Quality of Video Stream6
Content on Offer8
Although Channel 4 is historically considered the third terrestrial television network in the UK after the BBC and ITV, it would come in many people’s minds a close second after the national public broadcaster. Channel 4, due to its public service remit, constantly delivers a broad range of cultural, artistic and entertaining programmes that often defy its commercial financing.
Alongside its broadcasting channels, Channel 4 offer one of the most comprehensive on-demand service anywhere in the world that not only sports a 30 day catch-up grace period on their 4oD website (4x longer than the BBC, excluding downloads), but also one of the largest back catalogues of any FTA (free to air) service.
Channel 4 is one of the UK’s bastions of local productions and are responsible for some of the best content to originate in Britain, which is quite an achievement when you consider the looming shadow of the BBC overhead. Unlike the BBC though, this is financed through commercial methods, which is one reason why 4oD has so many commercials – more than any other UK catch-up service. There are a few people that feel 4oD stream to many ads, but from channel 4′s perspective, they argue it is required to finance such a wide range of quality content. In any event, I don’t personally find 4oD plays too many commercials – I have seen far worse on live German television where it seems the commercial break is not only long enough to make a cup of tea, but with plenty of time to spare to actually make dinner as well.
I am not so forgiving with their ad-server however, which seems to often buffer or play back at very low quality. This has been noticed by many people in the UK as well, and at its worse can really ruin the viewing experience – the main feature itself plays back without let or hindrance, but if it takes 10 minutes to get through three 30 second commercials, this point is rather moot. This problem doesn’t occur all the time, but it is something 4oD should look carefully at solving.
Video quality varies greatly depending on platform, but at its best, it can reach halfway between SD and HD quality, which to be honest is not terribly bad in the catch-up world. My own highest tests averaged 2400kbps* on the Samsung Smart TV range and the video quality was excellent.
Sadly it is the web browser where 4oD really shines in content. The last place people may want to sit down and watch television is exactly where 4oD offers most of its back catalogue. Sign in to 4oD on your laptop or computer and you have access to a collection of TV shows not too shy from a thousand. Sign in you must though as only television episodes from the last 30 days are available without the free account. Once you have logged in however, you will also be able to select favourite shows and features such as resume playback and playlists, where you can add collections selected by 4oD to group similar shows.
Video quality depends on when it was added to the catalogue, with the oldest shows being somewhat unfriendly to the eye and the more recent ones close enough to standard definition to enjoy even on the largest of computer monitors. Still, at their best you should expect a stream somewhere between 1400-1500kbps. This is essentially a standard definition feed. It is a little bit annoying that it is considerably lower than what they offer on their Samsung Smart TV widget. Granted, that was designed to showcase the channel’s content on large TVs, but many PC/Mac users have equally large monitors or connect them via HDMI to the living room television.
Being a network financed almost entirely from commercial advertising and sponsorship, it comes as no surprise that 4oD invokes compulsory ads before and during shows. What may come as a surprise to many people outside the UK however, is how contentious and unpopular this often is in Britain, mainly due to the joys of complete ad-free television from the many BBC channels and services. But in all fairness, Channel 4 does not have the luxury of license-fee funding and the money has to come from somewhere. Just think of it like the old days when watching live television; the ad break is perhaps the perfect moment to make a cup of tea.
One great feature I liked from the full-screen view, was the Watch Next button that could pull more options from the right-hand side of the screen. Once invoked, it will provide quick links to the next episode in queue, all other episodes of the same show, or selections from your own Playlist, History, Favourites or 4oD’s recommendations. It works really well.
4oD also offer live feeds for five of their channels, with surprisingly good video quality even at full screen. Film4 is included in the live streams, an interesting addition considering Film4 is otherwise only available on-demand through a rental scheme.
(Accessing 4oD from outside of the UK may require using a Smart DNS service or VPN)
- Highest range of content available, including back-catalogue.
- High quality video streams on newer material.
- Live television streams.
- Fantastic UI.
