YouView is a new service that aims to seamlessly combine on-demand services such as iPlayer and 4oD with a Freeview HD digital TV recorder.
It sounds pretty simple on paper, but it took a combination of four broadcasters, three communications companies and a total investment of £70m to put it all together. Even then, YouView had to call in Sir Alan Sugar at the last minute to get the thing out of the door.
It had all the makings of a distinctly British type of technological shambles, and probably was. But the surprising thing about the new £300 YouView box, also known as the Humax DTR-T1000, is that it's actually rather good.
Electronic programme guide
YouView is all about combining on-demand services from the four terrestrial broadcasters in the UK -- BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 -- with the usual line-up of channels you get on Freeview HD. Unlike a lot of smart TVs, it doesn't zone-off on-demand content in a separate section that you access from another menu -- the whole lot is integrated.
This is best seen in YouView's clever electronic programme guide (EPG). The EPGs on most digital recorders allow you to only move forwards in time. They show you what's currently showing across all channels and what's coming up, so you can schedule a reminder or instruct your box to record a show. The clever bit with YouView is that you can move back in time in the EPG, as well as forwards.
So, for example, if you missed a show that was on earlier in the day, you can go back in the EPG and just click OK on the remote to watch it. This feature only works if it's available via the broadcaster's on-demand services. If not, you'll see a 'not available' indicator above the EPG.
The DTR-T1000 also acts as a Freeview HD recorder. The recording functionality is well integrated into the overall system. As you would expect, you can schedule recordings just by selecting them in the EPG. If a show is part of a series, you're given the option of having the DTR-T1000 catch all of the episodes in a season automatically. Cleverly, the EPG is updated with any shows you record, so if you move back in time in the EPG to a movie you've recorded, it will show as available to watch, which is neat.
You can record two channels at a time and watch a third if it's on the same multiplex as one of the channels you're recording (because groups of channels are broadcast together in a block on Freeview). Alternatively, you can watch an on-demand programme while these two recordings are working away in the background. If you try to record another programme while there are two recordings in progress, the box gives you the opportunity to either stop one of the existing recordings or it'll suggest you record it at a different time if it's being re-broadcast later.
You can also watch the start of a show while the end is still recording, which is handy if you get home late from work but want to dive right into EastEnders. Naturally, the box lets you pause live TV and it buffers the current channel it's tuned to, so you can instantly rewind if you've missed something.
The model I had in for review has a 500GB hard drive, which is large enough to store up to 300 hours of standard-definition programmes, but Humax will also offer a 1TB version later for those with insatiable telly-viewing appetites.
As well as scrolling back in the EPG, you can access on-demand content directly by calling up any of the four on-demand players for BBC iPayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand 5. There's integrated search too, so you can search across all the content in all the on-demand players in one go.
YouView splits up the content so you can browse through just the movies, or select the TV option and then choose Comedy to see what shows are available. These aren't listed by broadcaster, but instead you're shown everything that's available across all the on-demand platforms. It's this level of integration that sets YouView apart from the competition, as it's something you don't get on games consoles or the current crop of smart TVs that support on-demand TV.
YouView's interface is very slick. The menu system is dynamic, moves smoothly and looks a lot better than what you get on the vast majority of today's digital recorders.
It has a blue and black colour scheme that's new and fresh. When you hit the YouView button in the middle of the remote, it calls up a menu at the bottom of the screen that's overlaid on the programme you're watching. From here you can quickly access all the main features of the box including the EPG, your recordings, the settings page and on-demand services.
As well as being clever, the EPG looks fantastic. It has a traditional layout with channels listed down the left-hand side of the screen and upcoming programmes displayed to the right. There's also a thumbnail video window showing the currently selected channel. Scrolling around is quick and smooth and you can speedily call up extra information on programmes.
Switch to the recordings library and you'll find there are some useful touches. For example, it automatically marks your programmes as you watch them, so you can see those you've started viewing but not yet finished, as well as ones you've already seen all the way through. This is especially handy if you've recorded a whole series of a TV show, but aren't sure which episode you last watched.
Design, connections and picture quality
The DTR-T1000 looks like a traditional set-top box. It shares a similar wide and squat profile to many of its peers. The case feels well built though, and Humax has used a glossy black coating, not just on the front, but also on the top and sides of the chassis to give it a premium feel.
