The complete guide to Freesat

Channel 4 HD has no plans to join Freesat while it's still at an experimental stage, and Five doesn't have an HD channel.

HD set-top boxes are available from Goodmans, Bush, Grundig and Humax now. Humax will launch a twin-tuner HD PVR 'in the next couple of months'. The Humax HD PVR will be able to record ITV's HD events.

Interactive and on-demand

Freesat uses a version of the MHEG interactive software seen on Freeview, providing digital text, subtitles, audio description and extra video streams.

There are special 'Freesat extensions' to MHEG which allow richer services that can take advantage of the extra bandwidth on satellite and the greater processing power of today's set-top boxes.

The BBCi service has been completely re-written on Freesat and is significantly faster than the same service on Freeview.

Every Freesat box has an Ethernet port which can be connected to your home broadband connection to allow high-capacity return path for interactive services. This is likely to include versions of the BBC iPlayer and the forthcoming Kangaroo service, so you can access on- demand TV from your set-top box.

The BBC wants iPlayer be available by the end of this year, while Kangaroo could take longer to arrive. It's possible that other free or pay-TV services may want to be available via the Ethernet port, although that would bring Freesat's key selling point into doubt.

Freesat Receivers

There are seven receivers available now, and a second wave of manufacturers is expected to join Freesat by early 2009. All receivers have to meet a minimum standard specification and must pass stringent DTG Testing.

The Freesat EPG and interactive services will only function on Freesat-badged receivers. They cannot be picked up using a Sky Digibox or free-to-air receivers which don't carry the Freesat badge, although Sky has its own EPG and interactive technology. Some manufacturers may choose to upgrade their firmware to meet Freesat specifications, but without an Ethernet port they will not be able to carry the Freesat badge

One surprising omission is support for channel- stacking LNBs, which can supply several tuners or receivers through a single cable from the dish, making PVR and multi-room installations far less expensive. There appears be some support for these in the Humax receiver, so it may be added more widely as a future software upgrade.

Standard definition: Three boxes with twin Scarts (one RGB) and analogue stereo audio outputs: Bush BFSAT01SD (£50), Goodmans GFSAT100SD (£70), Grundig GUFSAT01SD (£50).

High definition: Four boxes with HDMI out, twin Scarts (one RGB), optical digital audio out, and analogue stereo audio out: Bush BFSAT01HD (£120), Goodmans GFSAT200HD (£150), Grundig GUFSAT01HD (£150), Humax FOXSAT-HD (£150).

PVR: There are no plans for a standard-definition PVR, but Humax expects to launch a hi-def PVR in July or August, retailing for around £150. Hard disc capacity will be at least 320GB. Other manufacturers are expected to supply PVRs in the second wave.

Integrated hi-def TVs: Panasonic will launch two plasma TVs (42in TH-42PZ81 and 46in TH-46PZ81) with integrated Freesat and Freeview tuners by the end of June, with a third (50in TH-50PZ81) in July. They will be joined by two LCDs (32in and 37in) in October, also with both Freesat HD and Freeview tuners. Freesat IDTVs are expected to cost around £200 more than their Freeview siblings.

The plasma range are all 1080p Full HD-capable, with an SD card reader offering MPEG-4 HD playback, optical digital audio out, and HDMI out with Enhanced Viera Link, although you cannot record HD to a suitable Panasonic recorder. They have a total of three HDMI connectors.

Simple Installation

Standard installation costs £80 for a dish with a single- output LNB and up to 30m of cable, but other options will be available at different retailers: Argos will only offer the standard installation in-store, but you'll be able to talk through the options with the installer before they visit.

Comet, Currys and John Lewis stores will offer a menu of options for PVR (or PVR-ready) systems, or multi-room installations. These will be £120 for two rooms, £160 for three rooms and £190 for four rooms from Comet or Currys, while John Lewis will charge £120 for a two-room installation and will calculate other prices on a case-by- case basis with the customer in-store.

Improvement over Freeview?

Freesat is great news for anyone who wants to get free digital TV, particularly if you can't get Freeview or you want to watch BBC HD this decade. It's technically better than Freeview and the potential to add iPlayer is very exciting.

It's a shame there's no PVR for the launch, but a greater long-term problem is the difference between Freesat and Freeview's channels lists, which is sure to cause disappointment and frustration to a great many viewers.