Remember Ceefax? All the latest news and TV listings in 13 lines of text with over-chunky graphics, all rendered using only 7 colours. It looks so old and out-of-date now, but this was state-of-the-art technology back in 1974. It was slow but simple, like a pixellated tortoise, and often you had time to make a cup of tea waiting for the subpage you wanted to come round. You can remind yourself just how BBC basic it all used to be by clicking here to view all 100 pages that were available one particular evening in 1983. And you can remind yourself how little has changed now by pressing the text button on your TV remote. Or, alas, maybe you can't.
With the advent of digital television, Ceefax is slowly being replaced. It's still available on terrestrial television, but most of us aren't watching that any more. We've switched to the clarity of cable, the choice of satellite and the convenience of Freeview, and thereby to BBCi - the new digital text service. BBCi lurks behind the red button on your remote, it's menu-driven, and I hate it. In fact if I see that TV ad in which Jenson Button tells me that BBCi "handles like a dream" one more time I may scream. Because BBCi handles like a Formula 1 car limping into the pits with four burst tyres.
Ceefax may have been slow, but all you had to do was type in a three-digit number and the page of your choice eventually appeared. Go on, try it. BBCi has replaced numbered pages by a series of sub-menus, a bit like using a website but without the ability to bookmark any of the pages you use regularly. You have to start at the top of a main menu every time and work your way down, often several levels deep, and each sub-menu seems to take an age to load. Instant access to information is a thing of the past.
So, I thought I'd carry out my own diamond geezer test drive to compare Ceefax with BBCi and see which was quicker at finding information. Each experiment started from a normal text-free television picture. All the BBCi times are fastest-possibles whereas the Ceefax times are averages (because sometimes the page you want comes up immediately, while other times you have to wait for the very last subpage). Here are the results:
Latest news headlines: Ceefax p101 - 8 seconds; BBCi - 21 seconds
Local news headlines: Ceefax p160 - 8 seconds; BBCi - 44 seconds
Ceefax thrashes BBCi here, and you can read more headlines on the page too. To find local London news on BBCi takes 14 different key presses, requires manoeuvring through four different menus, and the final page has no headlines and isn't even labelled 'London'. New news is bad news.
Current programme on Channel 4: Ceefax p606 - 8 seconds; BBCi - 30 seconds
Radio 4's evening schedule: Ceefax p644 - 40 seconds; BBCi - 50 seconds
Want to find out what's on the other side? Ceefax wins again. If you're stuck with BBCi, by far the quickest option is to switch channels, and that can't be good for BBC viewing figures.
Who's top of the Premiership?: Ceefax p324 - 16 seconds; BBCi - 35 seconds
Latest Lotto numbers: Ceefax p555 - 17 seconds; BBCi - 22 seconds
On Ceefax both of these are 2-subpage pages, but they still manage to arrive before BBCi. Football league tables are buried so far down the sport menu that the team at the top will probably have changed by the time you get there.
5-day weather forecast for Edinburgh: Ceefax p406 - 95 seconds; BBCi - 45 seconds
Latest Underground travel problems: Ceefax p436 - 78 seconds; BBCi - 45 seconds
Where Ceefax really falls down are screens with an awful lot of subpages. You might have to wait over 3 minutes for the Edinburgh forecast to come round, whereas with BBCi all the information loads at the same time. And BBCi always gives you page 1 first, which is probably the one you want to read. And the BBCi weather graphics are far far more impressive than Ceefax's basic service.
Digital transmitter information: Ceefax p698 - 130 seconds; BBCi - not available
Index: Ceefax p199 - 8 seconds; BBCi - not available
Information about digital TV reception is only available on terrestrial Ceefax and not on BBCi. Unbelievable. In fact BBCi has far less breadth than Ceefax. No recipes, no flight arrival times, no chess, no TV reviews, just a handful of tabloid-friendly categories. This is digital dumbing-down, and there isn't even an index to check what they've left out.
So, after all that, it's a thumping victory for good old Ceefax. BBCi looks a lot more impressive, and you can watch TV at the same time which is great, but it fails dismally on the easy-to-use test. On Ceefax all I have to do is memorise a simple 3-digit number and I can find anything. On BBCi I'm forced into a hellish tree of sub-menus and, to be honest, I just can't be bothered to look. Dear BBC - when 30-year-old technology beats your latest cutting-edge information service, it's time to rethink. Please.