Wave goodbye to that pricey subscription and enjoy free HD satellite TV with the best Freesat boxes
It’s no secret that broadcast TV is going out of style, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer worth bothering with. Whether it’s sports, live events, news or showcase dramas, we still find ourselves watching traditional TV, even when there are catch-up services available.
For most of us in the UK, that means Freeview, with digital SD and HD TV signals delivered through the good old-fashioned aerial, but if you live in a weak TV signal area or have an existing Sky dish, then Freesat makes a great alternative.
Freesat provides access to over 170 TV channels through a dish, along with digital radio channels. What’s more, the platform has embraced the catch-up TV revolution, and on all but the cheapest boxes you can scroll backwards through your electronic programme guide (EPG) and watch programmes you missed out on in the week. You might even find streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime, giving you all the TV you need from a single unit.
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How we test the best Freesat boxes
We test Freesat boxes by connecting them up to a standard Astra satellite dish and an LG OLED 4K TV. We run through the setup process and automatic tuning, then watch a range of programmes over a period of at least three days.
Where there are recording features, we schedule one-off recordings and series recordings to check the playback quality and any series link features, and we deliberately set up clashes to see how the boxes handle those.
We also connect each unit to a Wi-Fi network to test any catch-up TV or streaming features. During testing, we evaluate how easy the box is to use – both in terms of the user interface and the supplied remote control. Finally, we take a careful look at any extra features or connection options, to see how well the box might fit into an existing AV setup.
How to choose the best Freesat box for you
Before you can get Freesat up and running on your TV, you’re going to need two things: a dish, if you don’t already have one, and either a TV that supports Freesat or a set-top box. Some Samsung, LG and Panasonic TVs support Freesat directly, and all you need to do is plug in the coaxial cable coming through the wall; check the manual and look for the distinctive satellite input socket (it sticks out and has a screw thread running around it) to see if this might be the case with yours. You can also check a list on the Freesat website. If not, you need a separate set-top box.
What is Freesat and how does it compare to Freeview?
Freesat is the satellite equivalent of Freeview, delivering SD and HD programmes and digital radio to your TV via a satellite dish. You get access to around 170 channels, including all the major UK channels, some slightly more obscure UK channels, some foreign-language channels and the usual specialist sport, adult, special interest and religious odds and ends.
Until late last year, Freesat was hobbled by one major omission. While it had all BBC, ITV and Channel 5 SD and HD channels, you couldn’t watch or record Channel 4 HD. Luckily, Freesat has now merged into the same organisation that runs Freeview, bringing Channel 4 HD back onboard. Weirdly, there’s still no Channel 4 app or HD catch-up service, but at least you can now watch The Great British Bake-Off, Taskmaster or The Great in glorious HD without switching to a streaming stick.
We would still suggest you go Freeview if you can get a decent signal, but Freesat is your best free-to-watch option if you can’t. Just be aware that, if you don’t have an existing satellite dish, you will need to budget for one. What’s more, while you can fit one yourself it takes some expertise, and a reputable installer will charge you anywhere between £150 and £300. Shop around if it’s too expensive, as cowboy installers can inflate the fee.
What should you look for in a Freesat HD box?
Like their Freeview cousins, Freesat boxes have evolved to cover catch-up TV and streaming services, and the best boxes now include Ethernet or Wi-Fi. With the right services in place, you can scroll forwards through the EPG and set reminders or schedule recordings, but you can also scroll left and watch programmes that have already been broadcast. Not all channels or even programmes in a channel will be available for catch-up, but most of the time it’s a whole lot easier than switching between catch-up apps to find your favourite show.
Your biggest issue these days is a lack of choice. Freesat now co-designs and builds its own Freesat receivers and recorders, while the likes of Humax and Panasonic have exited the market to focus on Freeview Play equipment. Luckily, Freesat’s own units are very good indeed. Meanwhile, LG, Sony and Samsung all sell LCD and OLED TVs with built-in Freesat receivers. These will also allow you to record to a connected USB hard drive, though you won’t be able to record one programme while watching another, as you can with a dedicated set-top box.
There are also some units available from eBay and Amazon that promise free satellite TV but don’t have the Freesat branding, Freesat’s services or Freesat’s user-friendly EPG. As a result, we would advise approaching these with caution and sticking to the real Freesat deal.
Is there anything else to look out for?
Dolby 5.1 surround sound is now standard, and Freesat’s own Freesat 4K TV boxes also support Dolby Atmos. As the name suggests, these units are also 4K-ready, and while there aren’t any 4K Freesat channels at the time of writing, you can watch 4K Netflix and YouTube content from your box.
