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BritBox review: The UK's new streaming service is no match for Netflix - yet

Jane Hoskyn
19 Dec 2019
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
5.99
per month

BritBox and chill? Not quite. The BBC and ITV's on-demand archive still needs to catch up with Netflix, Amazon and iPlayer

Pros 
Hundreds of classic British TV box sets
Multiple screens with one subscription
C4 and original content coming soon
Cons 
No downloads for offline viewing
No subtitles on most shows
Limited smart TV and device support
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BritBox has finally launched in the UK, and just in time to flood your Christmas TV with even more repeats. The BBC and ITV's joint streaming service boasts a whopping archive of classic telly box sets, from Ab Fab to Yes Minister via headline-grabbing exclusives such as every single episode of classic Doctor Who, all for a paltry £6 per month.

We dutifully took to our sofa to assess BritBox thoroughly on content, interface and features, and here we’ll reveal where it needs to improve before it can compete with the big names.

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BritBox review: What you need to know

BritBox is the first streaming platform to unite all the UK's public service broadcasters. Not just the BBC and ITV (finally working together to fend off the threat of Netflix, Amazon and Sky) but also Channel 5, Comedy Central and, from spring 2020, Channel 4 and Film4.

That's not a bad selling point, but it invited criticism from the word go. Many potential users felt they'd "already paid" for these shows via the TV Licence, which is purely designed to fund content from these public broadcasters.

And that content is really all the service has to offer at the moment. Streaming may be more convenient than DVDs, but BritBox is not exactly chock-a-block with clever features. Industry-standard functions such as offline viewing, closed-caption subtitles, personalised recommendations and smart TV support are sorely lacking.

BritBox told us they're working on it. "We expect to have subtitles on 90% of our content by Christmas," they said. "We're working hard to make the service as accessible as possible." Offline viewing is set to follow in 2020, as is support for Freeview Play and YouView.

Meanwhile, the best thing about BritBox - its on-demand archive - is growing fast. We'll keep this article updated with developments.

BritBox review: Price and competition

BritBox's £5.99 monthly subscription, which kicks in after a free 30-day trial and can be cancelled at any time, lets you watch on as many screens as you want. That includes mobiles, using the free BritBox app for Android and iOS, although you can't download content to watch offline. There’s no 4K content, but Full HD streaming is standard and there's not an advert or expiry date in sight.

How does that compare? In purely price terms, it puts BritBox roughly in the middle of the major streaming services.

It's cheaper than Netflix (£5.99/mth for SD and just 1 screen; £8.99 for HD and 2 screens; £11.99/mth for 4K and 4 screens) and Amazon Prime (£7.99/mth for 4K and 2 screens, or £79 for a year’s worth of streaming with Prime membership thrown in). Both those services include far more original and new content than BritBox does, of course, in addition to an increasing amount of 4K content.

BritBox is also cheaper than Sky's Now TV service, which now charges a hefty £8.99/mth for an Entertainment Pass which gives access to its library of TV series’ (both the Cinema and Sports passes cost extra). Now TV has a limited library and tight expiry dates, but focuses on current US content – and often the kind of content which either takes time to filter through to other services, or does so on a pay-per-episode basis. That said, if classic British telly is more your thing, BritBox is probably better value.

BritBox costs more than Apple TV+ (£4.99/mth, limited library of original content) and the paid-for 'Plus' versions of ITV and Channel 4's own streaming services. All4+ and ITV Hub+ cost £3.99/mth to let you watch without adverts, and include old, new and original content. All these services support more devices than BritBox and have better features such as subtitles.

And BritBox is obviously more expensive than the free BBC iPlayer, which is about to stretch its default 30-day expiry date to a full year. The iPlayer does have new content, subtitles and downloads, but its archive is much smaller than BritBox's.

BritBox review: Device support and streaming quality

At the time of writing, BritBox has apps for Android, iOS, Apple TV and post-2016 Samsung TVs. Of course it works in any browser too, at BritBox.co.uk.

There's no app yet for Chromecast, Fire TV, Roku, YouView, Freeview Play and many similar devices, but that's set to change in the coming weeks and months. Apps for PlayStation and Xbox are also reportedly in the works, too. BritBox is even working on a deal with BT that could see the service added to BT TV packages.

As of right now, however, BritBox isn’t as convenient as the other more established players in the streaming market. If you really want your big-screen fix of UK TV, then you may just have to reach for your laptop and an HDMI cable.

We tried playing Britbox shows in our PC browser via WiFi and on Android via mobile data, and found the streaming quality was excellent – after the first few seconds, anyway. It took a little while each time for the stream to buffer and the picture to crispen into Full HD. In one case the stream failed to load at all, but that may have been the fault of our connection.

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BritBox review: Content

BritBox has hundreds of box sets and a handful of films; its library is dramatically smaller than the thousands of shows and movies you'll find on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. In reality, the BritBox library of around 300 shows (and rising) is closer in number to Now TV, and much bigger than Apple TV+ or iPlayer.

