BBC iPlayer is the BBC's on-demand TV download software. UPDATE, 8 July 2008: read our BBC iPlayer review here.
It doesn't currently need a lot of imagination to guess how the online revolution is going to craft and shape the television of the future. And despite its slightly crusty image, the BBC has a good reputation when it comes to harnessing new technology.
BBC iPlayer then, is its attempt to show us how, in the near-future, viewers will be able to pick and choose the programmes they want to see whenever and (pretty much) wherever they want – just as long as they've got access to a broadband connection and a suitably equipped computer.
The reference to a 'suitably equipped computer' is a salient one. BBC iPlayer, you see, is currently a beta version. Which means that there are niggles and problems with the BBC iPlayer software - quite a few, as it turns out - and the BBC is still testing the reliability and speed of the downloads.
And as for the 'suitably equipped computer' for BBC iPlayer? Well, you're going to need Windows Media Player to be running at version 10.0 or later. Internet Explorer will need to be at least version 6.0. And, oh yes, your PC will have to be running Windows XP.
There's no Vista version of BBC iPlayer yet although, with the help of an easily found crack on the internet, you can actually get the service working perfectly well in Vista Home Premium. Which makes it all the more strange that the BBC has imposed the XP-only restriction.
Once you've got through the rigorous signing up procedure and installed the software, you then browse through the list of programmes on the BBC's iPlayer website. The list contains many of the choice cuts from the previous seven days, along with a bunch of more surprising choices. Most of the expected names (Eastenders, Doctor Who, Panorama, The Proms etc.) are there and, thanks to BBC Three's habit of showing countless repeats, you can find the odd 'historic' episode of Little Britain and other such programmes.
It's nice to see the net cast so wide (even Questions from the House of Lords is available), although there were some notable omissions (BBC2's much-hyped American show, Heroes, was nowhere to be found). In the future, the BBC will presumably be looking to put out classic shows from the recent and not-so-recent past. For the time being though, the BBC iPlayer options are reasonably in-depth.
If you see anything you like, click on the button and BBC iPlayer will start downloading to the Library. File transfer is carried out through the peer-to-peer system Kontiki. This can make the download times rather erratic. The estimates suggested that a one hour programme should take about 20 minutes to download. In our experience, it took almost three times as long - even a 30 minute programme needed over half an hour to transfer. In fairness, the service was experiencing technical difficulties at the time of testing, and some other users reported download times in keeping with the estimates. Others didn't however, so there's clearly no consistency on this for the time being.
Once downloaded, BBC iPlayer programmes expire within seven days once watched (if not watched then within 30 days or less - depending on the original transmission date). Image quality was quite good on a 1,680x1,050 display, although the video did lack the sharpness you'd expect from a standard television image. It would have been nice, too, had we been able to get far more information about the nature of the recording. What would have been the optimal resolution? Standard or High Definition? Widescreen?