EE took everyone by surprise when it launched EE TV back in October.
It’s the company’s first foray into the lounge, and positions EE as a rival to other quad-play operators, such as TalkTalk, Virgin Media, Vodafone and BT.
(For the uninitiated, quad-play means offering customers mobile, landline, broadband and TV services.)
EE's set top box packs four Freeview HD tuners, internet access via Wi-Fi or Ethernet and a whopping 1TB hard drive.
It’s also exclusively for EE customers. Bad luck everyone else.
But is it a real draw or a bit of an afterthought? And how does it stack up against rival set-top boxes? Let’s find out.
First impressions and design
It’s not a bad looking box, maybe a bit plasticky, but no more than its rivals. It’s not as sleek as the Sky+ HD box or Virgin Media’s TiVo box, but then it doesn’t do nearly as much.
A fairer comparison is with YouView boxes from the likes of BT and TalkTalk. In terms of looks, EE TV holds its own next to these.
It’s a little wider than an N64 console, and not too heavy. We slung it in our bag and took it round to a friend’s house and it didn’t weigh us down.
It comes with its own remote too, which is simple to use and clearly laid out. Or you can download the mobile app and control it from your iOS or Android phone or tablet.
The menu is laid out in large easy-to-see tiles, which isn’t a million miles away from Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system. We like the cool blue of the background too – very calming after a hard day.
The menu is simple to navigate, with tabs at the top letting you know where you are. You can choose from Live TV, Recordings, Replay (which we’ll come to in a minute) and Tools & Help, all of which are pretty self-explanatory.
As you flick between tabs, what’s on-screen shifts to the side, as if scrolling through. There are also tabs down the side for Live channels, Radio and TV Guide.
So far, so standard. But it has some nifty tricks up its sleeve…
Four tuners gives you a lot of power. You can record four channels at once, or watch one while recording three.
You can also watch four channels on four different devices, though they have to be on the same Wi-Fi network, so no watching in the car.
That means it’s not quite as useful as Sky Go or Virgin Media TV Anywhere. But four tuners is still a lot.
There are also two features unique to EE TV. Replay automatically records the last 24 hours of your six favourite channels. This lets you catch up on whatever you’ve missed without setting it to record or relying on the channel having a catch-up service.
Restart, meanwhile, lets you start watching a show from the beginning, which is handy if you wander in halfway through.
Considering this is EE’s first set-top box, this is an impressive features list.
All of which counts for nothing if it’s terrible to use, of course.
EE TV is a bit of a mixed bag. The features are very handy, but they’re not all gravy.
Replay only works with standard definition channels, probably so it doesn’t take up your whole hard drive.
The channel list is as follows: BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, CBBC, CBeebies, BBC News, BBC Parliament, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, ITV2, More 4, Film 4 and E4.
Most of these are available through their respective catch-up services, which kind of defeats the point.
The catch-up services are more convenient too. iPlayer stores shows for 30 days after broadcast, which is a lot longer than the 24 hours you get with Replay.
Replay also takes up two tuners, leaving you just two to play with. There’s no way to store what you’ve recorded in Replay for good. After 24 hours, it’s a goner.
There are also some startling omissions from the on-demand channel list.
There’s no Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, ITV Player or 4oD.
EE says it is adding channels all the time, but there’s no getting around the fact those are glaring omissions.
Live TV was far from a smooth experience. While the channels loaded quickly, the picture frequently broke up with plenty of digital noise.
This wasn’t a one-off, but happened throughout our testing on all live channels. It even persisted when we watched live TV on an iPad.
It could be a fault with our test unit. Even so, it’s not encouraging.
Elsewhere things are a bit slicker. The mobile app is intuitive, and gives you live TV, recordings and Replay, but not on-demand services.
The menu is also easy to use, if a bit slow. And the selected channel plays live in its window, so you can see a taster of what’s on without having to select it.
EE TV has some genuinely new features you won’t find anywhere else, and that helps it stand out from the crowd.
But there are some bugs to be ironed out: the interference we experienced with live TV is inexcusable; big-name services are conspicuous by their absence; and the new features turn out to be more limited than you first think.
The box is free if you have your mobile, broadband and landline with EE.
Our advice? If you already have these three, or will save money by doing so, then EE TV is a great extra. Otherwise, it’s a promising but less enticing prospect.