It’s fair to say that BritBox is targeting quality over quantity. BritBox has exclusive on-demand streams of many of the best drama, documentary and comedy shows ever made. Nowhere else online can you watch all of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Boys From the Blackstuff, Prick Up Your Ears and Life On Mars. And the imminent arrival of well over 500 episodes of classic Doctor Who, including unseen episodes and the original pilot, suggests that BritBox is serious about establishing itself as the place to watch tour de force Brit TV.

Many of the shows are available elsewhere, notably on Amazon Prime (Cracker and Brideshead Revisited, for example), but BritBox keeps shows for longer. For example, Amazon Prime had the BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre starring Ruth Wilson, but it quickly vanished without notice in early 2019. BritBox doesn't have to wangle distribution deals for its content - these shows are made by the BBC and ITV themselves - so it's unlikely any of them will suddenly disappear.

Not all BBC and ITV (and soon Channel 4) shows are available to watch here, though. BritBox is very much an archive. New content goes to the broadcasters' own streaming services first. Recent ITV drama A Confession is on BritBox, but there are no recent BBC dramas here yet.

In some cases, the broadcasters have signed streaming deals with other services for certain big-name shows, such as Fleabag (Amazon) and the original BBC Great British Bake Off (Netflix). Sadly, these are unlikely to arrive on BritBox at all.

READ NEXT: Now TV review

BritBox review: Interface and features

It's easier to find programmes to watch on BritBox than on Netflix. That's partly because there's less content on BritBox, but mainly because BritBox currently does a much better job of organising content into categories, collections and lists.

In addition to the search box, the homepage has numerous easy-to-explore categories (Crime, Period drama, Reality & Ent, By decade, Browse by actor, and so on) plus an A to Z, a 'Most recommended' list and numerous eye-catching collections, such as 'The best thrillers on British TV', 'LGBTQ trailblazers' and a General Election-themed collection of political dramas and comedies.

It's not perfect, though. The A-Z page is cumbersome, and badly in need of a 'skip to…' series of letter links. You don't want to have to wait for the page to load before you can scroll through the stacks of alphabetically-ordered thumbnails.

It's also annoying to have to scroll down the homepage to find your watchlist ('My list') and your 'Continue watching' list. Both should have easy-access links right at the top of the page.

There's no quick way to add a show to your watchlist from its thumbnail. You have to click through to the show's own title page (below), then add it. Netflix does this too, so perhaps it's deliberate. It increases engagement with the site and app, after all.

Each show's title page also includes a thumbnail list of episodes with a summary and timings for each, parental guidance information, and a line that lets you see at a glance how far through the episodes you are.

What you can't tell from this page is whether the show is subtitled or not. A few ITV shows do have them (Happy Valley, Spooks, Poirot and Inspector Morse, though not recent hit A Confession), but I couldn’t find a single BBC show with subtitles. I had to start playing an episode - and wait for it to buffer - before I could tap the screen to see the overlay then look for the magic blue CC button.

The screen overlay also includes a full-screen button, an on-screen volume control, playback position and brief episode details. This overlay disappears after a few seconds, leaving just the subtitles. Unlike Now TV, BritBox remembers your subtitling preference for a show, so you won't have to enable them again.

There are no pop-up thumbnails when you hover over the playback line, which makes it hard to skip to your favourite bit. And BritBox hasn't (yet) made any attempts to imitate Amazon Prime's brilliant X-Ray feature, which displays scene-sensitive related information such as "who's that?" thumbnails of actors when you pause the action.

It's also a shame to have no interactive buttons. User reviews are now such an integral part of online content that even Netflix's thumbs up/thumbs down buttons feel too limiting. BritBox doesn't even have those. And there are no personalised recommendations based on your viewing.

One glaring omission, especially on the mobile app, is that there's no download button for any shows at all. (The one thing that we prefer about Now TV's app interface is that it does have a download button.) Given that so many of us only use the mobile app versions of streaming tools to watch shows and films offline, the inability to download content is a serious oversight.

We only tested the BritBox website and Android app for this review, so there's every chance BritBox's Samsung TV app may not be as slick. The BBC iPlayer's Roku Express app is far harder to navigate than its website, for example. Suffice to say, we’ll be keeping a close eye on the BritBox app to see how it shapes up on new platforms.

BritBox review: Verdict

For some, BritBox may be the streaming service they've been waiting for. This is a sizeable collection of the best of British telly stretching back decades, now available to watch in HD on tablets and phones and a select number of Smart TVs and devices.

However, the absent download function, scant subtitles and limited smart TV and streaming device support make it feel like a service that isn’t quite the full monty. It's been available in the US for nearly three years, so it’s not like it hasn’t had plenty of time to add these features.

For now, those criticisms mean we’re not 100% convinced, but we'll be keeping a close eye on BritBox for its promised improvements. With the imminent arrival of treasured Doctor Who episodes, Channel 4's superb drama archive and the steady influx of original content, it may not take much to transform BritBox into a prime time contender.

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