The BBC iPlayer Radio app sets the standard
The new BBC iPlayer Radio app lets you download radio programmes to take with you. But what does it sound like? Updated for October 2015.
The new BBC iPlayer Radio app, available for iOS and Android, was released in July 2015: and with it, a facility for downloading programmes to listen again.
While you could always listen-again to programmes from the BBC inside the app, to do this required a steady internet connection. In some of the key use-cases for "listen-again" - listening on a bus, the tube, or even just driving - a steady internet connection simply isn't available. You can now download any programme - music, speech, whatever you like - and listen for 30 days after transmission.
And this on-demand functionality is why I've installed it: after relying on Tunein and Radioplayer for live radio for so long. So, I'm looking at this through fresh eyes.
It sounds superb
I'm guessing that the app is using the BBC's new HLS streaming. If you're unfamiliar with HLS, it ought to offer a significantly better stream on the move: it is adaptive for varying bandwidth speeds, and copes well with short periods of no signal. It's in use by Beats 1, too - I've written more about it in this piece in radioinfo.com.au.
For all of their national stations, the BBC offers HLS streams in 320kbps, 128kbps, 96kbps and 48kbps - I believe they're all AAC variants. If the tech's set up correctly in the app, which I expect it to be, your phone should automatically get the best quality stream it can handle, and switch between them almost invisibly.
Listening on a coffee-shop wifi connection, the signal is clearly very high quality. Unlike many online radio apps, particularly on mobile, there's no digital artifacts that I could hear.
Playback is instant (unlike TuneIn, which takes time to buffer). Switching between stations, you do sometimes get a little glitch a few seconds in, as it works out what signal to use, but after that it appears to be rock solid. I heard one short gap in prolonged listening (and even then, unsure whether that's my phone's multitasking failing, my Bluetooth headphones, or the stream).
Downloads are all 320kbps, it seems. That means some massive files - given that many radio shows are three hours long, that's 420MB to fill up your phone. Those downloads take their time, too, even on fast wifi. But iPlayer Radio sensibly defaults to only allowing downloads on wifi, and the audio quality for these will be superb. My incredulity at such a high bitrate quickly turned to quiet admiration.
The signal quality, from a technical point of view, is the highest quality that you'll get from the BBC across any platform. It's higher bitrate than any broadcasts (DAB or DTT); and is less heavily processed than FM (and no hiss). If you are a hifi listener at home, a quality tablet connected to a hifi system will give you better than anything the BBC is broadcasting.
It's great for music
The app offers now-playing information, including artwork. Even, I notice, for BBC Radio 3, the corporation's classical music service, which is quite impressive (since photographs of dead guys are relatively hard to come by).
A button links to the BBC Playlister service, which allows you to take a note of the music you're discovering via the app. It appears to be well used according to their usage figures. If you've not signed-in to the BBC's website, here's where you'll be prompted to do so: a good user experience, leaving this until you have to sign in.
It works great on the move
As luck would have it, I had an hours' drive this morning, through patches of 4G coverage and relatively good 3G coverage. I had the sound through the car speakers, and it didn't drop the audio once. I was also expecting the bandwidth bill to be crippling, given that a download of a half-hour programme is 70MB. In the event, for probably 75 minutes of listening, it used only 42.2MB, which surprised me; and chomped through just 6% of battery. Excellently done.
The User Experience
The BBC's Global Experience Language - their building blocks for online experiences - is used throughout this app. I've mixed views on this: on an Android phone, it's different enough from Android's clear design guidelines to be a little confusing. A unified experience for the BBC across devices is a worthy ambition, but when it expects users to re-learn how to control their device, that's less good.
That said, it's full of little tweaks and nice elements - enough to give Little Big Details, one of my favourite blogs, material to go on for a while:
- As you'd expect from a radio, there's a rotary tuning dial allowing you to flick between stations (importantly, though, it doesn't look olde-worlde).
- The play/pause button has a circle around it, showing the listener how far they are through the programme.
- In the full-screen view, this circle is also draggable, allowing you to quickly go forward/backwards.
- The 'play' icon is replaced with the very similar-looking iPlayer Radio play icon, for effective branding throughout the app
- Icons and buttons glow when pressed, to give instant feedback even when the audio might not start instantly
A few more tweaks are probably needed. There are a few confusing iOS things - not least the appearance of a persistent volume control on-screen (huh?!), and a non-standard menu - and a few places where you need to hit a programme image to play it, which isn't very intuitive.
Update: October 21 They're not joking when they repeatedly say "thanks for your feedback". The persistent volume control, on iOS, has gone; and play buttons have been added to the programme images. Clearer and cleaner.
It's impressive to see access to 'highlights' (editorially-curated programmes and clips from stations), access to podcasts - still useful, since they're often edited highlights, and a full navigable schedule. Clicking a programme on this afternoon gives a "sorry, this programme is not available" error: if it were me, that would say "Add this to your calendar to remind you?", with integration with the system calendar.
It's a shame about
- There are no 'share' buttons. Anywhere. BBC Radio 1's strategy, "Listen, Watch, Share" seems particularly strange alongside this app.
Update: October 21 Share buttons were added in September. Neatly, when listening to a music network, you can share both the programme but also the track currently playing, which leads to a permanent URL for that actual track (and more links, if they exist, on the BBC website).
- Unlike iPlayer (TV), there is still no support for Chromecast. It's my office hifi, but I also listen to a lot of radio through the TV/hifi downstairs too. TuneIn will still have to stay on my phone for now.
Update: October 21 They added Chromecast support today. It's elegant, if a bit dull, on the TV - after visual confirmation that you are, indeed, listening to the radio station that you've casted live, the screen very quickly dims to leave nothing but a slight watermark of the radio station logo. Casted listen-again content has a dimmed programme image instead. It appears rock solid and works well - I'd emulate other services on Chromecast and add some now-playing information and a progress indicator if it were me.
- The BBC iPlayer Radio Tablet app, which you might be offered on Android, doesn't have downloads. Don't use it - the 'proper' BBC iPlayer Radio app is an updated version of the tablet app. Confused? You will be. They should have removed this from the Play store already (and should never have launched it.)
Update: October 21 It's not there any more.
- Android Wear support isn't great. It gives now-playing information on the watch, with just a standard 'music playing' image, which is a bit poor, and a play/pause button that doesn't play/pause; albeit volume controls that do work. Shame. (They could learn from Radioplayer).
Update: October 21 The play/pause button now works on Android Wear. The now-playing image for on-demand programming, at least, is now there; though it isn't there for live radio.
- There's no landscape mode, which makes it less than useful for the car. And, presumably, no Android Auto integration, unlike Radioplayer.
It's been a long time coming. But, if you want the best audio quality possible, on any platform; or to listen to full radio programmes via download, then this is the app for you. And with the continual updates, it's now an even better proposition.