- Watch Next in full-screen view.
- Favourites and History view.
- Timeline in show history.
- Resume option.
- Not the most sofa-friendly user environment.
- Maximum video quality was tested at approx 1450 kbps (average) which is considerably lower than the Samsung Smart TV widget.
- Home page is way too cluttered.
- No cross-platform options, despite a log-in account.
4oD is also available as a native app for the iPhone and iPad, a necessity since due to Flash requirements, 4oD will not play in the mobile Safari web browser. Although the iPhone app is a thoroughly pleasant experience, as much as any television viewing can be on such a small device, it is the iPad’s implementation, which really stands out from the crowd.
Channel 4 has pulled out all the stops in design here, achieving the almost impossible, a combination of stunningly beautiful design and function in a single package. It is almost a relief to rid oneself from the usual dark and cluttered on-demand apps and web pages preferred by so many other services. 4oD on iPad is clean and bright, with well thought out categories and an interface that is hard to beat. If there was proof that the tablet is the perfect way to find and access vast on-demand catalogues, 4oD’s iPad app would in my opinion be an excellent case in point.
But there is one glaring omission, an oversight so surprising that at first one may end up shaking the iPad in the hope it falls out of its hiding place. The 4oD iOS app is the only FTA on-demand streaming app we know of, that does not offer Airplay.
It boggles the mind that the world’s most beautiful and functional television application will not allow you to play your shows on your 40” television. All that effort in creating possibly one of the finest search and browsing interfaces anywhere, only to be forced to watch on the tiny 9.7” screen. It just goes to show how restrictive some licensing agreements can be.
However, all that aside, the 4oD app has a remarkable little trick up its sleep – offline downloads! There are only two FTA services in the world that offer an iOS download service and along with the BBC, 4oD provide this amazing feature. Granted, due to licensing issues it is only available on the more recent catch-up content, but this library should grow in time. However, provided there is a download option, you should be able to save programmes from the last 30 days onto your iOS device to watch anytime, on or offline for the following 7 days – wherever you are in the world. Great for traveling, on a plane, train, tube or anywhere where a UK 3G/4G signal is not available.
When 4oD initially offered this feature, the download quality seemed significantly lower than normal streaming, but that seems to be rectified now, and a 47minute programme will require approx 530MB of space on your mobile device. A nice after thought from 4oD here is that the app will automatically realize when you have no Internet connection or in airplane mode and point you in the direction of their downloads folder.
4oD’s new material was tested streaming between 1100-1200kbps, which is absolutely fine for the smaller iPhone screen and adequate for the iPad, mainly because there is no option to airplay yet.
(Accessing 4oD from outside of the UK may require using a Smart DNS service or VPN)
- Possibly one of the most well designed user interface of any FTA catch-up service on iOS.
- Offline downloads for selected catch-up shows.
- Countdown until program starts during commercials.
- Video quality is acceptable for the smaller mobile screens (tested at approx 1400kbps)
- Resume feature.
- Absolutely no AirPlay support.
- No live television streams.
- No cross-platform support despite a log-in
- No access to Favourites, History or Playlists.
As of 22nd March 2013, Channel 4 have also added a 4oD widget for the Samsung’s Smart TV platform, making Samsung not only the first Smart TV manufacturer to offer all key UK FTA catch-up services, but the only one to offer 4oD itself. Finally, there is an easy way to watch 4oD on a real television without the need of any additional set top box.
As can be expected from Channel 4, the app is a pleasure to view and use.
Upon firing up the app, you’ll be greeted with the usual Recommendation and Recently Added home page suggestions, which is not a terrible place to start. Sadly, there are no favourites or previously watched options yet, so if you wish to resume a programme you have already started, you will have to hunt for it.
There is also the same quantity of commercials to get through before your programme will start as on the other platforms, something you can’t skip and with significantly more adverts than the other UK commercial channels. Thankfully, you don’t have to sit through new ads when you resume a previously started programme.
