In the last few months there has been a huge wave of service improvements and product launches in the industry; from the long-awaited (and actually, in Decipher’s view, rather good) Youview box, to Sky’s new remote control app (which now contains Zeebox functionality). In amongst all this launch madness we have spotted a few bit and pieces of functionality that have stunned us with their simplicity and brilliance. They are the kind of thing that needs to be quickly copied by every box. So we thought we would tell you about them:
On Youview, you will know the backwards EPG links to the catch-up players, but there is another thing it does which we think is really clever. It lets you jump into programmes you have recorded on the PVR. A viewer can select and play a recorded show directly from the backwards EPG, without having to sift through content in their planner to find what they want. We have long thought that the PVR is actually a support tool for broadcast and linking it to the EPG like this reinforces this. This is a great piece of functionality, both intuitive and useful. It is sure to be popular with consumers.
Continuing with the theme of Backwards EPGs, our favourite at the moment is the version available on Freesat’s recently launched ‘Freetime’ box. It differs from the ‘classic’ backwards EPG look and feel in that when the user goes backwards on the programme guide, instead of continuing with the usual EPG format, it brings up a list showing just the content which is available. To us this is a much improved way of displaying the available catch up content, as the backwards EPG style used in TiVo and Youview suffers from a key flaw – they can end up showing pages and pages of content which is not available in catch up.
The third of our favourite functions comes with another very impressive new addition to the set top box marketplace – the View21 Freeview box. Made by Harvard International, the box comes with a smart app which allows a user to access content which they have recorded on their PVR and view it somewhere else in the house on their Smartphone or Tablet. Not only that, the user can watch recorded content, while someone else uses the main box to watch a broadcast channel on the TV. A brilliantly simple bit of functionality, and one which seems so blindingly obvious it is a wonder nobody has done it earlier.
Back onto EPGs, another brilliantly simple feature we love is on the SkyHD EPG. This interface, like many EPGs, has a mini-window in the top right corner showing ‘last channel viewed’. However, if you scroll down the listings on the Sky one, and click once on a show currently playing on a different channel, it changes channel in the mini-window. Click a second time and it fully selects that channel. This lets you quickly ‘sample’ the show without closing the EPG. Again, brilliantly simple but dramatically improves the usability of an EPG.
Finally, there is a feature of TV system we need to flag up as ‘best in class’, even though it is about to be superseded by an ‘upgrade’ to what we think is an inferior version. You might be surprised to know that it sits on the sadly uncelebrated original BT Vision box. One of our major gripes with all the platforms of late has been the lack of channel or programme branding they allow the broadcasters to have in their catch-up areas. With either our broadcaster hat or our consumer hat on, we believe that when you enter, say, the ITV catch-up area in Virgin, it should have far more of an ITV look and feel, rather than simply being page after page of TiVo’s red and gold. The closest any platform has come to providing this has been BT Vision in their original boxes. The broadcasters choose their own branded background picture, present branded thumbnails for programmes, and control the general look and feel. This gives a clear signpost to the user that they are in the broadcasters area. These pages always offered the best balance between broadcaster profile and standard platform navigation. But rather than building on this great start, BT appear to be moving away from this design in their Youview player and we will mourn its loss. However, early signs are that the channel areas for the newly available catch-up content on Sky may have some of this branding around them. It could become our new favourite.
As we said at the beginning, these are the kind of simple game-changers that we think should be quickly copied by every set top box. These little things set the new standard for box functionality and, if they become ‘hygiene factor, we could move on to the next set of improvements. However, we won’t be holding our breath…