Playing catch-up on your Freeview box

Freeview Play is already on this upmarket Panasonic TV.
Freeview Play is already on this upmarket Panasonic TV.
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Unless you pay Sky or Virgin for your TV service, it’s an evens bet that you’ll get it from Freeview, the de facto platform for transmission since we all went digital in 2012. But now the standard service is about to change.

This month sees the start of a gradual roll-out of something called Freeview Play, an upgrade that brings catch-up services like the BBC iPlayer and Channel Four’s 4OD to the on-screen electronic programme guide, or EPG. It means you can browse programmes not only in the upcoming seven days but also in the week just gone.

This is not a new idea as Sky and Virgin already offer the same functionality and more. The difference here is that Freeview Play is being built in to the standard specification for UK TV sets – which means that it will become, in time, the new “normal” way of watching the telly. As we speak, Panasonic is making it available, via a software update, on its top-of-the-range 2015 models. A line of Freeview Play set-top boxes from Humax is due in the shops any time now, with no fewer than three tuners, letting you watch one programme while you record two others. In practice, though, the ability to access catch-up services means you can get into the habit of recording less, not more.

The most telling indication that Freeview Play will find its way into your next TV comes with its early adoption by Vestel, the Turkish manufacturer of nearly all the sets sold under own-brand names by British supermarkets and chain stores.

Next year, to up the ante still further, the Freeview badge will start to disappear from low-end TVs and set-top boxes. That doesn’t mean they won’t be available; they just won’t be licensed.

Unless you have one of those nearly-new Panasonic models, you won’t be able to watch Freeview Play on your existing kit, but if you don’t want to wait until it becomes more widely available, there are plenty of other options.

Chief among these is YouView, Freeview’s first stab at a “backwards EPG”, which has been appropriated by BT and TalkTalk, both of whom give away set-top boxes as part of their broadband packages. YouView boxes can also be bought outright on the high street from £100, but the range is limited and unlikely to expand.

Freesat, the subscription-free satellite counterpart to Freeview, also offers a backwards EPG product called Freetime, with set-top boxes starting at £75 and recorders from £165. Sky dishes are fully compatible with Freesat, making it a particularly good option if your house has a satellite dish you’re not using, if you want to downgrade your Sky package.

But you don’t need a backwards EPG at all to watch catch-up services – it’s just a convenience to save you jumping out of “live TV” mode and into an app. Smart TV sticks like Amazon’s Fire TV – currently just £35 at Tesco – will give you access to Netflix and most of the broadcasters’ services, and represent a good, interim upgrade to your existing telly until you’re ready to swap it for a next-generation model.