Don’t also be surprised to find 4oD to offer a much smaller library here than through their web portal. Due to licensing issues, 4oD can not offer the same content on all platforms with the Samsung Smart TV noticeably missing its back catalogue. That said, there is still a good deal of recent material to be watched here, which falls in line with a television catch-up service rather than an on-demand one. (yes, despite even the broadcasters often mixing up both terms there really is a difference)
So with the negative points out of the way, we are left with an otherwise very solid catch-up platform. Most new releases from Channel 4 should find their way to this platform at the same time as others, and it is a far more pleasant way to watch television than on a computer, even if it is connected to your television’s HDMI input.
Finding content is easy, with the expected Categories, Search and A-Z tabs, as well as the handy Catch Up tab where you can browse by date and channel. 4oD also provide their Collections section, where Channel 4 bundle selected programmes under a curating theme. This can be a fun way to find content you may otherwise miss.
Video quality is a bit of a champion here to be honest. Channel 4 will not release details on the bitrate they use, which is a shame since some people are on a bandwidth cap and may like to know this information. In any case, my own tests averaged them out between 1600kbps and an impressive 2400kbps which is actually quite interesting. This is the highest of all platforms tested in these reviews and by a significant amount. It also elevates the Channel 4 stream above basic standard definition. Although not quite HD yet, these tests sit 4oD’s content about half way between the BBC’s SD streams (1500kbps) and their HD ones (3200kbps).
Overall, 4oD’s new Samsung platform is an excellent way to watch their recent catch-up content on your main TV – something to not take too lightly as there are not too many alternatives out there. Channel 4 have been especially stringent when it comes to accessing their catch-up programmes on an actual television.
(Accessing 4oD on a Samsung TV outside of the UK, may require a Smart DNS service)
- Best way to watch 4oD on a television.
- Excellent video quality (tested between 1600kbps and 2400kbps)
- Great and easy to use UI.
- Resume feature.
- No live television streams.
- No favourites or watchlist.
- No cross-platform support.
There was a time when 4oD was one of the world’s most elusive catch-up services, where the only place to play back content was via the web browser, but this is thankfully becoming a thing of the past. In fact, 4oD is now leaping ahead of the ITV Player which seems to be languishing on the hardware front, especially following 4oD’s recent introduction to the Now TV or Roku UK platform.
4oD on this tiny and affordable device pretty much follows the Samsung Smart Hub user interface, which is not a bad thing. As soon as the Channel launches, viewers are confronted by their familiar recommended highlights, but it is also possible to browse using a few other methods:
- Catch-Up allows the viewer to select a show based on the date it aired. By default this begins from yesterday, but as well as the current day’s content, it is also possible to head backwards by almost 30 days. Programmes can be filtered also by channel to help narrow things down.
- Categories offers the usual genre selections such as Comedy, Drama, Entertainment, Factual, Lifestyle and Sport.
- Collections is effectively a selection of programmes that Channel 4 groups together regardless of genre, e.g. Education, Education, Education features The Inbetweeners, Educating Yorkshire and 11 more programmes.
- A-Z is one of the easiest ways to find content if you know the exact name.
- The Search function allows the viewer to find content if they don’t know the full title.
Video quality is good, but not the best 4oD offer. My own tests averaged out at approx 1200kbps* which was slightly under standard definition. Perhaps 4oD are testing this platform to see how well it can handle the streams before offering the quality found on the Samsung Smart hub, but it is a bit disappointing to not offer the same near-HD streams. That said, playback is not terribly bad and still pleasing enough to the eye to not cause too many complaints.Note: 4oD on Roku will only work with devices purchased within the UK. US Roku boxes, or those from other countries contain different firmware which will not allow UK services to be installed.
- Great User Interface.
- Good video quality.
- No favourites or watchlist.
- Video quality not as high as via the Samsung Smart Hub.
- No live television streams.
