BBC iPlayer: BBC Broadcasting in Your Hands

From the early 1960s, mobile TV viewing was a dream, soon to be fuelled by the Space race, and by the early 1970s, investors such as Panasonic and Sinclair Research began to make it a reality. Fast forward to today and we have a myriad of channels and seemingly unlimited content.

One provider stands out over all the rest, especially in the UK — that of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). Its content provision has consistently given us quality material, and expert presenting. What, then, of it’s flagship iPhone product (currently only available in the UK), BBC iPlayer? In an era where mobile video content is the norm and easily accessible, lets take a look to see how BBC iPlayer allows the wonderful transition from corner-of-the-room viewing to quality media content anywhere.

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A Lively Start

The iPad is an ideal device to watch video content on, so the pairing of a BBC app and the iPad should be a marriage made in heaven. The opening screen of the player is lively, with a pleasant black-and-pink themed layout, and a sliding view of recently broadcast content.

BBC iPlayer's lively opening screen.

BBC iPlayer’s lively opening screen.

Please bear in mind that this player is not receiving any over-the-air signal, such as happened in the early days of mobile TV, where patchy analogue reception would hamper efforts to see much at all. BBC iPlayer relies on having a mobile (3G) or Wi-Fi network signal to begin with. Patchy 3G reception will drive you crazy if you attempt to stream on the move as I did on a recent commute. No problem, I thought, I’ll simply download the show and watch it in a few minutes when it finishes. Well, where a patchy analogue signal has ceased, there comes in its wake the inability to download content over 3G . Only a Wi-Fi connection is supported for downloading (perhaps to prevent excessive data fees), but if you are fortunate to find yourself in a good 3G signal area, the latest BBC iPlayer update allows live streaming of TV and Radio content.


You must, therefore, see this application as a load-and-go solution where a Wi-Fi connection is used to stock up on programs for later viewing. This will, of course, take some planning, but items can be queued when out on the road and downloaded when a Wi-Fi spot becomes available.

Select download to begin saving content locally on your iPad.

Select download to begin saving content locally on your iPad.

Standard and high-definition quality downloads are available, and the ability to connect your iPad direct to your TV for viewing on the big screen is a recently added feature, plus gives great quality viewing.

What’s New?

The application has featured content with brief program descriptions to entice you to download or watch them. The Most Popular selection shows content that others have recently enjoyed, and often reflects the topics of conversation in my workplace the next day.

I particularly like the well-laid-out electronic program guide (EPG) to view content that is available. It is noticeable that not every program on the BBC’s schedule is available to watch via BBC iPlayer. Notable exceptions are, for example, news bulletins throughout the day, although the News-at-Ten is always available. As with catch-up-TV services such as FreeTime, the EPG displays content from the last seven days.

The EPG is smooth to operate, and offers seven days of content to watch or download.

The EPG is smooth to operate, and offers seven days of content to watch or download.

It is a great way to stay in touch with popular programming, and to fill those times where you have your iPad handy and nothing to do, hopefully with some headphones, too. It is also worth mentioning that recorded programs are only available to watch for a limited time on your device and each recorded program has an expires field to remind you when to watch it by.

Hear Today, and Tomorrow

Radio shows are also available if you have missed an important program or caught the end of something on your car radio and want to hear it in full. Unfortunately, downloading is not possible for radio content. There is always the podcast application for that need. There is a Stations tab which is excellent for finding your normal or regular radio station(s). I frequently visit BBC Radio 2,  and I’m never far fromThe News Quiz on BBC Radio 4, either.

There is excellent provision for radio listeners too.

There is excellent provision for radio listeners too.

You’re My Favourite

One of the features I use the most is Favourites. It remembers those programs you watch most and I’ve found I use this tab often to quickly get the latest content before setting off on a journey. Be warned, however, that downloading does take some time and so it’s best to plan ahead so you’re not rushing out of the door mid-download, as has happened to me on more than one occasion.

An absolutely excellent addition is found at the bottom of the screen — More like this

There is a search function within the application that has handy categories to quickly locate content that may be of interest to you, although the search can sometimes bring back surprising suggestions — for instance, searching for Sci-Fi brings back “Don’t tell the bride” as well as a documentary on the human body, but generally the search works well, especially if you know the name of the show you need. There is also a category within the search option called Signed For — this brings back programs that have signing available. This is such a superb addition for the hard of hearing, and an excellent use of the mobile tablet platform.

A helpful "More like this" tab is available to guide your next viewing choice.

A helpful “More like this” tab is available to guide your next viewing choice.

Content that is related in nature to your current viewing is listed in a handy scroll-across film strip, and it was a delight to find more interesting food-related shows available to watch after my session in the kitchen with the Masterchef professionals.

Just Browsing …

I’ve found browsing through the iPlayer app very quick and an interesting thing to do in itself, as it shows me content I overlooked in our regular TV guide and I recommend having a good dig around in here yourself. There are many hidden gems of interesting educational and entertaining programs. The content is of a consistently high standard, as you’d expect from the BBC, and the development team have made recent upgrades to hone the application into the success it is today — especially with the handling of downloaded programs.

It's suprising what little gems can be found just browsing around.

It’s suprising what little gems can be found just browsing around.

It is a joy to watch recorded content full screen and with the option of subtitles if that is appropriate or needed. I always leave the option to download higher definition recordings on, but if your space or time is limited, you can toggle this setting off in the settings menu.

You can toggle higher definition recordings off to save space and downloading time.

In closing

An application of this popularity is bound to have its problems and the BBC iPlayer is no exception. One frustrating issue is the intermittent inability to play downloaded content. Most of the time this issue simply just does not occur, but it does happen — I had it occur once in my 20+ hours of testing. There are workarounds, thankfully, and simply switching my Wi-Fi and data connection off  enabled content to play.

One program, however, refused to play at all. Having gone to the bother of downloading What is life, I have to report that I simply couldn’t get this program to play at all. A full reboot of the iPad and the application did not fix this. I was left sat staring at a revolving wheel and black screen for some time — it never did play. One hopes that these issues will be resolved quickly.

On the whole, BBC iPlayer is an excellent application with good searching ability and a comprehensive TV Guide. Excellent streaming (in a good signal area) and support for subtitles and easy-to-find content with signing adds to the already wide ranging good quality content.

Once the technological gremlins are fixed, I would happily rate this 10 out of 10. But for now, there’s still some way to go .


A review of the iPlayer app that allows you to keep up with BBC TV and Radio on the go, download and watch or stream content.