YouView is one of the most complicated products ever to launch. It's not so much technically difficult to do what has been done here, but it involves a lot of what, in management terms, are known as "stakeholders". Namely, the people who have a vested interest in getting a product on sale.
Here, this is the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5 and ITV as broadcasters, and BT and TalkTalk as broadband providers. There's even a transmission company that is coughing up a percentage of the investment money - £70 million to date.
What that means is that there are a lot of people and organisations with aims to serve. In short, the YouView "system" and the boxes that allow us to access its services, have been massively delayed. And as a result, many of the features found at launch are either already on Freeview HD boxes, or coming soon. So while YouView might not be groundbreaking, it is still a major addition to a market that's more crowded than a Tube train during the Olympics.
We're looking here at the Humax YouView box, but we suspect when other receivers launch, they'll be indistinguishable apart from some minor cosmetic changes. The fact is, YouView is like Sky Digital used to be - lots of different manufacturers, but nothing to chose between them. So while we like Humax hardware, there's not much here to indicate what that company is capable of.
It's another black box
If you were hoping YouView would distinguish itself by creating hardware to rival Apple, think again. Instead, we're looking at another anonymous black box, that looks like all the others you've ever seen. Is this a problem? Not at all, the box isn't ugly, it's just not interesting. This is likely to present a problem for YouView, as there's nothing here to scream "buy me" among the sea of other PVRs, and with this one costing £100 more than a normal HD PVR, one has to wonder what the firm is going to do to get sales.
On the front panel, there's a large power button, this is circled with a status LED that changes colour depending on what's going on. Blue signifies that it's turned on, while orange is for when the box is powered down. There's a display too, and here you'll get a channel name and relevant information about the picture type and a running time for recordings.
At the back, you'll find analogue outputs that no one in their right mind will use. These are for standard definition, but there's no provision for component outputs for analogue HD. This is, no doubt, an attempt to prevent copyright theft, forcing people to use encrypted HD. This is tedious, and some who have used up their TV's HDMI sockets might be disappointed that they can't make use of those HD-capable component sockets that lie idle. The two most important sockets are the aforementioned HDMI output, along with the Ethernet jack for connecting the box to your router.
And here, we are reminded of another frustration with this Humax: no built-in Wi-Fi. A dongle is coming later, we're told, but honestly, who the hell wants to mess about with a dongle in this day and age, and on a £300 piece of hardware?
On the flip side, while the outer box is very mundane, the software on the inside is to be applauded. Finished in black and blue, it looks the part. It's different from most devices we've used, it's not overwhelmed with logos on branding, it's just a big, sensible EPG with some quite well thought-out menus punctuating the whole thing.
Clearly, it's on this part of the service that most effort has been spent. And that's a good thing, because simple user interfaces are crucial to making people enjoy, and recommend, a product. Look at Apple's iPod and iPad - two complicated devices made simple by mostly fuss-free user interfaces. And YouView is the same, for the most part.
And as this box is aimed at people who don't want Sky or Virgin, and are more likley to be older users, that's a really good thing. Although we don't want to patronise older readers by saying they can't work other "complicated" services, our own parents are in our mind, and they certainly would like a simple service that's free (mostly).
We like the way there's always a preview of what you're watching in the corner of the screen. And we love the EPG, it's clear and easy to use. We would prefer it if scrolling around updated more quickly, as there were times when we found ourselves waiting for the EPG to load its content. Indeed, we'd hope that the box would keep this up to date while the device is on, just showing TV. But this didn't seem to be the case.
It's hard not to love the way the box tells you, straight away, when there is a show that you can watch via catch-up. It's so simple, and the box manages it so well, that you very soon stop worrying about live TV and just learn to use the box as it was intended - as a massive resource of almost every TV show you could hope to watch, and quite a few you wish never to see again.
On thing we did notice, was that when we pressed the "help" button the box popped up a message that told us to go online to get help. Hardly a user-friendly experience, is it?
