Hands on with the BBC iPlayer, version 2.0

The Feedster

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The BBC's new iPlayer 2.0 public beta is now online at www.bbc.co.uk/iplayerbeta. The current iPlayer is, amazingly, almost a year old.

Rebuilt, although not completely redesigned, the new version introduces some new features and will be run alongside the current iPlayer software until July 7th. Take a look - the BBC invites your feedback.

Behind the scenes, the new iPlayer abandons the old static page architecture in favour of a dynamic page rendering engine. The BBC's head of digital media technology, Anthony Rose, believes that the new iPlayer platform "can provide a personalised TV and radio experience, can adapt itself to different display sizes - and a whole lot more".

BBC TV and radio combined

The first 'new' thing that you notice is the freshened-up layout. While the bold black and maroon colour scheme hasn't changed, the iPlayer homepage now showcases both TV and radio programmes.

Previously, the BBC's extensive radio content was only accessible via a sidebar option and a rudimentary pop-up box. It smacked of a bolt-on extra; a design afterthought.

The new site design gives the BBC's TV and radio equal weighting. The top of the iPlayer homepage is dominated by two scrollable carousel components.

Click on the left or right edges of these content strips and you'll scroll through the TV and radio highlights. Loiter your mouse pointer over a TV or radio programme and it will display a small synopsis. Nice.

Below the two carousels, the new iPlayer site is split into a cluster of boxy modules. There's an at-a-glance view of yesterday's TV, bright quick-links to BBC radio channels, a most popular TV/radio list, plus selected BBC news and sports highlights.

A 'Last played' widget will remembers the last 10 programmes you played (although not when I tried it today).

640 x 480 pixel video playback

For catching up on BBC TV, the new iPlayer features a larger playback window - 640 pixels wide, an increase of 25 per cent from the previous 512 pixels. It obviously retains the full-screen option, although the experience is much like watching a VHS recording.

Below the video playback window, there's now a new 'more like this' display, which aims to show you programmes relevant to the one you're watching. There's also an automatic bookmarking feature.

So if you half-watch a programme online, the next time you log onto the iPlayer you can resume watching it from where you left off.

Across the top of the page, clicking TV Channels opens up a pretty visual overview of available content across the BBC's eight channels.

Each channel still has its own 'home page', but this page now displays extra information - highlights, a most popular list and a more comprehensive alphabetical programme listing.

The schedule widget on this homepage (top left) also now features data for programmes that will be broadcast in the next three days. Presumably so you can plan to miss them...

Clicking Radio stations takes you to a similar overview page for the BBC's 11 available radio stations. Browsing a station is similar to the TV channel format above, complete with the same highlights, most popular list and programme listing components.

The last two options - categories and AZ - are the filters you'll already be familiar with. Browse a category, such as Entertainment or Drama, or use the A-Z listings to find your favourite show.

Leading the online video revolution

This new version certainly succeeds in upping the iPlayer's game. The online experience is slicker than before - it's easier to find what you want and to watch what you want (thanks to the larger playback window).

Not everything advertised in the BBC's promo video seems to be active though. RSS feeds are currently absent and the experience on the Nintendo Wii is still disappointing.

Nevertheless, according to the BBC the iPlayer gets five million page views per day now. And they anticipate that this level of traffic will double thanks to the easy accessibility of the radio content.

While the streaming service works on a Mac, the Download Manager for offline viewing is still a PC-only application. A Mac version is a "work in progress" we're told.

With the iPlayer now available on the PC, Mac, Nintendo Wii, iPhone/iPod touch, PlayStation 3 and Virgin Media, you get the feeling that the improvements here are only the start. BBC blogs and press releases hint at greater personalisation to come. We like what we see.

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