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Freely hands-on: Our first look at the UK’s newest free TV service

Image of a TV displaying Freely

Freely is an intuitive and easy way of accessing popular UK TV content over the internet but you’ll need to buy a TV that supports it

Millions of people rely on Freeview and Freesat to deliver free TV content in the UK so it’s a big deal when their owner, Everyone TV, launches a new service.

The company’s latest brainchild is Freely, a platform that enables you to stream live and on-demand content for free over the internet. There’s no need for a satellite dish, aerial or set-top box; as long as you have a TV with Freely built-in, a TV licence and an internet connection you’re good to go.

Hisense was the first TV brand to jump on board, signing a deal to incorporate Freely into its 4K tellies for the next five years. Manufacturer Vestel, which makes TV panels for several brands including Bush, JVC and Toshiba, quickly followed suit, while several other TV companies I’ve spoken to have expressed an interest in what Freely offers.

And for good reason. Around 4m UK households access TV content solely over the internet, a number that’s growing rapidly. I got a glimpse at Freely in action in February but have since had the opportunity to get hands-on with it at an event in Soho, London. You can find key details about the service and my initial impressions below.

Freely hands-on: What is it?

Freely is a platform that allows you to access free live and on-demand content all in one place. It’s the result of a collaboration between the UK’s public service broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – and it operates entirely over your internet connection. Its main purpose is to future-proof smart TVs so that they can provide easy and comprehensive access to free UK TV in an age where internet streaming is fast becoming the norm.

Image of a television displaying Freely live TV

As noted above, you’ll need a smart TV with Freely built-in to use it, along with a TV licence and a stable internet connection. Freely recommends a minimum download speed of 10Mbps but the faster and more stable the connection the better as you’ll be less likely to experience buffering issues.

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Freely hands-on: What channels and services are supported?  

The channels you can get differ slightly depending on which country of the UK you’re in. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have a decent number to choose from at launch and the intention is that Freely will eventually mirror the lineup found on Freeview Play.

Favourites like BBC One, E4 and ITVBe are present and correct, while CBBC and CBeebies are on hand to keep the little ones entertained. Numerous BBC Radio channels are also available, including local services. You can find a full breakdown of Freely channels here.

Image of a TV showing the browse function of Freely

It’s worth mentioning that this list is likely to grow in the coming months; Freely told me that it’s very close to bringing UKTV (the broadcaster that owns Dave, W and Alibi) on board. You can also expand the list of channels to include all of the digital terrestrial (DTT) channels available in your region by hooking up your Freely TV to an aerial.

In addition to live channels, Freely supports the major UK TV catch-up services: BBC iPlayer, ITVX, Channel 4 and My5. So, if you’ve missed an episode of Doctor Who or First Dates, you can watch them at your leisure on demand. These catch-up services are integrated into Freely, enabling them to be launched from the platform’s electronic programme guide (EPG).

Freely hands-on: Where is it available? 

All of the 4K models in Hisense’s 2024 TV range have Freely built-in. This includes its U8N, U7N and U6N Mini LED options alongside the E7N Pro, which uses Full Array Local Dimming, and the quantum dot-powered A7N.

The Chinese manufacturer was the first to market with TVs that support Freely but has been joined by Bush (Argos’ in-house brand), with options from JVC, Toshiba and more to follow.

Image of a hand holding a Hisense remote

We’re yet to find out which model numbers from those brands will feature Freely but we expect it to be incorporated into a significant proportion of their lineups.

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Freely hands-on: Features and functionality 

There are three main components of Freely: the electronic programme guide, the MiniGuide and the Browse page.

The EPG was designed from the ground up for Freely but bears a resemblance to that of Freeview Play. It’s here that you’ll be able to scroll through your list of supported channels, select from the live broadcasts available and plan your evening of TV bingeing.

At the time of writing, only content for the next seven days is displayed but Freely is also exploring the possibility of allowing users to look at what’s been on in the past. It’s also looking into ways of making its EPG more useful and one of its priorities is incorporating a way to set reminders for specific broadcasts.

