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Digital Switchover Northern Ireland: what are my choices?

Freeview & Freesat Logo

The Digital Switchover begins in Northern Ireland in two day’s time.

To continue to watch the BBC channels, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 plus all of the newer digital channels, you’ll need to have bought a digital TV set or set-top box.

If you’ve already bought a Freeview TV or box, then you’re already good to go – all you’ll need to do is re-tune your box when the switchover begins on Wednesday the 10th of October.

BT Vision and YouView customers will need to retune as well, but if you’ve got Sky, Virgin Media or Freesat then you won’t need to do anything.

If you’re still watching the analogue TV service then you’ll need to get digital TV – although you might be able to keep your old TV set. Read on to find out what’s available to you and how to get set up.

The free options: Freeview, Freesat and Freesat-from-Sky

If you don’t want to pay a monthly subscription for digital TV, you can choose from Freeview through your TV aerial, or Freesat through a satellite dish.

Freeview

Freeview has more than 40 TV and radio channels, but if you receive your analogue TV via a relay transmitter, you may only get the ‘core’ 15 Freeview channels (including all of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 services, and the four Freeview HD channels). The postcode checker at www.freeview.co.uk can tell you exactly which channels you will receive before and after Digital Switchover.

Most Freeview HD receivers can also get the BBC iPlayer and a small number of broadband TV channels delivered by Vision IPTV, if you connect to your broadband service. Freeview digital TV recorders are available under the Freeview+ brand.

Freeview boxes start at £20, with Freeview+ recorders from £120, Freeview HD boxes from £60 and Freeview+ HD recorders from £130.

Freesat

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. Details at www.freesat.co.uk.

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.
Freesat boxes start at £35, with Freesat HD boxes from £70 and Freesat+ HD recorders from £170. Dish installation starts at £80.

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.

Paying for more: BT Vision, Sky and Virgin Media

More than 17 million British homes subscribe to a TV service that gives them extra channels and services than Freeview or Freesat. BT Vision, Sky and Virgin Media can also bundle in your broadband and phone with a TV package that suits your needs. This is often cheaper than getting them individually, but can tie you into a bundle that’s hard to escape.

The cheapest option is BT Vision, which gives you a Freeview recorder that also has catch-up TV from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, for as little as £4/month. It also has a selection of TV shows, films and music on-demand over broadband, either pay-per-view or unlimited with a £12/month subscription.

Virgin and Sky compete for the premium end of subscription TV customers, with large selections of channels, on-demand TV libraries, sports and films. They also offer a range of high definition TV channels, and the premium digital TV recorders: Sky+ and TiVo. In summary, Sky has some more TV channels and some of them are exclusive, while Virgin has a much larger on-demand library and TiVo is a slightly better digital TV recorder than Sky+, but more complex to use.

What about YouView?

YouView is a new platform that mixes Freeview digital terrestrial TV channels with subscription/pay-per-view channels and content that is delivered over a broadband connection.

YouView currently include the Humax DTR-T1000 which can be bought on its own for £299 or can come bundled with BT broadband and TV subscriptions.

TalkTalk is also packaging YouView boxes with its TalkTalk Plus broadband deal but this box, made by Huawei, is slightly different to the Humax box in size and specification.

YouView also prominently features a ‘backwards EPG’ which lets you watch programmes you’ve missed. The programmes you’ll be able to call up depend whether or not they’re available on BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand Five – these catch-up services are built directly into the YouView channel guide as well as available to access as standalone apps in a separate menu.

Do I need a new TV?

If your TV has a Scart or HDMI socket at the back, then you can plug in a set-top box and keep your old TV. If you want to take advantage of the Freeview HD channels like BBC HD with their stunning high definition channels, then your TV will have to have the ‘HD Ready’ or ‘Full HD 1080p’ logos.

What about my VCR?

The analogue TV tuner in your VCR will no longer work, so you’ll need to replace it for recording day-to-day TV. The typical replacement is a Digital TV Recorder (DVR), also known as a Personal Video Recorder (PVR), which records digital TV channels to a computer-style hard disc drive that you can watch like a video tape.

Sky+ and Virgin TiVo are both DVRs – on Freeview and Freesat look out for the Freeview+ and Freesat+ brands. DVRs don’t have removable tapes, but you can store 40 hours of TV on the smallest hard discs – that’s five times as much as the best long-play video tape.

Panasonic makes the only digital TV recorder that lets you choose between a hard disc or a removable Blu-ray disc, and it’s available for either Freeview HD or Freesat HD. 

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