Otherwise, the main things to watch out for are picture quality and the EPG (electronic programme guide, or more simply, the menu). There are still a few older units out there running old-fashioned, clunky EPGs that look ugly and make finding a programme or setting a recording a real chore. What’s more, Freesat and the remaining Freesat box manufacturers have worked hard in the past few years to build much more stylish and functional EPGs with proper Now and Next views and additional sections where you might find a showcase of hit programmes or catch-up TV features.
Finally, don’t forget the remote control. This is one area where budget Freeview and Freesat boxes consistently go wrong, and it can make a surprisingly big difference in everyday use, particularly if it’s uncomfortable with badly positioned buttons.
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The best Freesat boxes you can buy in 2023
1. Manhattan SX: The best budget Freesat HD box
Price when reviewed: £69 | Check price at Amazon
While there are a few no-brand boxes that will show all the free-to-air channels, the Manhattan SX is the cheapest unit to give you the full Freesat service. Luckily, it’s a great budget box. It’s an extremely compact set-top box with a square-ish profile and an interesting film strip effect on the front. Setting it up is as simple as plugging it into a power source and connecting the HDMI output – or the bundled analogue AV kit for older TVs – then running through a quick configuration process.
It’s not the most feature-packed box, with no catch-up TV services or streaming apps to mention, despite the Ethernet port at the rear. This and the single USB port are reserved for use in software updates. However, Manhattan has developed a smooth, good-looking eight-day EPG with proper Now and Next views, reminders and a filtered channel list. What’s more, both picture and sound quality are up to scratch. If you already have catch-up and streaming covered and you’re not bothered with recording, this is all the box you need to watch TV.
Key specs – Dimensions: 120 x 130 x 26.5mm; Tuners: Freesat HD; HDD: none; Smart Apps: none; Connections: Satellite in, Ethernet, HDMI, 3.5mm AV out, USB
2. Freesat 4K TV Box (Non-Recordable): The best Freesat TV receiver
Price when reviewed: £145 | Check price at Argos
Freesat’s own-brand STB has everything going for it, including a nicely compact design, built-in Wi-Fi and an optical out. It’s also more future-proof than previous Freesat receivers, with 4K output, Dolby Atmos audio and support for 4K Freesat broadcasts should they roll out in the future.
Right now, it’s a great receiver, with excellent picture quality and a snappy, no-nonsense user interface focused on helping you find and watch your favourite programmes. It’s intuitive and easy to use, and even the remote control is up to scratch.
Our one complaint is that, while it has most catch-up TV services covered, with the option to roll back to earlier programmes from the TV guide, the on-demand options don’t include All4, Disney+ or Now. Still, if you already have a TV or streaming device to cover them, you can safely buy away.
Key specs – Dimensions: 180 x 120 x 40mm; Tuners: 1x Freesat UHD; HDD: none; Smart Apps: iPlayer, ITV Hub, Demand 5, CBS Catchup, BritBox, STV Player, BBC Sounds, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Legends, France 24, UKTV Play. Connections: Satellite in, Ethernet, HDMI, USB 2, optical out, 802.11n Wi-Fi
3. Freesat Recordable 4K TV Box: The best Freesat recorder
Price when reviewed: £299 (2TB) | Check price at Hughes
Freesat’s Recordable 4K TV Box gives you everything great about the non-recording version but with a choice of 500GB (£230), 1TB (£260) and 2GB (£299) hard disks and dual Freesat tuners, so that you can record one channel while watching another at the same time. Software upgrades have made it even easier to scan through the EPG and set up recordings, complete with series link to record the whole series. The unit also does a fine job of handling clashes and letting you know that there’s an HD version of a programme available when you’re about to record it in SD.
It’s just as easy to find and play your recordings, and the image quality looks just like the original broadcast – not something that all Freeview recorders can boast. Throw in the same catch-up TV services, built-in streaming and great, no-nonsense user interface, and this is a better Freesat recorder than the old and much-loved Humax HDR-1100S. That’s lucky, as there’s no real competition. It’s practically the best Freesat recorder by default.
Avoid the 500GB version – you will run short of recording space in no time – and go straight to at least the 1TB version, or the 2TB model if you can afford it. If you like to keep your favourite programmes stored for watching later, you will be glad of the extra capacity.
Key specs – Dimensions: 250 x 150 x 35mm; Tuners: 2x Freesat UHD; HDD: 500GB, 1TB, 2TB; Smart Apps: iPlayer, ITV Hub, Demand 5, CBS Catchup, BritBox, STV Player, BBC Sounds, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Legends, France 24, UKTV Play; Connections: Satellite in, Ethernet, HDMI, USB 2, optical out, 802.11n Wi-Fi