The face of the recorder has a large power button in the centre that's surrounded by a ring of light that shows the current status -- it glows blue when on and red when off. To the left of this is the rather excellent display. Most set-top boxes that have a screen (Sky HD doesn't, for example), only show you the channel number, not the name of the channel. Here, you get the whole name, even for those with longer titles such as 'Channel 4+1'. That's a nice touch.
On the right-hand side are volume and channel up and down buttons, which may come in handy if the dog has made off with the remote.
When the box is up and running it's extremely quiet. In fact, the YouView spec dictates that all YouView set-top boxes must have a fan that's quieter than 26db. That certainly seems to be the case as you can hardly hear the box.
The remote is well thought out too. I like its hourglass shape and it sits comfortably in your hand. The button placement is excellent. You can pretty much control all the features of the recorder just by moving around the central area of the remote with your thumb, which is exactly how it should be.
You can program the remote to work with your TV, so you'll only need a single zapper to control both. One slight annoyance is the volume and channel buttons, which give quite a loud click when pressed. This is a little distracting when you're using the set-top box at night with the volume turned down low.
On the whole, the connection line-up isn't bad. Along with the HDMI output (an HDMI cable is included), there's an optical digital audio-out so you can connect the DTR-T1000 to a surround sound system. The fact that it also has Scart and composite video ports means it can be used with older non-HD TVs. However, there's no component HD output, as the YouView spec forbids it on anti-piracy grounds. Still, this won't be a problem for most people.
Picture quality was excellent throughout my testing across both standard-definition and high-definition content. Even the streams from the on-demand services were more than good enough for everyday viewing.
On the rear is an Ethernet port for connecting to your broadband router and Humax has included a short cable in the box for this. A big downer is the lack of Wi-Fi support. I personally think this is a big faux pas, given the target market and the fact the box isn't exactly cheap. There are two USB ports (front and rear), which could conceivably be used with a wireless dongle in the future, but there's none available at present. For now, Humax recommends you use home plug adaptors if your router is not sited near your TV.
There are a few issues. As you would expect, these mostly revolve around the on-demand aspect of the system. Firstly, when you select an on-demand programme to play in the EPG, there's a long delay of around half a minute before it starts playing. This is because the DTR-T1000 first has to load the individual player for that on-demand service. Also, all the on-demand services have slightly different interfaces and this is especially jarring because the rest of the system is so consistent and neatly integrated.
Something else that's likely to annoy people is that when you select an on-demand programme from one of the commercial broadcasters -- 4oD, Demand 5 or ITV player -- you have to sit through an advert before you get to the start of the show or film. Once you're watching a programme there are usually advert breaks inserted into it at regular intervals. That's fair enough, as TV companies have to make money. The problem is you can't skip these adverts, even though they're quite long.
For example, before watching a 4oD show, you have to sit through two to three minutes of adverts, which is tedious. This only happens on on-demand content. If you record a show using the PVR feature, you can skips adverts like any other recorder.
Another bugbear is there's no other online content currently offered outside of the on-demand services from the four main broadcasters. It lacks Facebook and Twitter apps, but perhaps more importantly, Netflix and Lovefilm apps are absent, as are the premium movie rental services like Acetrax and Blinkbox. It's early days though, and new services are due to be added in the future, such as Sky's Now TV, while TalkTalk has already said it'll be offering Lovefilm on its YouView box.
The other issue is one of cost. YouView is aimed at people who can't be bothered to use a laptop or a games console to access on-demand content. Those who want stuff that's easy to use aren't techheads -- they don't rush out to buy the latest gadget. I can't help feeling that the relatively high price is likely to put off casual users. That said, the DTR-T1000 is only £50 more than Humax's standard HDR-FOX T2 Freeview HD recorder and it's definitely worth the premium over that model.
It may have had a long and painful birth, but the Humax DTR-T1000 largely proves that YouView was worth the wait. The integration of on-demand and broadcast TV is second to none. It's very easy to use and the recording features are as good -- if not better -- than any other digital TV recorder on the market.
There are some annoyances, such as the relatively long pauses between selecting an on-demand show and playback beginning, and I think the price will be too high for a lot of buyers. But there's no doubting YouView delivers a quality connected viewing experience in a way that smart TV platforms and media streamers have failed to do up until now.