(Accessing 4oD on the Now TV or UK Roku box outside of the UK, may require a Smart DNS service configured in your home router)
4oD were one of two FTA television catch-up apps found in the UK region on the Xbox One launch day along with Demand 5, which to be honest, is a wonderful turnaround from the days when 4oD were pretty much the last UK TV service to appear anywhere.
Over-all, the layout is clear and attractive, following the standard sideways-scrolling that is peculiar to the Xbox One interface. With the five browsing options of 4oD Recommends, Catch-Up, Categories, Collections and A-Z Search, which incidentally, can be quickly scrolled using the top/rear trigger buttons.
Otherwise the D-selector or left stick scrolls through everything during standard browsing, with the letter buttons used for selections, back-tracking or jumping to specific areas.
Along with the latest episode highlighted, selecting a show will also bring up opportunities to choose further episodes, but unlike 4oD’s other platforms, here it works in a rather confusing matter. The current episode is listed by date and description, but not by season or episode number. Now, maybe it’s just me, but I just don’t do dates on television. I remember episodes by their number, not when they aired – which to be honest is sort of pointless in on-demand anyway.
More episodes are found directly to the right, but with the same issue. There simply is not enough information present to ensure what I am looking at is indeed the episode I am after. If I want this information, I have to select the “…” option to bring up further episodes, and finally it becomes available.
To make matters worse, there is also no Resume function either. Or at least, nothing I stopped seemed to resume where I left off for me. I was forced to start right back at the beginning, ads and all which is almost criminal in today’s IPTV world – even a VHS tape had a resume feature. While I’m at it, I’ll also point out that there is no cross-platform support for that matter either.
Video quality seemed fine for the most part and on par with other platforms, but I did notice some older material that dated back to television’s 4:3 period appeared on the screen with the expected black bars, but also seemed warped in some way. Thankfully this doesn’t affect any 16:9 programmes, which is the bulk of 4oD’s catelogue.
On a more positive side, this app is on the Xbox One, which means there is no less than five different ways to control your browsing and viewing pleasure.
Voice: I have to admit that despite the tackiness of the idea, one of the coolest way to control 4oD is by voice, and this can be started directly from the Xbox One’s Home screen. In fact, if you pin your favourite shows to the Xbox Home screen, you can begin playback of an episode with only a couple of basic command, starting with for example, “Xbox go to Grand Designs”. It is possible to pause, continue, stop, and browse television shows purely by voice, and it even works with fast forward and rewinding, but good luck for keyword searches. Voice control though can be finicky. When it works, it does so with grace and style and really makes it seem like the future is here to stay. But it is almost guaranteed to fail as soon as you try to demonstrate it to someone else, especially those critical of tech.
Motion Control: On the other hand, if you prefer you can sit on your sofa and wave your hands around in true Jantjie style. It may work, and if it does, let me know. After a good week of trying to master this, I’ve already given up.
Xbox Controller: In most cases, the Xbox One controller will be the obvious choice. The only real downsides here are the awkward shape requiring a two-handed operation, and the problem it will go into hibernation after a while – still, if you urgently need to pause, you can always yell it out. Otherwise the controller is a pleasant way to navigate and control 4oD, and at least for navigating, one of the best.
Smart Glass: I had been rather excited to see how the Xbox One would improve on their Smart Glass after all the hype Microsoft dished out. The reality is quite disappointing. There are no true second-screen activities here, with the only use being a thoughtlessly designed remote. In fact, Smart Glass is so poorly implemented, the one place where it would work better than anywhere else – the search function – doesn’t even bring up a proper keyboard.
Programmable remote: As a last resort, you can always turn to a programmable remote such as the Logitech Harmony, and return back to the retro pleasures of horizontal one-hand sofa laziness. Once set up, it will work just as a good remote should, but be prepared for a lot of hair-loss during configurations, especially if you are competing with voice control to also switch on your Xbox and TV.
4oD on the Xbox One is overall a pleasant app. I especially like how I can pin my favourite shows to the Xbox Hub, which when combined with other apps on this platform could turn it into a killer feature.
