The idea of a digital recorder that merges Freeview reception with online content is both innovative and inevitable. Having IPTV on tap alongside DVB is the natural evolution of digital TV, and to finally get to grips with such a product is truly exciting.

That BT should beat arch rival Sky to the punch with such a product is interesting, too. Sky has carved its name as an innovator in broadcast technology while BT... hasn't.

BT Vision is basically a Freeview PVR with a 160GB hard drive and online capability. Although the box is free, there are caveats. It's only available to BT Total Broadband customers and can only be fitted by a BT engineer, at a cost of £90 (an installation fee of £60 and a connection charge of £30).

Naturally, while Freeview content is gratis, the IPTV component is charged on a pay-per-view basis. Expect to pay around a couple of quid to watch shows and movies from the VOD (video on demand) menu.

A bit of hubbub

BT insists that the BT Vision box is used with its HomeHub Wi-Fi router. This stipulation caused me a little consternation, as, although a BT customer, I would rather dig my eyes out with a fork than use the HomeHub. A more unreliable router doesn't exist.

Having gone through two and ranted at the way it would toss my internet connection out of the window on a whim, I junked the 'Hub for an earlier Voyager 2091 Wi-Fi modem, again BT-specific, and found peace of mind (and a stress-free connection).

But as part of the deal, BT insists on connecting the V-box directly to the HomeHub. So out of retirement it came and the BT engineer duly came and hooked it up.

The unit (manufactured by Thomson) is reasonably well made. Slim and compact, it has system controls on the fascia and a flap revealing a card slot and (currently non-functioning) USB 2.0 slots.

Backside AV connectivity comprises HDMI v1.1 (even though the unit is currently SD only), two Scarts, optical digital audio, stereo phonos, S-video and aerial loop through. In addition there's a phone line input, inactive USB slots and an Ethernet jack.

The remote handset is a bit of a handful because it's shaped like a TGI potato wedge, but it's finished so well you'll enjoy wielding it. It also flickers blue when used. Cool.

The EPG looks like the bastard child of Sony's XMB interface and the Sky Guide.

It allows you to scroll across the top bar to access TV Listings, VOD content, recordings, and so on. Once selected, these unveil more options.

Unfortunately, a complex PVR like this lives or dies by its software. And the code beneath the hood seems somewhat flakey. Stepping through the EPG is enough for it to lock up and become unresponsive. I found myself gingerly moving about, putting a respectful delay between each button press in the hope that I wouldn't cause the box to crash. It's like the electronic equivalent of whispering.

The box also has a habit of throwing up incomprehensible error codes. One attempt to delete a programme was met with repeated refusal and a message stubbornly telling me the box was unable to record.

Hopefully, such error code nonsense will become a thing of the past. The online nature of the box means that BT can continually update firmware without any user intervention.

In use, the Freeview side of the box is par for the course. Its pictures look much like any other Freeview box and recordings are transparent to the original source. When it comes to the quality of VOD material, playback is smooth and moderately detailed.

Although it feels as if the VOD selections are unspooling from the hard drive, they are in fact streaming from a BT server. Standard FF/REW/pause control is possible. Smoothness depends on your broadband speed. BT recommends a minimum of 2Mb.

Interestingly, the box can decode VC1, MPEG-4, MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 DVB SD video, MPEG-4 AVC and MPEG-2 HD, and MPEG-1 layer 2, AAC and Dolby Digital audio. This gives it huge future-proofing potential as and when appropriate firmware is released. 128Mbytes of RAM is available to system resources, while a 300MHz processor drives the EPG.

Poor and expensive

As for the value of BT's VOD service, that's yet to be determined. Currently, the selection of programming is poor and expensive. Charging 29p for a three-minute music video strikes me as way too much.

And I'm not alone in feeling cool to Pay-Per-View VOD. According to the influential Forrester Research group, downloading pay content is unlikely to become a mainstream pursuit, which could be bad news for BT's gameplan.

Instead it suggests that in the near future broadcasters and studios will move to streaming technology funded by advertising. That business model (as advocated by ITV.com) is where the lucrative ad market of tomorrow will migrate and where most money will be made.

So has our telecoms giant come to the market half-cocked or is BT Vision indeed an evolutionary product? A bit of both, actually.

While I have reservations about the value of the VOD content - there should be more free stuff - and have courted madness through its erratic behaviour, I don't feel inclined to write the BT Vision box off.

BT has a chance to fix its bugs and improve functionality via firmware updates. If it can get it working as advertised, this would be a very cool product indeed.