Arduous start-up times
Rightly, the Humax YouView box takes environmental issues seriously. With that in mind, if it's left in standby mode for more than three hours it switches itself in to a very low-power mode. The problem with this is that it no longer starts instantly, and you have to wait a very, very long time to get it up and running.
We like the low-power mode. We do NOT like the boot time. And honestly, we aren't really sure what the damn thing is doing in this period. We're now getting to the point where computers can boot Windows in 20 seconds. If a computer can boot that quickly, who is going to want to wait more than a minute for their YouView box to switch on?
There might be a really good reason for this lack of haste, but consumers won't care, they'll just be bored by it, and end up switching the power-saving mode off. Bad for the planet, and bad for their power bills.
One source of concern for us, is just how loud this box is. In normal operation, with the box sitting near to use, we were able to hear the fan above other ambient sound. Even with the TV volume loud enough for us to hear the dialogue, the fan was audible.
In most setups, the box is likely to be far enough away for this not to be a problem. But even so, fan noise is extremely undesirable in a device that's used in a home entertainment system. We're honestly surprised that no passive cooling solution could be found, or at least, a fan that spins more slowly - and thus, more quietly.
For broadcast TV the picture quality can be anywhere from awful up to awesome. This, of course, is very little to do with Humax. The state of broadcast TV in the UK now is so bad that YouTube can easily outdo it in image quality. The Humax doesn't add to the problem though, and HD pictures at a decent rate look absolutely stunning.
As you might imagine, catch-up TV which is supplied via the internet has a very variable look to it. Once again, this is down to the broadcasters. There is the option for HD catch-up, and the good news is that the box supports it. Sadly, it's only the BBC that actually supplies HD at the moment. It does look noticeably better though, which is a good thing.
From an audio perspective, there's Dolby Digital Plus here, so assuming HD broadcasts carry Dolby Digital, you should get a good surround experience. Of course, not all broadcasts have surround sound, and even those that do don't always have Dolby - you have to license it, and there's a cost involved for the broadcaster.
So all-in-all, Humax is getting things right when it comes to picture and sound quality.
The YouView promise is significant. The firm wants to make its devices the go-to place for people who want catch-up TV. And, indeed, it's likely the aim of the company is to replace Freeview. This is strange, because a lot of the Freeview companies are also involved in YouView. Anyway, no matter, because the point is, YouView is supposed to be the "best" when it comes to connecting with online content.
So, what do you get? The most impressive feature is that when you look at the EPG you have the option of not only seeing what's on in the future, but also what has aired in the past. The purpose of this is that you can select shows you like that have already aired, press a single button and be moved over to the relevant catch-up player to watch it.
The good news is, this works a treat. It's a nice idea to free viewers from the tyranny of broadcast TV schedules. After all, these days, who has time to watch TV when it's actually on, it all needs to be done between 10pm and midnight, when the kids are asleep and the day's work is out of the way.
While we like catch-up on YouView, there are issues. Approach online content via the menu - rather than the EPG method above - and you find yourself having to select an "app". This is basically a way for you to go in to each broadcaster's service and watch its specific programmes. While this works, we were really hoping that YouView would take a more centralised approach. What we wanted, was a central hub, into which all the TV would flow, with editorial picks of what to watch, suggestions based on what you have been watching, and perhaps access to archive TV shows - even perhaps the option to buy old shows, as you can on iTunes.
But this isn't present. On the plus side, search is excellent. Start typing away on the remote - which is also brilliantly thought out for this, and text entry is easy as pie - and you start to see results come up based on the letters. Our hunt for "Olympic opening ceremony" needed only "Oly" to be entered before we had what we wanted.
Perhaps most disappointing though, is the lack of content outside of the four supporting broadcasters. We think it's here that the way YouView was rushed is most apparent. There's not even a YouTube app to use. On a modern, internet-aware set-top-box that's utterly unforgivable. And while we don't EVER want to see a stupid DailyMotion app for YouView, we really would like to see Netflix and Lovefilm here. We also want Sky Now too, but none of these is ready - and in the case of the former two we don't know for sure if they're ever coming.
