The subscription-free alternatives
Now that the digital switchover is almost complete, 90% of the UK can receive Freeview, and more than four million HD boxes had been sold as of December 2011. Freeview can’t compete with Sky and Virgin on the sheer number of channels, but it does include satellite favourites such as ITV2, BBC Three and Four, More4, Dave and more. Numerous text services and radio stations are also included.
New TVs have Freeview built in, but it’s possible to buy a box for as little as £20 and be watching in minutes. Bear in mind, however, that cheap boxes eschew all luxuries, with scart rather than HDMI connections and no additional services. If you have the budget, there’s much more to Freeview than its basic service.
Freeview+ boxes allow for programme recording and, as with standard boxes, there’s no single box to buy – a minimum specification is licensed to hardware manufacturers. This specification includes series links, recording split programmes as individual programmes, searching and offering to record related programmes, and also offering alternative airings of programmes if there’s a scheduling conflict.
TV tech tested
We tested the major players and the leading alternatives to find out which is best:
The subscription free alternatives
It’s similar to Sky+. Freeview HD, meanwhile, launched in December 2009 with only BBC HD and ITV, but that’s since grown to include BBC One, Channel 4 and regional equivalents. It’s also possible to augment your channel selection with TopUpTV. There’s no contract, and monthly payments unlock channels normally restricted to Sky and Virgin customers, such as Sky Sports channels and ESPN.
Both Freeview+ and HD usually come on high-end boxes. A £150 box typically includes a 160GB or 320GB hard disk as well as Freeview+ and HD, but for anything up to £300 you can get a terabyte or more of storage, twin TV tuners, Blu-ray drives and USB ports. The latter allows you to connect external USB hard disks or thumb drives and export recordings, although you may need to convert the video for playback on a PC, and some programmes may be encrypted. This gives Freeview boxes a potential advantage over Sky and Virgin’s set-top boxes, which effectively disable their USB ports.
Even if you’ve splashed out on an expensive box, there’s still one consideration that’s unique to Freeview: reception. The ongoing deactivation of the analogue signal has freed up precious bandwidth and improved coverage, but you’re still reliant on your signal to receive all the available channels.
The first stop should be a postcode check at the Freeview website. Sites such as UKFreeTV offer transmitter maps, service updates and information on the technical aspects of the Freeview service. The quality of reception also depends on the aerial: external aerials are best, but internal ones cost as little as £10; if you have trouble, spend more on one with a built-in amplifier.
Remote recording & mobile EPG
Freeview has been a little slower to fully embrace the world of apps than Sky and Virgin, but the official Freeview HD app is available on iOS and Android. It’s basically an EPG, with full schedule listings for all Freeview channels, but it has social features too: each information page has a “share” button, along with the ability to flag favourite programmes and set reminders. What it can’t do currently is remotely record programmes on your Freeview box.
To do that, there are a number of internet-connected Freeview boxes, some of which allow you to set up remote recordings via a web interface. Currently only the SmartBox range of Freeview devices can pair up with an app called FetchTV, which includes remote recording.
Hopefully, the Freeview HD app will follow suit, although it’s presumably a more complex task when you’re not tied to a single piece of hardware.
If you don’t want or need a TV, you can still watch many channels online. BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand 5 are all free to view (although you still need a TV licence to watch live broadcasts), and Sky now offers an online-only subscription to its channels. For £15 a month you can receive the basic entertainment pack with up to 20 channels, rising to £40 a month for the full sports and movies package.
You won’t have the Sky+ features, but you’ll have the flexibility to cancel at any point – and no unsightly dish stuck on the side of your house.