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What To Know When Buying Free-to-Air Digital TV

If you are looking to purchase a product to receive free-to-air digital TV, then find out all you need to know about Freeview, freesat and YouView along with their related set-top boxes in our Buying Guide.

What is free digital TV?

With the nationwide digital switchover nearly finished, much of the UK can no longer receive the old analogue signals that broadcast the traditional five channel transmissions of BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4 and Five.

These have been replaced by more than 100 TV and digital channels offered free through your existing aerial using Freeview or YouView or freesat via a satellite dish.

All you need to receive them is a compatible set-top box to plug into your TV.

What are the differences between Freeview, freesat and YouView?

Freeview is the most common free-to-air platform. It offers 50 TV channels and four HD channels plus 25 radio stations. Set-top boxes can cost as little as £25. With the right box, you can also subscribe to other TV services to receive sport and movies.

Freesat requires a satellite dish as well as the set-top box, but an old Sky one will work if you have one attached to the house. It has more than 150 channels overall and you will need a specific freesat set-top receiver  between your TV and your satellite dish.

YouView is the newest free digital TV service available and combines these channels with internet-based catch-up television. You can go backwards through its electronic programme guide to instantly access shows via the likes of BBC iPlayer, ITV Player and 4OD. It connects directly to your aerial socket and your broadband.

What is Freeview+ and freesat+?

Seeing the + sign on products relating to either of these services means the set-top box is capable of recording television programmes directly to a hard drive contained within the receiver.

Different boxes will have different size hard drives and they may or may not be compatible with HD TV signals.

If you have an HD television, while free-to-air does not currently offer as many high-definition channels compared to rivals such as Sky and Virgin Media, more will follow, so it’s worth investing in the right box from the beginning.

Set-top boxes with a recording function also allow you to pause and rewind live TV, record more than one show while watching another and some can connect to the internet for apps and catch-up telly.

Do I need to pay a subscription?

Unlike Sky and Virgin Media, there is no subscription to pay for Freeview, freesat or YouView. You simply have one initial payment to make for the set-top box and that’s it.

Can I get free-to-air channels purely through my television?

All new TVs will have decoding technology within them that allows you to receive signals for Freeview or freesat, or both.

YouView technology is not built-into televisions but many – in a similar way – are able to receive internet catch-up broadcasts via apps or streaming channels when connected to broadband via an Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi.

What different types of set-top boxes are there?

A range of manufacturers make set-top boxes for Freeview and freesat while currently only Humax makes a YouView recorder.

The YouView box has a 500GB hard drive inside, enough for 300 hours of recording and has been developed to be extremely simple to use. Just by clicking on the names of programmes in the electronic TV guide, you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want, whether it is being broadcast live or via catch-up.

Humax also offer a range of other recording boxes for both Freeview and freesat. The Freeview+HD 1TB recorder will receive high-definition channels and has the largest amount of space currently available for storing programmes.

If you are looking for a basic freesat unit, you can buy one for less than £100, for example the Humax FoxSat-HD. However, this does not allow recording.

Is there anything else I should look for?

One main thing to consider is the number of recordings you can make while still watching TV. Some set-top boxes will allow you to record one programme while watching another channel. Others then progress to recording two channels while watching a third or recording two channels while watching another recording you already have stored on the box.

Not all set-top boxes will give access to apps such as BBC iPlayer. YouView is the only one to include catch-up TV from every single channel and to weave it directly within its electronic programme guide to make it very easy to use and operate.

But some can be connected to the internet to use the likes of Facebook or Twitter and YouTube. Check whether it has Wi-Fi built-in or will need an Ethernet cabled plugged into your router. It may also be possible to buy a separate wireless dongle for it.

It is also worth looking at what connections are on the back of the set-top box and what cables are in the box, whether that’s a Scart socket, HDMI, Ethernet, USB and connections for optical cables for speakers.

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