The Recordings and Replay panes are laid out in a similar way. Recently recorded content is given pride of place in dedicated windows, but there's always a deeper menu beyond for sorting and categorizing. It's all very easy to understand, and is cleverly built so you can always filter and find the content you want in only a few "clicks." What's more, it's impressively fast, meaning you can fly between panes without any noticeable input lag. It slows down slightly in the deeper sorting menus, but not to the extent that it even approaches frustrating. All sounds good so far, right? Well, as slick as the menu system is, you're almost certainly going to be spending much more time flicking through the EPG, cruising for something to watch. And, unfortunately, the EPG is so sluggish it drives me to distraction.
Pressing the Guide button on the remote brings up the EPG instantly, but it then takes a second or two to populate the listings for the eight channels in the grid. Page down, and you have to wait another second for those listings to load, and so on. This kind of downtime is almost more annoying because the rest of the user interface is so fast. I have no idea why this information isn't constantly being cached in the background so the full directory is available whenever you might want it. And if there's a technical reason this can't be done, I don't believe it. When you are watching a channel, you can bring up mini EPGs by prodding the directional pad. One pops up on the left side of the screen, and shows you what's on other channels, while the other rises from the bottom of the screen and tells you upcoming programming on the channel you're watching. Both of these are fully populated straight away, making the slow, main EPG even more of a curiosity.
There are plenty of other good and bad points to highlight about the EPG. It consumes the screen when you summon it, but it's semitransparent so you can still see the channel you're currently on through it, which is a nice touch. The programme details pop-up, like the EPG itself, takes a second to load when you hit the information button on the remote, but here you'll also find when subsequent episodes of that particular show are being broadcast over the next seven days. You can schedule recordings or reminders from within this overlay, which is charmingly intuitive. In fact, anywhere you might conceive the record command to have an effect, it does. The first option that presents itself, however, is to record the entire series of a programme, which means you're always another button press away from just recording that one episode.
As EE TV is a DVR, the idea is that you'll do more than just watch TV on it, such as recording content to the box for consuming it whenever you fancy. You can pause and rewind live TV, of course, but the box's main selling points revolve around its advanced features. Like the general user experience, though, these snazzy functions come with their own limitations.
Replay is a really neat feature that lets you select up to six channels to record 24/7. (Well, almost, as for some reason Replay won't record anything aired between 3 AM and 5 AM in the morning.) You can tell the box to keep the last six, 12, 18 or 24 hours of content before it starts deleting the oldest recordings to make room for the new. With Replay disabled, all four of the box's tuners are available to you, meaning you can record up to four different channels at once. Switch the feature on, and two of those tuners are reserved for Replay, while the other two are still free for you to record up to two other channels at the same time. Replay content has its own section in the main menu, making it all easily searchable, but you can also cycle through past broadcasts in the EPG and launch recordings from there. This is particularly handy if you've missed the start of something you want to watch, because you can simply jump to the beginning of the broadcast.
There's no denying this is a great feature, and one you won't find on other set-top boxes, but it's more of a half-feature due to the limited selection of channels you can select to "Replay" -- in other words, it's not available on every Freeview channel. In fact, only the well-known terrestrial providers are supported, with the entire channel selection as follows:
- BBC 1/2/3/4
- BBC News & BBC Parliament
- Channel 4/E4/Film4/More4
- Channel 5
Now, I get that these are all popular channels, but the limitation is still frustrating to me. I'd like to revisit some of the budget flicks that air on Movie Mix at 2 AM on a Wednesday morning, but I can't. There is technical reason for this, though, as EE explained to me. Freeview channels are broadcast in groups, known as multiplexes. What Replay does is record a whole multiplex, which only uses one tuner, and then splits the individual channels out at the box level. Thus, you can only record two different multiplexes at any one time, so EE chose to offer the most popular "as a starting point." Even with this understandable explanation, though, somehow this limitation feels like a broken promise. Oh, and you also can't record any HD versions of the channels listed above. This, too, makes sense, as EE needs to limit how much hard drive space Replay content occupies. Still, more fine print.
What I find most frustrating about the Replay feature is that recordings can't be saved permanently. If Replay captured a particularly good film you wouldn't mind watching again, for example, there's no way to rescue it from being deleted when the next cycle rolls around. You just have to hope it's being aired again soon so you can schedule a proper recording.
