, thinking you'll return home in the app. You don't, you're sending the box back to its home screen.
The ability to watch live TV is a real bonus, as you can have one person watching Eastenders on the TV, another watching Masterchef on a tablet, and someone streaming that recorded episode of Homeland in the bath.
If you're always fighting over the remote, then this liberates you from the limitations of having one TV screen.
We had content playing on the TV and streaming to an LG G3, iPhone 5S and Nexus 9 tablet and there were no problems at all. Everything played as it should, the audio was in sync and there was practically no buffering. You'll occasionally notice some tearing of the image on pans, but otherwise we were happy with the quality overall, given the flexibility offered.
Of course, you will have to get devices to connect to your EE TV box, and a couple of times we found this to take a while, but generally it's been smooth sailing.
The apps on Android and iOS work in the same way, but we found one drawback with Android: it won't stream HD content. That means you can't watch live HD channels, nor can you play HD recordings or HD Replay content.
That might be a bit of a kick in the teeth, as you can on iPhone and some iPad models. EE says it is looking at bringing parity in the future, but in the meantime, you might have to consider whether you record in HD or not if you're an avid Android viewer.
One slight limitation
The connected experience offered by EE TV is good and we think that other TV platforms should probably look to replicate some of what's on offer here. But there's one problem: you have to be connected to your home network for it to work.
There's no remote access, so unlike Virgin Media or Sky, you can't set something to record when you're running late. It would be a great advancement in the future to expand the functionality in this way.
Costs and competition
Whether you think EE TV is good value for money will really come down to relative costs of the package you take, against what you'll find elsewhere.
EE TV is essentially £25.70 a month, but that's for an unlimited broadband package (17Mbps) with phone line included. You'll have to take out a new 18-month contract if you're already a subscriber, but then the TV box is free.
TalkTalk TV is around the same price for the Essentials TV package (£25.20) for 12 months, with which you get a YouView box, unlimited broadband (17Mbps) and phone line. This YouView box only offers 30 minutes of record or rewinding, however.
BT offers TV Starter, including the YouView box, for £37.98 for 18 months, which gives you Infinity broadband (38Mbps) as well as your phone line. It has a 20GB data allowance, but you get free BT Sport. However, there's a £49 activation fee.
An all-in package from Sky will set you back £45.40 a month for 12 months, for that you get the Sky+HD box, phone and unlimited broadband. Sky doesn't give defined broadband speeds, but offers a much wider choice of TV channels. There's a £6.95 delivery charge for the router, and various costs for TV setup.
Virgin Media starts at £38.99 for a package including a TiVo box, broadband unlimited (50Mbps) and phone line. Like Sky, Virgin Media has a wider range of TV channel packages.
There are various offers, discounts, incentives, different phone and broadband limits and speeds, so it's worth piling through all the options if you're looking at a new bundle for everything.
On balance, EE TV is aggressively priced, but perhaps the least flexible when it comes to TV channel choices. The direct streaming option is rather unique, although Virgin TV Anywhere and Sky Go offer app-based alternatives for those respective services.
EE TV offers an attractive approach to TV, with a second screen experience and support for smartphones and tablets that's very compelling. Four tuners mean a third and fourth device can view separate channels or be used to recording instead.
Importantly it all works without fuss, meaning you're not tied to the sofa when you want to watch something on the box. If you're constantly squabbling over what to watch, then EE TV gives you flexibility, and we really like the speed and fluidity of the interface, even if the predominance of channel logos over text means you'll sometimes need a second glance at things to see where you are.
There's an obvious hole in the on-demand services offered though. While that won't matter to those who want to use their phone or tablet, it's a step behind some of the other TV services and bringing ITV Player and 4oD should be a priority. We'd also like the option to easily filter or search - for example to find HD channels faster.
Overall, EE TV is a good set-top box offering. The multi-device connected experience is the real appeal, especially for those with busy households, and it offers good value for money for EE customers.