Having raised a family of four boys, my Mum has had more than her fill of football over the years. So it was with no hidden annoyance then that she realised she’d timed this weekend past’s visit to my flat with my testing of BT Sport Ultra HD. The test subject? Arsenal against Chelsea in the annual Community Shield match.
I put the kettle on. My mum braced herself for 90 minutes of hell.
BT Sport Ultra HD is a pre-emptive strike by the telecoms giant, as it aims to chip away at Sky’s UK pay TV dominance. Though Sky’s movie services are arguably equally popular, it’s been the Murdoch corporation’s stranglehold over football coverage that’s enabled it to remain top dog in UK subscription television. In recent years BT’s growth into becoming a quad-play leader (TV, broadband, mobile contracts and home phone deals all offered by the one provider) has seen it snap up more and more footballing rights. Now, in a UK first, BT’s broadcast of the Community Shield has seen it become the first broadcaster to offer live 4K programming. Sky has been pipped to the post.
Using a new 4K-enabled YouView box (otherwise identical to its predecessor), BT follows in Netflix’s footsteps, piping the BT Sport Ultra HD channel down your broadband connection rather than attempting to channel it over the UK’s antiquated airwaves.
As you’d imagine, this then requires a premium BT set-up to access. In order to maintain the demanding stream, you’ll need to have either BT Infinity 1 or 2 fibre broadband packages, hitting at least consistent 25Mbps speeds. (For those worried about broadband caps or throttling, no streamed BT TV playback counts against any usage limits). Though a free add-on for those already signed up to it, the BT Sport Ultra HD channel is only available as part of the top BT TV package, Entertainment Ultra HD, for £15 a month, while the new YouView box comes with a £44 installation fee. And, of course, you’ll need a 4K-capable TV (though BT has cut a generous deal, knocking £500 off selected LG 4K UHD TVs for those making the upgrade).
So, while there’s no additional charge for the UHD coverage then, it’s a pricey initial outlay needed to take advantage of the 4K coverage overall. Of course, we’re firmly planted in early adopter territory here, and being first among your mates to have the latest in gadgetry has always come with a high asking price. 4K TV, as you’d expect, is no different.
So is it worth it? Two thumbs up from my football-phobic mum should give you an indication that early testing has proved positive. “Wow, you’d never guess they all get that sweaty, would you?” she said as the Sunday sun beat down on the players, with the 3840 x 2160 UHD broadcast revealing far greater detail and more-vibrant colour depth than a top-notch 1080p image can manage. Even with the entry-level 49-inch LG 4K screen we were viewing on (the same LG 49UF675V offered from BT’s store) there’s a richness to the image not otherwise available. You can quite literally, as my dear old mum kept stating, make out the faces of every fan in the stands.
There are some kinks that still need ironing out. For starters, the YouView box is still lacking in a Wi-Fi connection – likely in order to guarantee a consistent connection for the gruelling stream. Unless your TV and YouView box sit next to your router (as mine luckily does), you’re going to have to snake Ethernet cabling around your home. Also, this is currently an exclusively-sporty offering – there aren’t any movies or TV entertainment offered in 4K by the ultra HD box and, outside of match day, you’ve only a handful of extreme sports documentary clips from Red Bull with which to show off your 4K panel. Access to Netflix’s 4K-enabled TV streaming app is a notable absence (though one I am assured will be addressed sooner rather than later).
It’s worth noting too that the stream took about 15 seconds to settle upon first establishing it, though it was remarkably stutter-free from there on in. (My broadband speed averages around 40Mbps, for the record). Speaking to a BT insider, there are currently only just upwards of 2,000 YouView 4K boxes out in the wild, and it’s hard to tell exactly how many would have been watching Sunday’s match. It’ll be interesting to see if the service will be able to handle the stress of a greater number of viewers as the adoption of 4K becomes more widespread.
But the early signs are promising and, provided you can afford it and have a penchant for sport, the future of the BT service is looking bright. Going forward, BT Sport Ultra HD viewers can look forward to a string of Premiership matches, FA Cup ties, the UEFA Champions League (a giant coup for BT), Aviva Premiership rugby and, later this month, the Silverstone MotoGP.
Who knows; this time next year maybe BT’s 4K football coverage will have my mum singing terrace chants.