Tech Talk: Time to zap the zapper?

Freesat's programme guide lets you scroll backwards to view programmes you've missed
Freesat's programme guide lets you scroll backwards to view programmes you've missed
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CAN’T find the zapper under all those sofa cushions? Why not use your phone to control the TV instead?

The latest generation of set-top boxes lets you do just that, and given that your average smartphone is really a mini-computer it will do far more than just change channels.

Freesat, the BBC and ITV-backed satellite service which delivers free-to-view channels to homes without a full Freeview signal, is about to launch its range of next-generation receivers which can be programmed and controlled from your Apple or Android phone. If you’re away from home you can tell the box which programmes to record, and if you’re in front of the telly you can cut through all the menus straight to those programmes.

You do this by downloading an app to your phone, the appearance of which mimics the programme guide on screen. As you press buttons and swipe through the various screens, the TV reacts in real time. Unlike a conventional zapper, there is no infra-red signal from the remote to the TV; instead the two communicate via your home broadband network. You do need to run a cable from the TV box to your router as wi-fi doesn’t come built-in.

The boxes are arriving in the shops now and boast the same “backwards” programme guide pioneered by Freeview’s successor, YouView. This means that as well as browsing for upcoming programmes you can also look up and watch those transmitted over the last week.

At present, only BBC and ITV programmes can be accessed in this way, but Freesat says Channels 4 and 5 will be added before Christmas. The phone apps are due shortly after that.

Freesat will also eventually offer add-on services from companies like Netflix, for an extra fee. The standard Freesat service, though, remains subscription free. Freesat’s boxes are slightly cheaper than YouView’s (£279 at launch but prices will fall over time) and also better specified. The downside is that although Freesat includes high-definition channels from ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC it has fewer standard channels than Freeview. That said, many parts of Yorkshire get only a sub-set of the Freeview service.

Humax is the first manufacturer off the blocks with the new Freesat boxes, but at least two others will follow soon. Similar services are available from Sky and Virgin but mean a monthly fee. It’s also worth considering the previous generation of Freesat recorders, available for as little as £150.