Tech Talk: Decoding the signals

This Freeview recorder can be customised to play programmes to other devices on your home network
This Freeview recorder can be customised to play programmes to other devices on your home network
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Old dishes may still be tasty, as David Behrens reports.

IS there a satellite dish on the roof of your house that’s going to waste? You may be surprised to know you can bring it back to life without paying Sky a penny.

Now that the whole country has Freeview, you don’t need satellite to get the full multi-channel experience. But reviving a dormant dish can still be more cost-effective than a new aerial.

Subscription-free satellite TV comes in two forms: from the BBC and ITV-backed Freesat service, and – though they don’t promote this – from Sky.

For either, you buy either a new or second-hand set-top box and connect existing satellite cables.

Freesat receivers are available on the high-street or online from £50 and will function with any working Sky dish. Most but not all of the Freeview channels are available; Dave and Yesterday are notable omissions.

If you live in Wharfedale, Scarborough or one of the many other parts of Yorkshire served only by “Freeview Lite”, you’ll get much more choice on Freesat.

Freesat boxes are often more sophisticated than their Freeview counterparts – they’re all high-definition and most have the BBC iPlayer and ITV Player built in. Freesat recorders are also available from £130, rising to about £220 for one with the iPlayer incorporated into the on-screen programme guide.

Free satellite from Sky is a slightly more under-the-counter proposition, though by no means outlawed. Sky themselves will sell you a box and viewing card for £175, with installation of a new satellite dish included – but for an existing dish you can pick up a refurbished box on eBay for well under £20. Sky charges £25 for the viewing card alone, but the truth is that you don’t need one at all – the main channels are all beamed “free to air”, which means any satellite box can pick them up. The only drawback is that you’ll receive the BBC and ITV’s London services on channels 101 and 103, though the Yorkshire variants can be found further down the list.

Sky’s other drawback – one that afflicts even paying customers – is that the programme guide is littered with channels to which you don’t subscribe and can’t receive. You can partially work around this with “favourite” lists.

Sky disables the recording facility on refurbished Sky Plus boxes. The only way to get this to pay £10 a month – so if you really need a recorder, Freesat is better.

Satellite’s big advantage is that the signal is available virtually everywhere. For homes behind hills, struggling to get pictures from aerials, a old rooftop dish the previous owner left behind is now good for more than just catching the rain.