As we reported yesterday, the BBC's new iPlayer for iPad appeared in iTunes overnight for UK residents, and we've got a hands-on look at the app for you. For those who didn't know, iPlayer is a little like Hulu for BBC content; it aggregates almost everything the BBC showed in the last week across its various TV channels and radio stations into an attractive web interface for catch-up viewing. It's free to UK users because of the unique way the BBC is funded (and not currently available outside the UK), so it's a very popular service. It's also quite widely supported on various devices -- the BBC's developers have worked with manufacturers to bring it to Sony's PS3, Nintendo's Wii and the Boxee Box, amongst others.
Up until now, the iPad has been a rather poor relation in the iPlayer universe, despite the naming similarities. Users have had to make do with a rather sub-par web interface to access iPlayer content. The UI was sluggish, small, fiddly and generally unpleasant. This new native app solves all those problems, and it adds some nifty new features to boot.
Compared to that web version, this new iPlayer app is much improved. The main part of the interface is a chunky tile-based layout of popular shows, with attractive high-quality photography (even for radio programmes). New to the app is the ability to browse a listings grid of the BBC's TV and radio channels, and use this both to view catch-up shows and the live content of all the channels. This is particularly handy for sporting events; previously, you'd have to wait until the game finished before it would appear in the iPlayer's catch-up listing.
Also new to the app is the ability to add shows to a favourites list for quick access. This mirrors functionality on the iPlayer website, but note that the favourites list is not synchronized -- so if you use more than just your iPad to access iPlayer content, you'll be managing mismatched favourites lists on each device. This seems like a bit of a missed opportunity to me.
It's not all sunshine and roses though; there are several notable things missing. The first is an iPhone version of the app; users of smaller iOS devices will be stuck with the web streaming. The second is support for streaming over 3G -- this is a Wi-Fi only app. The third is AirPlay support, which isn't possible at present anyway (as the necessary SDK was added in the still-in-beta iOS 4.3). We can only hope the BBC will add in a future revision of the app. This would certainly help make the Apple TV a bit more useful in the UK, where the smaller iTunes rental library and non-existence of Netflix serve to rather hobble the device. There's also no high definition support -- although when showing widescreen content the iPad's display is only using 1024x576 pixels anyway, so standard definition is fine.
The iPlayer app is resolutely UK-only at the moment, although there is a subscription based US version in the works for "the first half of 2011." Personally, I think Britain should hold iPlayer and Spotify hostage until we see UK versions of Netflix and Hulu, but the BBC won't answer my phone calls any more.