The MiniGuide, meanwhile, is an overlay that lets you delve deeper into, and interact with, the TV show or movie you’re watching. It appears whenever you change the channel and enables you to pause live TV for up to 15 minutes, restart the programme (by automatically launching the relevant catch-up app), view info about the show or broadcast and access other episodes, if available. Accessibility options including subtitles and audio descriptions are also provided here, as is an indication of what’s on next.

Image of a TV showing 'Homes under the hammer' and the MiniGuide on Freely

The Browse section of Freely is where you go to find all of the platform’s content. It aggregates content from live and on-demand sources and displays it across the page in a series of rails. The top rail is set aside for Live TV and below that you’ll find rails for Apps, Top Picks, Trending Shows and various popular genres.

The aforementioned trio of components can be accessed via dedicated buttons on your Freely TV remote, making it a speedy process to jump right into finding or watching content.

Freely hands-on: Initial impressions 

I saw Freely running on a selection of Hisense’s 2024 TVs and was impressed by how seamlessly it was integrated into their VIDAA U operating system.

Freely was front and centre of the Hisense home page, with a prominent Live TV rail displaying live broadcasts from key channels such as BBC One, BBC Two, ITV1 and Channel 4. I could also jump straight into Live TV or the Freely Guide using shortcuts on the pop-up sidebar accessed via the VIDAA U settings menu.

Image of a TV displaying the Freely homepage on Hisense

Neat integration is welcome but the meat and bones of the Freely experience proved satisfying, too. The EPG doesn’t reinvent the wheel but I found it easy to navigate and comprehensive where programme information was concerned.

I particularly liked the MiniGuide overlay. The interface is cleanly laid out, making it super simple to access useful features such as pausing live content. I’d like to see the pause timer extended beyond 15 minutes, though. The option to browse and launch other episodes of the show you’re watching directly from a live broadcast is great and the whole process worked very smoothly. Red button functionality on the BBC works exactly as you’d expect, too, allowing you to access additional programming, live coverage of sporting and cultural events, sports scores, breaking news and more. You can also use the green button to restart programmes across various BBC channels.

Image of a TV showing the BBC red button function on Freely

The Browse hub is again sensibly laid out and crammed full of content. At this stage, however, the content is editorially curated by Freely rather than being user-customisable and there’s currently nothing akin to a “Continue watching” rail, which seems like a significant omission to me. Targeted content based on your viewing habits is also at the behest of the service providers rather than Freely itself, so you’re not necessarily going to get as personalised a selection as you might like.

That’s one of the few limitations of the platform but it didn’t prevent me from locating specific content that wasn’t immediately displayed. There’s a simple yet effective test search function, however as it stands, there’s no voice search. This means you’re stuck using the remote to type in what you’re looking for or, in the case of the Hisense TVs I got hands-on with, use those TVs’ voice search capabilities to search across the entirety of the VIDAA U OS, which is better but still suboptimal.

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Freely hands-on: Early verdict 

All-in-all, I’m excited by the arrival of Freely. Despite living in a flat with a TV aerial that picks up a solid selection of live channels, the increasing reliance on IP streaming means a platform like Freely makes a great deal of sense. From my limited time with it, it seems very easy to use, fits into existing TV operating systems discreetly (I’ve also seen it on a Bush TV powered by TiVo OS) and includes a comprehensive range of UK-centric content.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to make its way into older TVs – so you will need to buy a new TV if you want it. But Freely has said it’s exploring the possibilities of putting it on a streaming stick in the future and that there’s a smartphone app in the works that will operate similarly to the existing Freeview Play app. I was also told the Freely software is very easy to update and that ETV would be pushing out regular updates post-launch. These will be on the server side, so won’t require a manual download, which is nice; they will simply take effect when you reboot your TV.

Based on what I’ve seen of it, I’m confident Freely has what it takes to become as impactful as Freesat and Freeview Play. It’s in good shape at launch and if the passion and commitment displayed by those involved in the project is anything to go by, it will only go from strength to strength as new features are added and tweaks are made.

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