If you were one of the millions who rushed out to buy a Freeview box or TV as the Digital Switchover loomed over your future viewing, you’ve probably got quite used to it by now.
You’re probably wondering where to go beyond the 50 channels on offer (let’s be frank, some of them are a bit pony) – almost certainly if you’re tuned into a Freeview relay transmitter with about 20 channels.
You might also be wondering about high definition channels on Freeview, and whether there’s a better way to record Freeview than via your Scart socket to a now-useless VCR?
If you’ve heard of BBC iPlayer, did you know you can watch it on your TV screen through a variety of TVs and set-top boxes, and even find extra film and TV shows from folks like Netflix and Lovefilm?
You might have got used to recording with a VCR when you had no other choice – or even a DVD recorder – but did you ever like it? Finding a blank tape or disc, setting the manual timers, missing your show when the schedules are running late. All of these irritations can be things of the past.
Freeview signals are made up of digital data that can be recorded directly to a computer-style hard disc drive inside the box, without any loss of quality. You can even fast-forward through digital recordings and still see the picture, or pause the picture in perfect clarity.
You can do a lot of things with digital recording that simply weren’t possible with a VCR, and Freeview has bundled them all together under the Freeview+ brand, which will be displayed prominently on the packaging and recorders themselves. If it’s not there, you should probably avoid it.
Modern hard discs are huge, as well. The minimum in 2012 is about 320GB, which can store more than 500 hours of ordinary TV, and the average is approaching 500GB, with 1TB Freeview recorders adding only about £50 to the asking price.
Setting up recordings is done from the EPG (Electronic Programme Guide) that you’ve no doubt go used to browsing to see what’s on. Freeview+ boxes let you set a recording by pressing a single button, and two presses will let you record every episode of a series. You can usually adjust the buffer at the start and end of recordings, and many Freeview TV channels also broadcast signals that will update your recording times if they’re running late. Of course, you can set up manual timers if you want.
Back in the day, your VCR gave you an extra TV tuner so you could watch one channel while you recorded another. Freeview+ recorders come with two tuners so you can do the same thing, and even record two channels while you watch a recording.
You can also hit pause at any time, because Freeview+ recorders constantly record what you’re watching. You can rewind to replay an event, and when you’re done, fast-forward to catch up, or and many boxes will save from the live ‘buffer’ into your recording library.
It’s not common, but a few Freeview+ recorders can be connected to your home network, either to play back video and music files from computers and networked hard discs, or even to watch your recordings on PCs and other home entertainment devices. For instance, recordings on Panasonic’s Freeview+ boxes can be watched from other Panasonic Blu-ray players elsewhere in the house.
High definition TV: Freeview HD
High definition has gone from being a curiosity to a staple since it launched in the UK around six years ago, and this year the BBC will provide more than 20 HD streams from the Olympics for viewers on Freesat, Sky and Virgin.
There’s not so much on Freeview HD, but there are still four HD channels – BBC One HD, BBC HD (soon to become BBC Two HD), ITV1 HD and Channel 4 HD. Channel 5 HD isn’t coming to Freeview, but there is one more HD channel expected by the end of the year.
The benefits of HD will show up on any TV of 32in screen size or better, but it’s best enjoyed on screens of 40in and above. It’s sharper, more detailed and has richer colours, but you’ll also find a greater sensation of depth.
High definition TV also comes with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound – the same as you get with DVDs – which can add an extra dimension of its own if you have a home cinema sound system.
Smart TVs aren’t smart – at least not yet. What they are is connected, giving you access to new services over your broadband connection, or connecting to other devices on your home network, such as your smartphone.
Most Freeview HD receivers and TVs can do something extra if you connect them up via WiFi or an Ethernet cable.
The universal basic smart TV extras are YouTube and the BBC iPlayer catch-up TV service, although ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 have all been far slower to put their catch-up TV onto smart TV devices.
More interesting are all the pay-as-you-go film and TV outlets on smart TV, such as Blinkbox and Acetrax, or the lower-cost subscriptions for the likes of Netflix and Lovefilm. Sky has made a limited selection of its TV shows, films and sports available on Sky Go at a subscription much lower than a full Sky subscription (although it’s not in HD).
Smart TV isn’t just about video: there are music service, news and information apps, and lots of games, even internet browsers are popping up on the latest TVs. Panasonic’s 2012 and 2011 devices let you make Skype video calls, and this is coming to other brands soon.
Samsung, Panasonic, Toshiba and LG all have apps for iPhones and Android phones that turn them into a remote control for your TV or set-top box, operating via your home network. It’s massively helpful and saves you losing the awful remotes that come with most TVs.
Some brands also let you push video, photos or music from your phone or tablet to the TV screen over WiFi, so you can share videos or play mobile games on a big screen.
We’re assuming that if you’ve gone for Freeview, you didn’t want to sign a monthly subscription for Sky or Virgin.
However, if you’re frustrated with Freeview’s channel choice, there’s always Freesat. Forget the vanilla Freesat service, which is hard to buy kit for anyway, and go for Freesat HD.
This gives you the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 high definition channels, and most current Freesat HD TVs and receivers can be internet-connected for the BBC iPlayer.
There are also more than a hundred TV channels on Freesat, and dozens of radio stations with a far wider range of news and special interest channels, from Movies4Men to NHK World HD. There’s so much capacity on satellite that Freesat viewers, for instance, get all 24 of the BBC’s HD Olympic video streams.
All you need is a Sky-style small satellite dish aimed slightly east of south in the sky, about 30 degrees up.
One warning: there’s a huge technology upgrade coming to Freesat later this year, which will make it much more friendly to smart TV services. Freesat is keeping very tight-lipped about what this will mean, but we’re expecting that it will come with a much bigger range of smart TV video providers.
If you’re excited about the potential of smart TV to make your Freeview experience more exciting, you might want to hang on a few months for YouView.
This is expected to launch by the end of September, and will present a ‘backwards’ programme guide that lets you scroll backwards through the past week of TV on the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, and maybe other channels.
There will be other smart TV services as well, and the first YouView box will be a Freeview HD recorder from Humax, costing about £300.
YouView’s backers include BT and TalkTalk, who are expected to make the boxes very cheap for their subscribers, and to offer exclusive video services via broadband.