All that said, it does come at a price. Not only is the Xbox a €500 (£425) set-top-box, Microsoft have the unmitigated audacity to charge users a yearly subscription fee in order to access a freely available catch-up service. It’s a bit like if Sony, Samsung or some other television manufacturer began charging a fee to access your free-to-air channels. Just to exemplify how embarrassed even Microsoft are of their actions, they force you to create an account and sign in before they will even tell you how much they’ll charge you. So, to save you the trouble, expect to pay around £5,99 per month, £14,99 for three months, or a painful £39,99 per year. Thankfully this Gold subscription will provide you with access to other services as well, including Demand 5.
- Great video quality.
- Ability to pin shows to the Xbox One home screen.
- Fast and responsive.
- Expensive Gold Pass membership required for an otherwise free service.
- Confusing way to handle episodes.
- No Resume feature.
- No Cross-platform support.
- No live streams.
- Old show in 4:3 aspect can look a bit warped.
(Accessing 4oD Outside of the UK may require a good VPN or Smart DNS service)
4oD have a potential winner on their hands here. Of all the FTA British on-demand services, 4oD offer the largest back catalogue with good quality video and at times an interface that is hard to beat.
Even the iPhone, somewhat understated in this review, flaunts an unrivaled user experience in such a small package. With a user interface so well designed, navigating and browsing either iOS app is almost more enjoyable than watching the shows on offer. Despite this, the lack of Airplay is verging on unforgivable and is one of the major reasons holding back a higher score. That said, the fact that 4oD are only one of two FTA services that offer free offline downloads via iOS is a massive plus in their favour!
Recent improvements to 4oD’s hardware support have been welcomed and it is no longer so terribly difficult to watch Channel 4′s catch-up content on an actual television.
Already 4oD is one of the strongest free on-demand services available – anywhere in the world. If only it could implement AirPlay and with the video quality level offered on the Samsung Smart TV widget, 4oD could possibly be one of the hardest services to beat.
- Excellent back catalogue, especially for a free to air service.
- Offline downloads on selected content for iOS and Android.
- Very good web layout and exceptional iOS design.
- Clean, bright and uncluttered.
- Very good quality video streams via the Samsung Smart TV widget.
- Resume feature for continuing shows already started.
- Available on selected Samsung Smart TV’s.
- Poor implementation of cross-platform support, watchlists and favourites.
- Issues with their ad-server which can buffer or freeze.
- No Airplay support (even composite and HDMI cable support is restricted)
- Back-catalogue on non-web based services are limited in comparison.
- Video Quality: Variable, depending on date of inclusion & platform. Latest videos are near standard definition. 4oD will not release details of the exact bitrate, but it reaches approx 2400kbps on the Samsung Smart TV hub.
- Mobile 4oD requires Flash 10.1 or higher.
- Browser viewing requires the latest Flash plug-in.
- Catch-up programs are generally available for 30 days after broadcast.
- iOS offline downloads are available for 7 days after downloaded.
- Known Samsung Smart TV’s supported: ES8090, ES6900, ES5500, D6530 (this is not a complete list and other models may be supported)
- Support for UK Roku boxes and Now TV.
05.02.2013: Review published. Score: 5.4 – Above Average.
22.03.2013: 4oD Samsung Smart TV app became available. New TV app reviewed. Score updated: 5.8 – Above Average.
11.04.2013: Due to review policy change, Airplay criteria changed to Airplay & iOS, awarding 4oD 2 points here: Score updated: 6.2 – Above Average.
25.07.2013: Massive iOS update to include offline downloads: Score updated to 7 – Impressive.
20.08.2013: Updated to include tested bitrate stream for Samsung Smart TV.
22.08.2013: Further updates regarding video quality across all platforms.
27.11.2013: New Roku and Now TV review added. Score updated to 7.2.
13.12.2013: Added Xbox One Review.
31.01.2014: Overall update, with new details and information based on gradual evolution.
* Bitrate tests were based on multiple averages and are subject to both the geographical location and ISP bandwidth at the time.
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