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What is Freeview?

Over the past few years, phrases like 'digital TV', 'Freeview', 'Freesat', and 'Set Top Box', have gradually crept into our day to day language and are now mentioned in almost every advert for televisions. At the same time, we are being warned that if we don't get ready we may lose the ability to watch TV when 'switchover' happens, so what does this mean for the average viewer, and what should we do to get ready?



What is Digital TV mean and how does it differ from analogue?


Subscription TV providers like Sky and Virgin media have been broadcasting digital TV for well over a decade, over the past few years Freeview and Freesat have been introduced as alternatives to paid providers, these services allow you to receive digital TV without paying a monthly fee. Comparing these services with the traditional free to air analogue service, the first thing you'll notice is the clarity of the picture. Analogue signals are often grainy and can suffer from interference that causes static on your screen, improved picture quality is one of the many benefits of digital TV.


If you flick through the channels on a Sky or Virgin box, you'll find over a hundred television channels, freeview currently has over 40 channels available and many of the major radio stations broadcast a signal that can be picked up through a digital TV. Compared to the 4 or if you're lucky 5 stations available through the analogue terrestrial broadcast you have a far greater selection with digital TV sets and being able to switch straight from 'the one show' to radio 5 without having to turn on your radio is a convenient benefit.


The other major benefits of digital TV are the EPG (electronic program guide) and Interactive Teletext (red button), an EPG acts like a TV guide giving you information on what's on now and next, a brief description of the shows, detailed TV schedules for (up to) the next 7 days and can be set to switch the channel when your programme starts or, on some TV's, to act as a timer to record shows automatically. Interactive teletext can include games, surveys, and, for events like Wimbledon and the World Cup, allow you to chose which match you'd like to watch.



Can't I just ignore the digital revolution and go on using my TV as normal?


Unfortunately not, the old analogue signal is gradually being turned off, by the end of 2012 the only TV signals you'll be able to receive in the UK will be broadcast digitaly.  Many televisions on sale nowadays have built in Freeview or Freesat turners so you may already have all the kit you need to continue receiving TV but if you are using an older set, you may find that, unless you upgrade your set or add a set-top-box, your screen goes blank once the analogue signal is turned off.


What is meant by Switchover?


Essentially, the Switchover program is the name given to the turning off of analogue transmitters throughout the UK. The switchover program was started in 2007 when the analogue transmitter in Whitehaven, Cumbria, was shut down. Gradually this has been spreading throughout the UK, with the last Transmitter scheduled to be turned off in 2012. You can check when your local transmitter is due to be turned off using the linked postcode search.



What are my options if my current TV isn't ready for the switchover?


If you find that your watching TV on a set that doesn't support digital TV you'll need to either invest in a set-top-box that adds Freeview or Freesat to your TV, purchase a new TV with a Freeview or Freesat tuner built in or arrange a contract with one of the subscription TV providers:


  • Freeview: Freeview is received just like the old analogue signal, a standard TV aerial picks up the signal and brings it into your house. As only TV's with built in Freeview tuners can read this signal, you may need to either upgrade your TV or use a Freeview set-top-box in order to watch it. The advantages of Freeview are that, in most cases, it is the cheapest way to receive digital TV. Set-top-boxes can be picked up for under £20 and your existing rooftop aerial should be OK for picking up the signal. In some cases you might have to upgrade your aerial to a digital version, but this is still a far cheaper option than the alternatives.
  • Freesat: Freesat is the second option without a monthly subscription fee, whereas Freeview is received using an aerial, Freesat differs in that it is received using a satelite dish. This signal is then decoded by a Freesat set-top-box and passed onto your TV or in some cases, your TV will have a tuner built in to decode the signal. There is still no monthly subscription charge with Freesat, but unless you already have a satelite dish on your house the intitial outlay will be more than for Freeview. On the plus side, Freesat does have a far greater range of channels.
  • Subscription Services: Virgin, Sky and BT all offer digital TV services on a monthly subscription basis, these services can be packaged with telephone lines, broadband internet access and mobile phone contracts, they work out the most expensive of the three options, but they often have premium channels available for discounted prices and installation is usually free.