TV ain’t what it used to be. These days we’re more likely to watch catch-up TV than live broadcasts, and there’s a good chance we’ll be doing that watching via a phone, tablet, games console or streaming stick than through a TV aerial. In the UK all the major broadcasters have embraced the possibilities of new technology, but some have embraced it more than others. In this round-up we’ll discover the pros and cons of the offerings from the BBC, Sky, ITV and Channel 4.
These apps are all broadcaster-specific: if you want to access a wide range of content from every UK broadcaster you can’t just stick with one app such as BBC iPlayer or All4. Chances are you’ll have more than one of these apps on your tablet or console, but as we’ll discover there are some pretty big differences in what they offer and how well they offer it.
It's also worth noting that Freeview has revealed that it will have a new app out January 2019 which combines TV content from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and 5. You will still have to log in separately to these services but it's a great step in the right direction in creating a UK Netflix rival.
We tested the services on the web, on their dedicated iPad/iPhone apps and on an Amazon Fire TV. The iOS devices were connected to 100MB fibre-optic broadband via 802.11ac Wi-Fi to assess streaming video quality and stability. In addition to playback of live and on-demand content we used the browse and search features to identify how easy it was to find particular series and individual episodes. In the case of Sky Q we used the 2TB box with an HD subscription, a standard satellite dish and an 802.11n Wi-Fi connection.
Sky has two apps: Sky Q, for accessing recorded content from your Sky Box, and Sky Go (pictured), for mobile video on demand
Sky wins this, of course: with Sky Q the standard package includes Sky Entertainment, which delivers more than 300 live, recordable channels and 60 catch-up channels as well as remote watching via the Sky Q app and video on demand from Sky Go. You can also add Sky’s sports, cinema and kids’ channels at extra cost. However, all of this requires a Sky contract: the Sky Q Entertainment bundle is £32 a month for 18 months plus £75 up-front for the 2TB Sky Q Box. Our other apps are free.
As you’d expect, the various broadcasters’ apps show the broadcasters’ own channels. BBC has the terrestrial BBC channels as well as online-only offerings such as BBC 3 and CBeebies; All4 has Channel 4, More 4 and E4; and ITV has ITV, ITV2, iTVBe, ITV4 and CITV. All three apps supplement their 30-day broadcast archive with box sets of older programmes.
iPlayer’s search isn’t brilliant but picture quality is excellent and the app is well designed and easy to useIt’s important to note that ITV is limited if you’re in Scotland: the app won’t show you the ITV channel because STV is the broadcaster for Scotland with its own thoroughly underwhelming app.
This is an easy win for the BBC, because in the UK the BBC doesn’t run advertising on its free app: there’s no need to sit through those annoying “bumper” brand adverts or watch ads for Cillit Bang every ten minutes. Both ITV and All4 play ads before and during the programmes but ITV offers an ad-free version for £3.99 a month. That isn’t available on all platforms, though.
iPlayer is straightforward and easy to use, and the only real niggle is that discovery can be a challenge sometimes: the search box is pretty basic and can be time consuming to use.
Comparing iPlayer with Sky Q is unfair, because they’re completely different things: Sky is as much about the Sky box as it is about the actual streaming service. The user experience is very good if a little too complicated sometimes – there’s an awful lot going on in your Sky box including other streaming services, downloaded programmes, video on demand and so on. The Sky Go app for accessing content on mobile devices is clean and efficient, as is the Sky Q mobile app for accessing your recorded content on your mobile device.
All4 is perfectly pleasant but we found it to be temperamental during playback, especially if we paused programmesAds aside, both ITV and All4 offer a decent user experience encompassing live TV, catch-up and box sets. Of the two All4 feels nicest to browse: it’s closer to iPlayer while ITV has gone with something more like a website. However, we’ve found the All4 app to be temperamental during actual playback: we often find that after pausing a programme we have to restart it and find our place manually.
The picture quality for the ITV Hub app isn’t great, especially on a big 4K TV. We found the quality often dropped below SD resolution and was more prone to buffering than the likes of iPlayer. All4 was similarly disappointing: our episodes of No Offence could often have been called No Idea What’s On Screen Right Now.
The ITV hub is reasonably pleasant but you’ll need to spend £3.99 per month for an ad-free experienceiPlayer delivers full HD if the programme is in that format and SD if not, so if you’re trawling the archives for old Doctor Who episodes you’ll notice a distinct drop in quality. However for recent programmes the HD video quality was faultless: whether it’s cBBC or Bodyguard everything is crisp and clean without noticeable artefacts or buffering. The latest series of Doctor Who looks stunning.
Sky Q is capable of resolutions up to 4K depending on which box you get and what you’re willing to spend (HD is £5 per month; Ultra HD requires the more expensive 2TB Sky Q box), but that also depends on your video source: if you’re watching its YouTube app, that’s running at 1080p. In a multi-room environment your Wi-Fi network will play a role too: if it isn’t pushing video data to your extra box(es) quickly enough then the video quality will suffer as a result.
Sky Q is a hardware/content bundle and is only available with a Sky subscription. Sky’s apps are available for iOS and Android as well as Windows, Mac, Xbox and PlayStation.
For viewers in Scotland ITV sends you to the unimpressive STV Player, which feels like a work in progressiPlayer is available on pretty much everything: on the web, smart TVs, BT TV, Xbox and PlayStation, iOS, Android, Amazon devices, NowTV/Roku, Freesat, Sky+, Virgin Media and YouView.
ITV Hub and its regional variants work on the web, on iOS and Android, on Fire devices, (some) Freesat and Freeview Play devices, on NowTV/Roku, on Virgin Media, on Xbox One and on selected Samsung and Sony TVs.
All4 is available on the web, on Virgin Media, YouView, BT and Sky, on Roku/NowTV, on iOS and Android, on PlayStation and Xbox, and on Windows Phone.
This is largely subjective because it depends on what you want to watch: you can’t get Doctor Who on ITV, and No Offence isn’t on iPlayer. However, on a purely objective level the iPlayer is the best of the broadcasters’ apps: it offers higher quality, a better user experience and because of the way the BBC is funded, no ads. However, like All4 and ITV Hub it’s limited to a very narrow range of content.
Sky Q doesn’t have such limits, but then Sky Q isn’t exactly free either. If you max out the options for HD and Ultra HD it delivers tons of channels in superb quality, but it also costs a lot of money.