EE TV's most-hyped feature is the ability to stream video to up to four devices at once, though one of these will always be your main TV. The EE TV apps for Android and iOS look and behave like the big-screen UI. In this sense, whatever tablet or phone you're using becomes an EE TV in its own right. You can schedule recordings through the app, use your phone as a secondary remote and "fling" anything you're watching on a mobile device to the TV in one swipe. It's extremely hard to pick fault with the mobile integration, because everything just works flawlessly. Give the app a "fling" command, for example, and the video source will jump from your tablet to the TV in the blink of an eye.
I managed to persuade a few friends to come round and help me put the multi-screen feature through its paces. Two tablets, one phone, one person on the TV remote and one goal: to break it. I had everyone jumping from recordings to live TV -- pausing, rewinding, fast-forwarding, flinging, channel surfing and doing everything in between. And, apart from very short buffering times when switching between video sources, which is completely understandable, the system never faltered once.
The truth is, I don't have much use for the feature, but I can imagine there are a few families out there fighting for the remote right now that would appreciate it. Everyone going their separate ways to huddle around small screens might not be the most family-friendly activity, but at least everyone gets the same, smooth experience. Like everything else, though, testing out the feature led me to discover one annoying restriction. Streaming HD content, whether live or recorded, is only supported on devices that can process the high-def Freeview MPEG-4 signal directly, none of which I own (most newish Apple hardware does, by the way). Also, I know the multi-screen functionality is intended for getting the most out of your mobile devices, but I don't see why EE couldn't have built an app for PCs and Macs, too. I'm told this is under consideration.
While EE TV is the only set-top box on the market that can stream to four different devices, Sky and Virgin do have comparable services, with the benefit of these being you don't have to be connected to the same WiFi network as your box at home. The Sky Go app allows up to two devices (including computers) to stream video over any WiFi or cellular data network -- it's pulling content from the cloud and not your specific set-top box, you see -- or up to four if you pay the piper for Sky Go Extra. You can't get at any of the recorded content on your Sky+ box, but you do have the ability to access premium channels and tons of on-demand content. Virgin Media's TV Anywhere service does exactly the same thing, though the selection of channels and on-demand content is different, and you can only register a maximum of two devices. So, yes, EE TV is the only box that will stream recorded video to mobile devices, but the functionality is far from revolutionary, and you can get similar and arguably better services from other providers.
If you look at EE TV merely as a product, then it's got a couple of cool features that make it better than your average DVR. The user interface is well-designed and really fast to navigate, though thinking about the lethargic EPG is enough to keep you awake at night. Replay is something I've used more than I expected to, especially when I've missed the start of a broadcast, but I can't help but want the feature to be available to all channels, not just the ones EE's preselected. The mobile-streaming functionality deserves praise because it works fantastically well. Despite various technical limitations EE doesn't advertise, I can see why people might want to buy this DVR to upgrade their Freeview experience. And therein lies the fundamental problem: You can't just buy it.
I was confused about the proposition before I even started using EE TV, and I have to say I still just don't get it. I don't see how people are expected to get excited about the product when it's so inaccessible. You have to be a mobile customer of Orange, T-Mobile or EE (contract or PAYG) and sign up for an EE broadband contract, which means you also need an EE landline. Even if you're an existing customer who fits these criteria, you have to sign up for a new 18-month broadband contract to become eligible to receive a box. I understand the premise: EE TV has some cool features, and being "free," it's an incentive for people to buy into EE's service ecosystem. There's a further lure for mobile data guzzlers, too, as anyone on a 4G EE plan that signs up for broadband gets an extra 10GB or 20GB of data, depending on their current tariff.
But, really, does anyone care? EE could throw in a lottery ticket, a pair of sunglasses and a calculator, but none of that is going to stop you from looking at what you're going to be spending each month for your landline, mobile and broadband. Don't get me wrong; EE TV is a capable piece of hardware that's being given away for free, but at what cost? I think consumers are too savvy to pay attention to this dangling carrot, instead focusing on what contracts are going to cost them in the long run. And, after all, it's just a fancy Freeview DVR, not a conduit for any kind of premium content you can't get elsewhere. The box itself is a satisfactory piece of hardware, but the hoops you have to jump through to get one just don't seem worth the hassle, unless all the required EE services happen to be the best value option for you.