Yesterday, we had a little pop at the BBC for its silly DRM on freesat. Today, we want to redress the balance by looking at how BBC iPlayer HD stacks up against its broadcast counterpart on the free-to-air satellite service. This isn't a witch-hunt, we're not going to have a go at iPlayer for being less impressive than full-blown HD, but we think this is a subject that people have a real interest in.
So, if you're looking to use iPlayer on your TV, you'll need a computer powerful enough to handle the HD video the BBC uses. Most modern PCs are up to the job and all major operating systems are supported now. You'll also need a way of getting the picture and sound to your TV. If your laptop has HDMI and can send sound over that, brilliant. You can also use DVI or, if there are no other options, VGA.
As you're probably aware, there are four different types of video available on iPlayer. Streaming, downloads, HD streaming and HD downloads. As you would expect, regular streaming is the quickest, simplest and lowest quality. That said, it's perfectly watchable. We selected an old episode of Doctor Who -- the picture was soft, but for the most part good enough for emergency use. That said, we grew up with VHS, so lack of detail is faintly nostalgic.
HD streaming is actually pretty good from our early tests. The problem we encountered that our office ADSL line, accessed via Wi-Fi, isn't quite fast enough to reliably stream HD. The resolution is there, but the frame rate is not. Stopping our other downloads helped, and eventually we managed to watch enough to form an opinion -- we rather liked streaming HD. We don't think you'll want to use it on a TV, purely because the downloads are more reliable, but for viewing on a laptop the quality is a welcome improvement over the standard version.
As for HD downloads, well, they look very good indeed. From a sensible viewing distance, the picture looks sharp, detailed and, at worst, like a very good-quality standard-definition picture. We did notice, however, that when scaled up to full screen, the edges had some aliasing (a sort of stepping on straight lines), which you wouldn't find on true HD video.
We also felt that the playback wasn't as smooth as we would expect from HD. There were two separate issues here though -- the first being that sometimes playback jumps, skipping multiple frames of video. We suspect this is a problem with the PC we used, rather than the video itself. We also noticed that video looked less fluid than we expected, however. This looks like the frame rate is lower than a standard broadcast, at times, reminding us of 15fps video. Most of the time though, everything looks very watchable.
One of the biggest deficiencies of the service is HD downloads don't have any discrete multi-channel audio. It would be terrific to see Dolby Digital audio attached to the high-quality pictures -- after all, sound is half the experience. That said, the audio on HD downloads is very good and you can persuade Dolby Pro Logic out of the stereo audio, if you've got an AV receiver.
So, is iPlayer HD good enough for your HD TV? Yes, we think it is actually. The quality isn't perfect, but if you missed something, or simply don't have access to the proper HD channel, it's likely to be a godsend. We're hopeful that the BBC will continue to improve the quality.
All our tests were carried out on a 1080p Panasonic plasma connected to our Onkyo AV receiver, which was fed by an MSI laptop with HDMI out. We used video from Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and episode 1 of Reggie Perrin -- which incidentally is far better than we thought it would be.