Only recently launched amidst a fanfare of TV and print advertising, BT Vision is a 'hybrid' service which gives you a Freeview PVR that can also download TV shows and films via broadband.
BT's pricing schemes change like the British weather, but the V-box is currently free, although there's £90 of installation and connection fees to contend with. A self-install option should remove £60 of this by the end of the year. The catch is you have to be a BT Total Broadband option 2 subscriber, paying at least £23 a month for up to an 8Mb connection.
On paper the V-box is a sexy proposition, with twin Freeview tuners and a 160GB hard disc. It's hi-def capable, (although there is no HD material currently available, this may or may not appear at some point in the future) and has an HDMI output. There's also an RGB Scart and digital audio out. On-demand content is routed from your broadband modem via BT's Home Hub wireless router (although any BT other router should work as well).
Aside from a free PVR (allegedly worth £199), users get free access to the BT Vision EPG, a 14-day onscreen programme guide. By Sky or Freeview standards it's quite slick, with not just series links, but a magazine-style experience.
As a Freeview PVR, the V-box is a worthy alternative to Freeview Playback or Top Up TV Anytime, especially if you're getting the broadband anyway.
As with Philips' Freeview adapters, picture quality is good, whether live or recorded. BT's broadband network isn't perhaps as impressive as Tiscali/Homechoice, and that's reflected in the high compression seen on the recordings, which push even MPEG-4 to its limits. Don't be surprised to occasionally encounter the sort of blocky images you're used to from second (even third) division Freeview or satellite channels.
The on-demand part of BT Vision is all subscription-free, with pay-per-view charges varying from 29p for a music video to a competitive £2.99 for top movies. Many users are likely to go for a subscription, though, which start at £3 for TV Replay, going to £9 if you add a general entertainment library, and £6 for unlimited music videos or children's shows. The whole lot (not including PPV films) can be had for £14. If you're used to Sky One then you'll find the range a little outdated, but as a Freeview upgrade it's quite good.
Sky Sports isn't available, but from August you'll be able to replay any Premiership matches as soon as the live game has finished.
We're quite surprised the TV Replay catch-up service isn't thrown in for free, and £3 a month is a lot for a service that currently only has Channel 4 highlights. BT's hoping to add the BBC and ITV this year, although Five's way behind.
The BT Vision interface is built by Microsoft, and it looks pretty nifty, with lots of picture-in-picture menus and slinky graphics that put the other services to shame. But what looks good in a showroom has to be reliable every day at home, and we've had continuing trouble with our test boxes. There are numerous angry reports on user forums, too.
The service will get a Firmware upgrade in the Autumn, which may cure these hiccups. Until then, we can only give BT Vision a cautious recommendation. As an HD source it's a non-starter and its VOD selection is limited and expensive.
High-definition rating: 1/5. Video on demand rating: 2/5