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BBC iPlayer review

The best UK catch-up TV service there is Tested at £free

BBC iPlayer review
(Image: © BBC)

Our Verdict

With quality programmes, vast platform support and a great interface, iPlayer is the best video-on-demand catch-up TV service out there

For

  • Superb content
  • Intuitive and slick interface
  • Extensive platform support

Against

  • Still no permanent 4K offering

It’s free (except for the licence fee). It's the home of top quality TV programs. You can download programmes for offline watching. And there are no adverts to skip. Put simply, BBC iPlayer is the UK's best catch-up TV service.

Even without considering all the live broadcast TV and radio the corporation provides across many channels, iPlayer is almost worth the licence fee on its own.

Missed the last episode of Line of Duty, need another Pointless fix or want to see what all the Killing Eve or Fleabag fuss is about? BBC iPlayer is your answer. It was already a great desktop service when first introduced in 2007 and, well over a decade on, it’s even more excellent in its incarnation as an app for your TV, smartphone and tablet.

Features

BBC iPlayer review

(Image credit: BBC)

Unlike Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, iPlayer is free to use – so long as you pay the BBC's annual licence fee (currently £159 for colour and £53.50 for black and white), which has been in place, in some form or another, for almost a century.

The on-demand service is the home of BBC shows that have recently aired, offering a (typically 30-day) window to catch them before they are free to whizz off to the BBC and ITV's relatively new, £5.99-per-month BritBox streaming service, which is where you'll find the biggest collection of British TV content ever, combining current and classic boxsets for on-demand viewing. 

BBC iPlayer does host some of its most popular TV shows for longer durations, however – Killing Eve (which became the first British-made show to be named the best comedy series at the Emmy Awards last year), Line of Duty (multiple BAFTA Television Awards nominee) and Luther (multiple Golden Globe nominee) are, at the time of writing, available to binge in their entirety on iPlayer, for example. 

In a bid to boost the nation's spirits during lockdown, the BBC helpfully added a slew of new long-term boxsets to iPlayer. The 'from the archive' tab in 'categories' is where you’ll find full series’ of classic fare such as Absolutely Fabulous, Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley as well as pretty much every  Michael Palin documentary ever made. 

It would be difficult to guess how many hours of content iPlayer offers at any one time, but there always seems to be at least one show on iPlayer that everyone is talking about – and that's a credit to the broadcaster's consistency for quality programming.

As with many streaming services these days, BBC iPlayer lets you download shows onto your smart device for offline watching for up to 30 days. This is great for long train journeys, if you’re travelling out of the country (iPlayer is only available in the UK) or can’t get any internet or data signal. 

You can choose whether to restrict downloading to when you're connected to a wi-fi network or allow downloading over your mobile network data in the app's settings.

BBC iPlayer review

(Image credit: BBC)

BBC iPlayer’s familiar grid layout is neat and stylish, with its home screen logically presenting you with 'Featured', 'Recommended for You', 'Continue Watching' and 'Most Popular' suggestions. The service dynamically highlights programmes, too, mixing documentaries and comedy panel shows so that there’s something for everyone.

You can also browse programmes by channels (BBC One, BBC Two or CBeebies, for example), categories (Arts, Food and Documentaries, say) or TV guide schedules. Or you can simply search for them. You can add shows to your 'My Programmes' list, too, so new episodes are easy to access.

Essentially, each update to iPlayer over the years has made it fresher and more intuitive to use. Scrolling through the service is a swift and smooth process, regardless of what platform you’re using. 

This is probably a good time to mention that the iPlayer app is everywhere: on pretty much every smart TV and media streamer, available to download across iOS and Android devices, even on Xbox Series X/S. iPlayer's not currently on the PS5, but it's still one of the most prevalent apps across smart devices in the UK.

Despite having the iPlayer app it's worth noting that Hisense 2020 TV devices and the PS4 Pro will not play the service's selection of UHD content. 

Just be aware that you need to create a BBC ID account to watch any iPlayer content, although it is free to sign up and stays logged in at all times, keeping your favourites list and watching history synced across all devices.

Picture

BBC iPlayer review

(Image credit: BBC)

With increasingly high-quality screen resolutions on smartphones and tablets, both standard and high-definition shows on iPlayer look as good as you'd reasonably expect them to.

Naturally, we would urge you to play HD whenever you can. Most programmes are available in HD, so long as they've first been broadcast on a BBC HD channel, which, from 21st October 2021, will also include content for the 15 English regional variants of BBC One.

Then there's the BBC's next-level 4K Ultra HD content, which offers a huge step up in picture quality – namely in resolution and detail. While the BBC still doesn't yet have a regular, permanent 4K offering, it has run several 4K trials on iPlayer since 2016, including Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II on-demand viewing and, even more excitingly, live broadcasts of the 2018 FIFA World Cup football and Wimbledon tennis.

After temporarily removing 4K content during 2020 to help ease the strain on broadband networks, iPlayer has made UHD programming available again. The current 'trial' has 15 shows available to stream, including His Dark Materials and Black Narcissus. In addition to this permanent content, the BBC recently broadcast its share of the rescheduled Euro 2020 games and 2021 Wimbledon coverage in Ultra HD and HDR live on iPlayer. We can't help but feel it really is about time for 4K to become a permanent fixture of the service.

