There are many ways to get subscription-free digital TV these days. The most common are Freeview, Freesat and a connected or ‘smart’ TVs.
Freeview and Freesat cost nothing except for the receiver - either a digital TV antenna or a digital satellite dish - and your TV set.
Smart TVs either plug in to your Freeview or Freesat box, come with Freeview or Freesat built in and offer a range of additional apps and services, mostly on-demand services like BBC iPlayer or movie rental platforms like Netflix, Lovefilm or Blinkbox.
As well as smart TVs there are other connected devices such as Blu-ray players which offer many of the same or similar apps and services.
In any case, you’ll need a TV Licence whichever digital TV option you go for.
Here we take a quick look at Freeview, Freesat and Smart TV and what you’ll need to get started.
Freeview: TV through your aerial
- What do you need: TV aerial and Freeview TV or box
- TV channels: Up to 50
- HD TV channels: 4
- Radio channels: 4
Now the Digital Switchover has been completed, the Freeview is available in 98 per cent of the UK. Broadly speaking it’s equal to or better than the old four channel analogue TV which it replaced.
Freeview has over 40 standard channels over 20 radio channels and four HD TV channels which are BBC One HD, BBC HD, ITV1 HD and Channel 4 HD.
By the end of 2012, 98 per cent of the UK will be able to receive Freeview, although about 15 per cent will only get 15 ‘core’ channels because they get Freeview from a relay transmitter. You can check your Freeview reception on the Freeview website at www.freeview.co.uk.
Basic Freeview boxes cost from £20, with Freeview+ recorders from £120, Freeview HD boxes from £60 and Freeview+ HD recorders from £130. Every new TV now has a Freeview tuner, and most HD TVs also come with a Freeview HD tuner (but make sure you ask).
Freeview has an eight-day programme guide, and all Freeview+ recorders have at least two tuners and support Series Links so you can record an entire series automatically. There’s also an app for Apple and Android mobile devices that lets you browse the Freeview guide.
All Freeview HD receivers are capable of connecting to broadband for extra services, such as the Vision IPTV channels, and some also include the BBC iPlayer and ITV Player.
Freesat: Free TV through a satellite dish
- What do you need: satellite dish and Freesat TV or box
- TV channels: More than 130
- HD TV channels: 5
- Radio channels: 39
For those who find the Freeview service too limited or who get only the 15-channel ‘core’ Freeview, Freesat has more than 130 TV and radio channels, and can be received almost anywhere in the UK on the same kind of dish used for Sky.
Most new Freesat receivers and TVs support Freesat HD, which gives you the four Freeview HD channels plus NHK World HD. The full channel line-up can be found at www.freesat.co.uk, and there's an eight-day programme guide.
There are a limited number of Freesat-equipped TVs from Samsung and Panasonic. Freesat boxes start at £35, with Freesat HD boxes from £70 and Freesat+ HD recorders from £170. All Freesat+ recorders have twin tuners and automatic series recording. Dish installation starts at £80. The Freesat range also includes Echostar’s SlingLoaded recorder, which lets you watch Freesat channels and recordings via your broadband connection from anywhere in the world on a PC, Mac, and both Android and Apple mobile devices.
Freesat HD receivers and TVs can also connect via your broadband service to BBC iPlayer and ITV Player, with 4oD expected in 2012. ITV1 HD and ITV Player are not available in the STV and UTV regions.
Free Time from Freesat
While Freesat has more TV channels overall than Freeview its worth noting that there are certain channels - most notably Dave - which don’t appear in Freesat’s line up. This is due to a contractual tie-up which sees Sky having exclusive broadcast of Dave and other UKTV channels via satellite.
We’ve recently seen the launch of Free Time from Freesat. This is a brand new service that comes with access to BBC iPlayer and ITV Player built in to the main channel menu and lets you catch up with missed shows from the last seven days more easily.
Free Time from Freesat will eventually include 4oD and Demand 5, complementing the on-demand library.
Freesat from Sky
If you have a second-hand Sky box or a Sky box with no subscription, then you will be receiving Freesat-from-Sky. This is identical to Freesat, and if you have a Sky+HD receiver you will also get Channel 5 HD.
Smart TV: Free TV plus on-demand via broadband
- What do you need: broadband connection of at least 2Mbps or better and a smart TV device
- TV channels: Variable
- HD TV channels: Variable
- Radio channels: Variable
Connected or Smart TV is the umbrella name for TVs, digital TV receivers, set-top boxes and even games consoles which can get extra service over your broadband connection.
Smart TVs come in all shapes and sizes, with many of them coming with either Freeview or Freesat receivers built in, so there’s no need for a set-top box.
As well as this, you’ll also be able to connect your smart TV to the internet (either via Ethernet cable or via WiFi) which will let you access services like BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, web browsers, Facebook, Twitter and streaming apps like Spotify, Now TV and Film4 on Demand.
All of the major TV manufacturers - Sony, Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Philips, Toshiba and Sharp - have connected TV portals, and many of them are now based around smartphone-style apps that you download to create your own experience. These include music, games and information as well as video.
Sony and LG are also working on Google TV devices with the Sony NS7-GSZ now available in the UK, while Sharp is rumoured to be working with Apple on a new Apple TV.
The connection speed needed to access various on-demand platforms varies - it can be up to 5Mbps for some high definition (HD) video services. For most standard services you'd need at least 2Mbps to get a decent service though obviously the faster the better.
In a sense, Free Time from Freesat is a smart TV service as it blends traditional broadcast channels with extra on-demand content.
YouView which launched this year could also be viewed as a smart TV service. With YouView you get the same channels as you’d get over the aerial on Freeview but with BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand 5 added.
TalkTalk subscribers who take out the TalkTalk Plus package can also get TalkTalk TV, a branded YouView service which also lets you subscribe to a selection of Sky TV packages.
We’ve covered the pricing of these channels elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning in the content of this comparison piece - YouView and by extension all smart TV services are subscription free, but come with the option of paying for on-demand extras. You’re not obliged to sign up for anything, but they’re there should you want them.
Recombu Verdict: Freeview vs Freesat vs Smart TV
Freeview’s probably the easiest choice for most people, and has a good mix of channels. Freeview HD has added more than just HD, with some interesting extras now arriving over broadband.
Freesat has one more HD channel and a nice range of products, but if unless you can’t get Freeview, Freesat doesn’t have anything that really gives it an edge.
If you think you might fancy adding extra films and TV shows to Freeview or Freesat from time to time, but you don’t want the full Sky or Virgin subscription, look out for a TV or digital recorder with smart TV features - they’re hard to avoid.