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YouView Hands-On: Its Killer Search Might Actually Make It Worth Buying, Eventually

By Sam Gibbs on at

We'll soon be able buy the fabled YouView box after years of delay, but is it really worth it the wait and why would you want another box under your TV? According to Lord Sugar it's not another box -- this is the only box you need.

At the launch event today, which was a very curious affair with Lord Sugar booming from up on high in what looked a lot like the court from the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter, YouView laid out its initial retail plans and where it thinks the service will go.

Let's get one thing straight from the off -- this box is not aimed at you. You, our dear readers, are already ahead of the curve. You've probably already got something capable of streaming catch-up TV, and a PVR sitting under your TV if you're at all interested in recording stuff. YouView is aiming its brand new service squarely at average Joe on the street -- the people who just have Freeview and don't have a PS3, Xbox, Roku or even an Apple TV sitting under their goggle box. Knowing all that, you start to wonder why it costs £300 -- not exactly an average Joe price -- but we'll get to that in a minute.

 

Search is great

The box itself, like our tipster intimated, is a nice piece of kit. In fact the whole experience is actually pretty decent, with a relatively responsive (it's not the fastest, but it won't drive you insane, probably) and easy to navigate UI using just a traditional remote. It's also got some killer features like search -- punch the first couple of letters into the search box and it'll pull up all the shows across all sources that fit with your search. But it even goes beyond that though; for instance, if you're searching for Emmerdale, YouView will show you all the episodes of Emmerdale available on the ITV player and Freeview, but it'll also show you that one episode of All Star Family Fortunes the Emmerdale crew were in too, as well as their appearance on radio shows and other bits and pieces. It's one search to rule them all, and perhaps that's what all this on-demand stuff has been missing in its various disparate forms -- we all know how rubbish LoveFilm, Netflix, and even iPlayer browsing can be, so maybe this kind of overarching search is the answer.

When quizzed whether the likes of Netflix and LoveFilm could be integrated into the YouView platform, Lord Sugar said that it was definitely on the cards, plus their massive libraries of shows could be integrated into YouView's awesome search. That truly would be an amazing tool -- one search for all your on-demand content from every provider you have an account with. In fact, that might almost be worth paying the entry fee for YouView alone, well, if it wasn't £300 that is.

 

Freeview plus on-demand

One of YouView's other standout features has to be its integrated EPG. It'll list all the Freeview content like any other, but its history, in the past stuff, is really quite slick. Missed something during the day and you can literally just scroll back in the EPG and hit the go button. YouView will then fire up the program in the appropriate on-demand player or from the PVR. It's nowhere near as fast as I'd like, mind you, but it's a very simple and easy-to-use way of getting your catch-up content hit. I must admit to having spent quite some time faffing around on my PS3 trying to stream that show I just missed, and it can be truly infuriating.

 

Content

At kick-off you've just got the original partner's programs bundled in, so that's BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Of course, you've also got everything Freeview has to offer, but in terms of streaming that's it. That doesn't mean, however, that YouView isn't actively trying to add services -- Sky's new internet TV service, NOW TV, and Scotland's STV have both confirmed they'll be launching on YouView soon, while 300 other interested content providers have made contact with YouView about getting on its shiny new box.

NOW TV will offer some of Sky's content, namely movies to start with, plus sport and entertainment programs following along later. It'll, of course, be subscription or PAYG-based, which YouView fully supports either way. STV, which is essentially ITV in Scotland for those of us who don't live up there in the north, will also be bringing its unique, not-on-ITV content to YouView soon too.

The extra content doesn't stop there though; both TalkTalk and BT will be providing their own content channels too. If you happen to be a TalkTalk or BT customer, your YouView box will automatically show the extra content that's available to you down your broadband pipe. You don't even have to buy a BT or TalkTalk bespoke box, any retail YouView box will work just fine, but both ISPs will be offering their own bundled boxes in the near future. TalkTalk will announce its plans on July 26th and I'm sure BT will be along soon to try and sell you a bundle too.

Possibly the most interesting bit of Lord Sugar's spiel today was that YouView's actively looking to add additional IP-only TV channels, ones that are delivered over your broadband only. Essentially he said that anyone with £50,000 can buy a slot on the YouView EPG and stream their channel to viewers. It could be that we'll see loads of hyper-local or public access IPTV channels crop up -- maybe even something like a Gizmodo channel -- whether you'll actually want to watch them though, is another matter.

 

YouView as a box
So, why £300 for some thing that's aimed squarely at Joe Bloggs on the street? Essentially it's YouView allowing the box manufacturer Humax to cover costs. YouView set about designing a new system from scratch in the UK, and it found a mutual hardware partner in Korea's Humax.

To kick things off, YouView wanted a showpiece box -- one that used the "latest in PVR hardware", bundling in the YouView service in a convincing, slick manner. Whether it's actually managed that, well, the jury is still out -- we'll have to wait until we get this thing in our homes for testing to see whether it's really as slick as it needs to be. It's got a 500GB drive; HDMI; analogue connections (component and scart); an aerial socket, and an ethernet port. Disappointingly there's no Wi-Fi, and the USB ports included on the box are for service, not for hooking up extra storage or transferring stuff.

After all the development costs, and the relatively high priced hardware, a £300 retail price is what Humax and YouView needed to cover costs. That doesn't mean that it won't get cheaper though. In fact, Lord Sugar talked up a "Zapper" box that is essentially YouView without the PVR functionality, which would be much cheaper and could even integrate straight into your goggle box. You might think that the PVR is pretty redundant when you've got the catch up content around anyway, but apparently the YouView box's PVR guts do more than your standard recorder does -- all the backend stuff like handling buffering and other bits and pieces that smooth out streaming is done by the PVR. Whether that justifies the £300 price tag, I'm not sure.

 

YouView versus the world

Will YouView actually succeed? Only time will tell. It's a pretty convincing user experience -- simple, straightforward and almost idiot proof, which is what you need if it's going to be sold to your parents. Right now that £300 price tag is a serious stumbling block -- I probably wouldn't buy one at that price myself. But if YouView forges ahead and manages to add the likes of LoveFilm, Netflix, and maybe even HBO, along with Sky's offerings, then you really could have a one-stop-shop for all on-demand TV and movie content. That universal search could be killer, and that combined with a cheaper price could make it THE streaming and free-to-air TV box, but it's got a heck of a lot of competition from the likes of the PS3, the Xbox, Roku, Smart TVs, maybe even Google TV.

One to definitely watch as it evolves then, but possibly not one to run out and buy immediately. It's not genuinely revolutionary, but it could be a massive evolutionary step in the right direction for on-demand content. When we think about what the fabled Apple HDTV might be like, one that makes it easy to find content, maybe, just maybe, YouView has beaten Cupertino to the punch with its search and content curation. Wouldn't that be a thing -- a British invention that bests something out of California -- I'd buy into that.

Here's a brief run through of the box and the event from our friends over at TechRadar, which gives you a quick look at the YouView UI and services.