Despite broadcasting some HD programmes, such as The Proms, in 5.1 surround sound, all content on iPlayer is only available in stereo. This is a bit disappointing, especially when streaming modern films or the flagship 4K documentary Seven Worlds, One Planet, which we know has a lush Dolby Atmos soundtrack on its Blu Ray release. Although some paid-for streaming platforms do have tiers that support multi-channel sound, we understand that the BBC doesn't have any plans to add that functionality to iPlayer in the short term.

The BBC does provide excellent accessibility features for the visually impaired and hard of hearing. Many programmes will have icons that tell you whether audio description (AD) or sign language (SL) options are available.

Verdict

BBC iPlayer isn't entirely free, of course. But when the license fee amounts to less than 45p per day, and you look at the incredible range and accessibility of programming available from the BBC, not to mention the cutting-edge picture technologies it strives to offer in the hopefully near future, we'd happily carry on paying so that we can see more of the broadcaster's David Attenborough-narrated nature documentaries.

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What Hi-Fi?

What Hi-Fi?, founded in 1976, is the world's leading independent guide to buying and owning hi-fi and home entertainment products. Our comprehensive tests help you buy the very best for your money, with our advice sections giving you step-by-step information on how to get even more from your music and movies. Everything is tested by our dedicated team of in-house reviewers in our custom-built test rooms in London and Bath. Our coveted five-star rating and Awards are recognised all over the world as the ultimate seal of approval, so you can buy with absolute confidence.


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  • Aedes
    A review by What Hi-Fi without a single mention of audio quality or supported formats?! BBC iPlayer has no surround sound, no 5.1, no Atmos, for any content. Five stars? Really?

    Personally I also don't think you can classify a service requiring a £159 TV license as "Free".
    Reply
  • HappySounds
    Why no mention of the total lack of support for Echo Show devices? You say "vast device support". but apart from my TV this is the one device I would make use of (in multiple rooms) and there is no support for it. Not only that, but there is no support in the BBC Sounds app for streaming to ANY Echo device, even though there is a BBC Sounds skill. Honestly the BBC fall far short of services like Spotify even in terms of how seamless they make it to use their services.
    Reply
  • Big Aura
    yeah, the lack of 5.1 is a real puzzle. The BBC's position is "we think this is niche and people don't want it" - but when you have a choice of football in HD with 5.1 on live broadcast or UHD and 2.0 on the iplayer, that doesn't seem to stack up (expecting people to ignore a live broadcast to watch the football on a 7 second delay via the app seems a lot more niche).
    Reply
  • Friesiansam
    Most people don't have the hardware for, or even care about 5.1 sound or Atmos as they just use the TV's own speakers or a simple soundbar or soundbase. As for picture quality, just had a look at Blue Planet 2 and the picture is excellent.
    Reply
  • Wales1
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    With loads of high-quality content, an easy-to-use interface and vast device support, iPlayer is the best UK catch-up TV service out there.

    BBC iPlayer : Read more
    Absolutely right.
    Reply
  • Wales1
    Aedes said:
    A review by What Hi-Fi without a single mention of audio quality or supported formats?! BBC iPlayer has no surround sound, no 5.1, no Atmos, for any content. Five stars? Really?

    Personally I also don't think you can classify a service requiring a £159 TV license as "Free".
    Who cares about Atmos and other gimmicks? It's a wonderful service.
    Reply
  • Wales1
    Friesiansam said:
    Most people don't have the hardware for, or even care about 5.1 sound or Atmos as they just use the TV's own speakers or a simple soundbar or soundbase. As for picture quality, just had a look at Blue Planet 2 and the picture is excellent.
    Totally agree.
    Reply
  • Wales1
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    With loads of high-quality content, an easy-to-use interface and vast device support, iPlayer is the best UK catch-up TV service out there.

    BBC iPlayer : Read more
    It's the gold standard.
    Reply
  • Wales1
    HappySounds said:
    Why no mention of the total lack of support for Echo Show devices? You say "vast device support". but apart from my TV this is the one device I would make use of (in multiple rooms) and there is no support for it. Not only that, but there is no support in the BBC Sounds app for streaming to ANY Echo device, even though there is a BBC Sounds skill. Honestly the BBC fall far short of services like Spotify even in terms of how seamless they make it to use their services.
    Spotify! Ridiculous argument.
    Reply
  • HappySounds
    Wales1 said:
    Spotify! Ridiculous argument.
    You are going to have to be more explicit about why my argument is ridiculous than simply saying that it is. Why is it 'ridiculous' to say that BBC Sounds should support streaming from the app to Echo devices? If Spotify can do it, so can (and should) BBC Sounds. These things should be as seamless as possible.

    I end up not using BBC Sounds simply because it is totally straightforward to find what I want in Spotify and then stream it to the various Echo devices around my home. Why should BBC Sounds be a second-class client in this regard?
    Reply