Looking to switch to digital TV? Don't want to pay a monthly subscription? Then you've come to the right place. As a UK telly watcher, you've got until the end of 2012 (at the latest) to pick a digital TV provider.
You've got several free-to-air options. Freeview provides free digital TV through a traditional aerial. Freesat, as its name suggests, delivers a similar digital TV service but via satellite. Finally, BSkyB operates a little-known, subscription-free digital TV service of its own called Freesat From Sky. This is also beamed down from space and requires a satellite dish.
Article continues below
One more thing. If you'd like to watch high definition TV in the future, then choose your digital TV provider wisely. While some of the options here are already showing programmes in HD, others can't. Read on - we've covered all the details below.
Freeview rose from the ashes of ITV Digital in 2002 with the aim of providing a free-to-air digital TV service through existing television aerials. Eight years later and "over 18 million UK homes use Freeview on at least one TV set in the home" according to Freeview's own numbers (December 2009).
While reception in some areas of the UK is still somewhat flaky, Freeview is wildly popular with UK consumers. Why? For starters, the hardware is cheap – digital set top boxes can cost as little as £20, while Freeview tuners can also be found integrated into HD TVs and Freeview+ digital video recorders such as the TVonics DTR-HV250.
Freeview is also easy to install – you don't need an engineer to set it up and the service will typically work with your existing TV aerial. And if it doesn't, it's worth remembering that reception will only get better as each UK TV region extinguishes its analogue transmissions and switches over to digital.
Crucially, Freeview delivers a good quality service – up to 50 digital TV channels (dependent on your signal strength) and 24 digital radio stations. The launch of Freeview+ in 2007 upgraded the experience with digital TV timeshifting and recording functionality to pause/rewind live TV and record one channel while watching another. Features to rival a Sky+ box.
As for high definition, well the good news is that Freeview will be supporting HD broadcasts in 2010. Freeview HD and Freeview+ HD services will launch in time for the football World Cup in South Africa. The bad news? Current Freeview hardware isn't capable of receiving HD signals, so you'll need a brand new Freeview HD box.
Summary: The easiest (and cheapest) solution for watching digital TV with high-def channels to follow in 2010. Find out more at freeview.co.uk
The BBC and ITV launched a satellite-based alternative to Freeview in 2008. While Freeview works with a set top box and a home's existing TV aerial, Freesat requires a set top box and a satellite dish.
Freesat can make use of an existing dish if one is available. Otherwise, a dish will need to be installed professionally for a one-off cost of £80. Too pricey? Metronic sells a complete receiver/dish kit if you fancy getting up a ladder and installing Freesat for yourself.
Like Freeview, there's a variety of Freesat-compatible hardware to choose from. A traditional set-top box will cost around £50, while Freesat+ digital recorders (like the Panasonic DMR-XS350A) can record two channels at once and pause/rewind live TV.
However you receive it, Freesat delivers over 140 subscription-free digital TV and radio channels, accessed via an eight-day EPG. While thanks to the generous satellite bandwidth, Freesat is also capable of carrying the fledgeling HD channels from the BBC and ITV.
Until Freeview HD launches across the country in 2010, Freesat HD is the only way to get live, subscription-free high-def TV in the UK.
To round things off, Freesat also expects to fully support the BBC iPlayer and ITV Player catch-up TV services in 2010.
Summary: A wider choice of channels, 98 per cent UK coverage and currently the only way to watch free-to-air HD in the UK until Freeview HD launches in 2010. Find out more at freesat.co.uk.
Freesat from Sky
Sky doesn't go out of its way to advertise its free digital TV service. Why would it? It wants new customers to sign up to one of its monthly subscription TV packages instead.
But the option is there and, like the full-fat Sky Digital service, Freesat From Sky requires a satellite dish, a Sky digibox and a viewing card. The full package (including installation) will set you back £146.81.
There are cheaper options. If you're an ex-Sky subscriber (i.e. you already have a dish, an old Sky digibox and have previously been a customer for 12 months or more), then all you need to watch Freesat From Sky is your old viewing card.
If you've got a satellite dish, but no digibox, you can usually unearth some old Sky hardware on eBay. Say £30 for an unwanted Sky+ box, £20 for the viewing card and you're good to go.
It's worth noting that while you can use a Sky+ box to watch Freesat From Sky, none of the clever PVR functionality will work unless you cough up £10 per month to Sky. The Sky+ subscription is free to Sky Digital subscribers.
Other than that, Freesat From Sky gives you access to 240 TV channels and 85 digital radio stations without a monthly subscription. It's a wider choice than Freesat, but there's no access to any free high definition channels currently broadcasting unless you install a Sky HD box.
Again, none of the Sky+ functionality will work on a Sky's HD hardware unless you pay £10 per month or become a Sky Digital subscriber. A Sky HD subscription, giving you access to 15 HD channels and on-demand programming, will cost an extra £15 per month.
Summary: An ideal choice if you're a Sky subscriber who's looking to ditch their monthly subscription. Find out more at freesatfromsky.co.uk