At last, a little over 3 years after BBC iPlayer launched on Christmas Day 2007, the official application is now available for Android. BBC iPlayer has received much appreciation in the media industry by allowing people to watch and listen to their favourite TV shows and Radio stations for a period of a week after being first aired, sparking its competitors to follow suit, and consequently creating a much better experience for their viewers to watch shows when and how they want.
Today we will be looking at the first official app that will allow users to kick back and catch up on their favourite BBC shows on their Android device. With a motto of “Making the unmissable, unmissable” it has a lot to live up to, and we will be testing whether it was worth the wait, or if it is just another flimsy app.
Note: This app requires Froyo (Android 2.2) with Flash installed and will only work on WiFi, not 3G. It is also currently only available for use in the UK.
The iPlayer application starts off with an easily navigable grid-based layout opening in the ‘TV’ tab, but also with the choice of ‘Radio’ and ‘Favourites’. The first section displays ‘Featured’ items, which scrolls down to reveal 15 items, while scrolling right will show the ‘Most Popular’ and ‘For You’ sections.
Simply tapping on one of the grid icons will bring you to the designated page, allowing you to play the selected media. On this page is the relevant information such as the length, the expiry date, and a quick summary. You are also given the option to ‘Share’ the media (bringing up the stock list of sharing options) or ‘Add to Favourites’, and sitting at the bottom of the page is the More Like This category which gives eight related shows.
The interface is clean and easy to use, taking no time to get used to, and is overall a pleasant experience, in terms of aesthetics.
Functionality and Performance
While looks are important, it’s how well it works that is the determining factor as to whether an app becomes one that people use daily, or whether it is uninstalled within minutes. Unfortunately, this app fails to live up to the high expectations that one might have of the BBC, one of the largest companies in the world. If you look at the user reviews you will find them riddled with complaints, mostly about its lack of 3G capabilities, leaving it with an average rating of only 2.5 stars.
Which leads me on to what is without a doubt its biggest flaw: the lack of 3G playback. This app has great potential for mobile users; however, being restricted to only WiFi usage severely limits its practicality. Most of the time when you are connected to WiFi, you are at home or at least not on the move, and have access to a computer which provides a much better and richer experience than watching something on a small screen. Judging by the hundreds of reviews complaining about this problem, it would only seem logical that the BBC would release an update for it soon that would remove the restriction on 3G playback.
[Editor's note: I wouldn't hold your breath. From what I've heard, the decision to restrict playback to WiFi-only was not made by the BBC, but rather the mobile phone networks. That could be just a rumour, though.]
In terms of general use it has its ups and downs, much as you would expect from the first version of an application as complex as this. The navigation is fairly deep within this application, and the developers have done a good job of making that easy. Upon pressing the Menu button on the top right of the screen you are provided with a list of ‘Categories’, ‘Channels’ or ‘Live TV’, making navigation very easy, and along with the search functionality this makes finding any TV or radio show a breeze.
There is, however, definitely room for improvement in the application for general use. My biggest concern being the lack of background playback for radio; while the application does stop the screen being turned off, as soon as it is off or the you leave the application, playback abruptly stops. This means you must always be in the application itself which is even more of a battery drain, not to mention a nuisance. Another small yet aggravating issue is the Back Button, which seems only to work sporadically, sometimes not doing anything, and at other times quitting the application altogether (however this may have just been an issue with the Desire HD on which I tested this).
When looking for an alternative application for viewing BBC iPlayer TV content there aren’t really any, except for Beebplayer which is now discontinued. You do have the option of using the BBC iPlayer website which provides a very similar service and will work on 3G for some carriers in the UK, as long as you have Flash Player.
For the radio stations, at least, there are plenty of alternatives because all BBC’s radio stations are available online and many radio applications can access them. Some good alternatives for radio are: TuneIn (free), RadioTime (~£1.20), and of course the pre-installed radio apps that come on many new smartphones.