[Apps] Review: BBC iPlayer App for iPad

The iPad has long been able to function fairly well as a tool for browsing and using the BBC’s excellent iPlayer catchup site. While there was no dedicated app, bbc.co.uk/iplayer recognised that it was being accessed from an iPad and reconfigured its UI and live streams accordingly. All a savvy user had to do was create a home screen bookmark in Safari and things worked pretty well. I sell pretty well because there were a few drawbacks to the web-based approach. Firstly things could get a bit slow with the web-based front end, and secondly the video, while tremendous quality, had a occasional sync issues, ending up half a second ahead of or behind the audio at times. Distracting if not game-breaking.

Now though the BBC has launched a free iPad only iPlayer app in the UK. It follows on from the corporations first free app (its commerical arm, BBC Worldwide already has several non-free apps to support its magazine portfolio), a BBC News browser that looks lovely but is somewhat prone to crashing occasionally. It take the Beeb ages to get an app out, not because of technical incompetence, but because the taxpayer-funded organisation has to seek approval from its governing trust before any forays into areas where it could be seen to be competing unfairly with commercial rivals.

The main iPlayer app home screen

The main iPlayer app home screen

Once installed from the App Store it sits on the home screen, using a black and purple icon very similar to the Favicon that formed the bookmark icon for those of us who’d previously used the web-based interface.

On loading (which it does very quickly), the splash screen is a beautiful, scrollable grid of thumbnails showing main shows from the past seven days. There are bottom bar options to switch to Radio broadcasts, or to show the user’s favourites, more of which later. At the very top of the screen are buttons for Home and Channels, the latter of which takes you to a TV listings style grid showing BBC output over the past week, with clickable links to all the shows that are on iPlayer (some programmes, like Match of the Day are excluded because of rights issues). Just below those buttons are options to view Featured shows (the default view), the Most Popular shows on iPlayer, and a new,  section called For You which combines the series you have favourited and others that iPlayer thinks you might like based on your viewing history. A Search and Categories button in the  top right corner offers access to those two self-explanatory features. Holding a finger on the thumbnail for any show allows you to drag it to a favourites bar that appears at the top of the screen. Those favourites are then stored, and future episodes on those series and flagged up on the Favourites tab mentioned earlier.

The quality of the video streams is excellent

The quality of the video streams is excellent and the UI is pretty

It all works very smoothly, is great looking and is far faster that the old web-based system, but the real improvement is in the video itself. Shows seem to load much faster, and do so with a nicely customised UI interface that mirrors the iPlayer theme, while offering the same functionality as the naked iPad video engine. Compared to the web-based system the quality seems identical, but without any of the AV sync issues, and with much faster and more reliable scrobbling forward and backwards through streams.

There are loads of ways to find content, including search, categories and listings grids

There are loads of ways to find content, including search, categories and listings grids

Another benefit of being a dedicated app is the multi-tasking ability. It’s now possible to leave the app to check an email for instance and pick up the video where you left off. Similarly the iPad can be put into standby mode, then resumed hours later at without missing a beat, something that couldn’t happen under the old Safari-based regime. It’s also nice to have the option to switch between low and high quality streams (something I could never do previously), giving people with limited bandwith a chance to stream videos without constant stop-starting or minutes of buffering.

It’s an incredibly competent piece of software that offers several genuine advantages over the previous setup  – and best of all it’s completely free. But only if you live in the UK of course.

10/10

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