Three free HDTV platforms, but which one is worth buying into?
But now the landscape of TV programming options has changed drastically. You could be a “cord-cutter” and opt not to watch anything live via your aerial or TV subscription, using your TV to stream content from the likes of Netflix, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime Video instead. And if you still really want to watch live TV, your options for free-to-air TV have now multiplied and evolved.
The three major services on the market right now are Freeview Play, YouView and Freesat. While all are relatively similar on the surface – offering up a slew of free-to-air TV channels alongside catch-up services, TV recording and EPG (electronic programme guide) information – the truth is there are many crucial differences between them. Read on to find out which one is right for you.
YouView has changed direction in the last year to focus less on providing free-to-view TV to consumers and more on working through its partners at BT, TalkTalk and Sony. YouView’s own support services and forums are closing, with these partners providing all direct support instead. This doesn’t mean YouView services will be going anywhere in the next few years, but you’re only going to get them if you get a subscription with BT or TalkTalk or buy a supporting Sony TV.
Freeview Play vs Freesat vs YouView: Available services
When Freeview Play, YouView and Freesat launched there was precious little difference between these three free-to-view TV services. Granted, Freesat carried slightly more channels, but each provider’s core offering – the UK channels you’ll most likely watch – was pretty evenly matched. Then, in early 2018, Freesat lost the rights to show Channel 4 HD and the All 4 catch-up service, leaving a gaping hole in its HD lineup. This has now, to some extent, been fixed; Channel 4 is now a shareholder in the Freesat platform, and Channel 4 is now available as an HD-only channel through a Freesat box or TV. Other Channel 4 channels are also accessible through Freesat, though only in SD.
Sadly, there’s still no Channel 4 app on Freesat, so you’ll have to live without integrated catch-up TV for that channel or stream from the Channel 4 app on a smart TV or via a streaming stick. BBC iPlayer, ITVX and My5 are all on board, however.
Freeview, Freesat and YouView all support recording options, allowing you to schedule single episode or series recordings, as well as pause and rewind live TV. This feature is built into Freeview Play as standard but, to make full use of it, you’ll have to make sure you buy a Freeview HD Recorder rather than a straight Freeview HD Receiver, or a TV that supports recording to an external USB memory stick or hard disk. That’s the norm for most TVs today.
Similarly, HD tuners are now standard across both set-top-boxes and TVs. This is all the more important now, with the BBC planning to cease SD broadcasts on Freesat in March next year, and across all platforms at some point in the future. It’s also worth remembering that to watch free-to-air TV via any of these services, you need a television licence and either a digital-ready aerial or a satellite dish installed at your home. If you have access to a satellite dish – including an old Sky dish – Freesat is worth considering, especially if you live in an area with poor digital transmission signal.
Freeview Play vs Freesat vs YouView: Catch-up TV
Alongside standard and HD TV, Freeview Play, YouView and Freesat all let you catch up on missed TV through services like BBC iPlayer, My 5 and ITV Player, though Freesat misses out on Channel 4 and the Channel 4 app. Otherwise, all include UKTV Play and STV Player and manage to pack in a few other, smaller names too. FreeviewPlay has CBS Catchup and Horror Bites while YouView and Freesat have Milkshake!
These catch-up TV services are free to use and – if you have Freeview Play, YouView or Freesat’s Freetime – they’re integrated into the EPG. That means you can watch many programmes that have already been broadcast just by scrolling back to an earlier day.
All three services give access to subscription channels, provided you’re already a paid-up member. Netflix is available through all of them, while Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, BritBox and NowTV may also be up for grabs, depending on the service and your set-top-box. The line-up varies from service to service, and BT and TalkTalk customers using YouView also get their own exclusive content.
|Free services||BBC Player, ITV Hub, All 4, My 5, UKTV Play, STV Player, CBS Catchup, Horror Bites||BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My 5, STV Player, UKTV Play, Quest, Milkshake!, S4C, POP FUN||BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, My 5, UKTV Play, STV Player, Milkshake!, YouTube|
|Paid-for services||Netflix (on selected set-top boxes), Amazon Prime Video, Now TV||Netflix, Now TV (on selected set-top boxes), Sky Store||Netflix, Amazon Prime Video (on selected 4K set-top-boxes), BritBox, Rakuten TV|
Freeview Play vs Freesat vs YouView: Which one should I buy?
Think about how you watch TV. Do you tend to record a lot of your viewing and catch up on it later? In that case, a hard-drive-based device is still your best option. It will let you record two channels simultaneously, or record one while watching another. Otherwise, you might find that the services built into your TV are perfectly adequate – particularly if you’ve upgraded to a new smart TV.
If you’re looking to pick up a set-top-box right now, Freeview Play is currently the best all-round choice. It has every mainstream channel and nearly all the catch-up services you’d need. And when it comes to set-top boxes, there are still some great options available. Manhattan is just releasing a new line of T4 set-top boxes, while the Humax Aura is a fantastic device, combining Freeview Play catch-up and recording with 4K-streaming.
For those living in a poor signal area or who already have a satellite dish, Freesat becomes your best option. It’s a worthy rival to Freeview Play and its catch-up features have been much improved lately. Here too you have some great devices, from the affordable Manhattan SX to Freesat’s own branded 4K TV Box.
As for YouView, it’s still worth having if you’re buying a Sony TV that includes it or you find a great deal on a TalkTalk or BT subscription with TV services bundled in. Given that Freesat and Freeview Play come free of any monthly subscription, there’s no compelling reason to go down the YouView route unless you’re looking to pay for a sports, entertainment and/or movies package at the same time.