All of this points to a service that isn't quite ready for prime time yet. And we do sympathise with that. We, and ever other tech publication have been demanding a service pre-Olympics, and it seems that Lord Sugar has given us what we wanted, albeit a cut-down service that's, in some ways, inferior to other existing products.
Take for example, Virgin Media's services. All the catch-up TV that's on YouView is there and, in many cases, presented in a visually very similar style. It too has an EPG through which you can scroll backwards to access catch-up programmes and it's arguably every bit as slick as YouView's UI, especially.
Is your broadband limited?
A massive consideration for many is going to need to be about your home broadband. There are many issues here, and a lot of things that are outside the usual scope of a review, but in this case, we feel it's important to mention potential problems.
The first is obvious. If you're on a capped ADSL package, then YouView is going to send your data downloads through the roof. Once you ditch live TV, and move over to on-demand, you're not going to be able to go back. No more worrying if your bladder will burst before the end of that BBC drama, or having to wait until 9pm to watch adult-themed shows. No, now your concern is going to be about how close you are to your 40GB data cap.
Oh, and the YouView user interface doesn't tell you how big files are either, so it's very hard to judge how much damage you're doing.
But also, how many people are stuck on broadband with speeds of less than 3mbps? Certainly, many rural locations are in this position - but we know, from bitter experience, that so are some urban places too. So what do these guys do? More than likley, sit around feeling cross about how, once again, they've been short-changed.
But none of that is especially YouView's fault. You could level some blame at BT though, and as it's an investor, there's some circular logic here that suggests all parties have not thought all of this through.
Giving the Humax a fair score is going to be difficult. As a Freeview PVR, it's top-notch, as all its hardware generally is. We think it's a bit cheap looking, and the gloss plastic really doesn't feel very "premium" to us. But even so, the hardware is solid and works as we'd expect from Humax.
So from that perspective, it's a four-star product.
But this is a YouView box. It might be made by Humax, but you can get the HDR-FOX T2 for £80 less, and it's essentially the same in terms of functionality. Certainly, the DTR-1000 has a different hardware platform, but the end user won't know or care about that. At launch, a smattering of catch-up from BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 isn't really significant enough to distinguish this box from a smart TV.
So from that perspective, we'd give it two stars.
And then there's the future. Sky has confirmed that it will launch it's Now service on YouView. There are bound to be apps from Netflix, Lovefilm and others so it has massive potential.
So you could argue, that makes the whole thing worthy of a four-star rating.
In the end, we're not sold. We think it's too expensive right now, and Lord Sugar has already admitted that there will be cheaper boxes along in a year or so. And that makes us think that, at best, this product deserves a score that's bang in the middle. Not a disaster, and not a triumph.
We've said some negative things about YouView in the past, and we've said some more positive things too. The fact is, the product here is a good one, made by a good company that always produces reliable and likeable hardware. YouView too, is a good idea. Bringing on-demand entertainment to the UK for no monthly fee. More than a good idea, it's actually an essential public service.
The problem is, the underlying content isn't ready, the broadband infrastructure in the UK isn't ready. But with all that said, there are companies like Roku, Virgin Media and products like the XBox360 and PS3 that already do so much more than YouView can. The Xbox, for example, has loads of broadcast catch-up, Lovefilm, Netflix and iPlayer is on the way.
YouView needs to come in to the market with the most spectacular bang imaginable. It needed to launch a product that had every catch-up service, every on-demand streaming product and to offer a unique user interface. It's done one of those things with the interface, but even that will be quickly bested by the likes of Freeview.
In a year's time, we'll look again at a YouView box, and we'll tell you exactly what has changed. We bet the service will be a lot more compelling by then, assuming it managed to sell enough boxes to stay afloat.
If you're in need of a Freeview PVR, and if you can afford the premium, grab a YouView box now. If not, then hook up your laptop to your TV with a £5 cable, and get access to the same, and more, content right now.
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