EE has mobile customers in droves and increasing numbers of landline and broadband customers too. But that's not enough. Making steps towards eventually offering "quad-play" bundle options that include TV services to its customers, the network has today revealed its EE TV set-top box. It's early days yet, but it's getting a lot right already.
While its aesthetics won't inspire (it's another black box with plenty of ventilation exhausts to pop under your telly, measuring 200mm x 38mm x 200mm) its interface is far more pleasing. Using the blue/green shades of EE's branding elsewhere, it's a UI that takes its cues as much from mobile app design as it does a standard EPG -- and it's all the better for it. So while there's a standard EPG for those that find that most comfortable to use, there are plenty of other ways to organise and view live TV and recorded shows, and plenty of ways to access catch-up options too.
It sits somewhere between the Xbox One interface (with its Smartglass functionality) and the feature set of a YouView box, in some respects. A grid-based home screen, scrolling left to right, gives you access to on demand apps (including iPlayer and Demand 5), live TV shows, recordings and an intriguing "Replay" function.
While on-demand, live and recording areas of any set-top box are pretty self-explanatory, the Replay section is quite unique. The EE TV box can have six "favourite channels" assigned to it, which will then have as much as the last 24 hours of programming automatically downloaded for you to instantly access at the push of a button. While these shows have a dedicated area, they also appear in an EPG that can scroll into the past, just like a YouView box can. While YouView can scroll back a full seven days, its content is reliant upon it being available on catch-up services -- EE TV, though less historically extensive, is more reliable thanks to its local recordings. Despite myriad browsing options, it's cleanly laid out and very easy to navigate all of what's on offer.
Multiscreen and multirecord options have also spawned from EE's mobile-first approach to design. Using a remote app for iOS and Android, four devices can access four separate live TV or recorded shows from the box. Each also has the option to record simultaneously too, while parental controls can be applied to any device trying to connect to the EE TV box.
While there's a regular remote included with the box, EE clearly thinks its EE TV mobile app should be the primary way you navigate the device. Replicating the visual interface of the set top box, it features a software recreation of the hardware remote, as well as a touch-friendly version of the image-led interface to finger through. Keyboard search lets you quickly jump to a specific show, while you can even "flick" a playing programme from a mobile device onto your main TV with a quick-swipe gesture. Using the app, you can browse any programming guides without having to obscure what's on your main display. Interestingly, the app doesn't mirror the TV interface's on-demand catch-up app access -- sensibly, EE reckons most mobile users will probably have the dedicated mobile versions of these applications already installed onto their devices.
The box itself, with a modest 1GB of RAM, is surprisingly responsive, supporting ￼￼802.11b/g/n dual-band Wi-Fi and 1Gbit ethernet. Four tuners allow for the multiscreen / multirecord functions, while there's 1TB of storage space built in too -- 500GB of which can be reserved for the 24-hour Replay functionality, if you choose so. 1920 x 1080p output over HDMI meets the standard, but there's no USB port available to play back your own videos from.
Launching in the next few weeks, EE TV is exclusive to EE customers. Free with a £9.95, 18 month broadband and calls package (not including £15.75 line rental), you're going to have to jump broadband provider to EE if you find what's on offer compelling. EE TV is clearly then as much about securing steady broadband business as it is about delivering TV to the masses.
Will some innovative interface features be enough to push the lack of exclusive content under the carpet though? EE's nailed the hardware and the interface -- the box is fast enough to browse smoothly, and there's plenty of storage space for your own recorded shows too. Its take on catch-up recordings is just as clever as YouView's seven day EPG too. But there are some glaring holes in EE TV that need plugging up fast -- where's Channel 4's 4oD? Where's Netflix or Amazon Prime Instant Video? Where's the exclusive movies or shows to tempt away an owner of a rival box? EE's built an impressive foundation with its initial TV offering -- hopefully it's one that can expand and mature quickly too.