The requirement for a set-top box just to record TV programmes has reduced significantly with the advancement of fast broadband – and with the development of Freeview Play, it has diminished still further. Yet its roll-out has gone ahead with little of the ballyhoo usually reserved for new launches. Indeed, you may already have got it without noticing.
Freeview Play is an extension of Freeview itself, the de facto mechanism for receiving regular TV channels now that they have all gone digital. It consists of an electronic programme guide that lets you search backwards as well as forwards, to find programmes you want to watch or have just missed. In the latter case, the receiver connects you to the appropriate catch-up service, which will play them for you directly.
It is not the first platform to do this: YouView works in more or less the same way, and the free satellite service Freesat has something similar.
But in both those cases, you need a compatible set-top box which, in the case of YouView, is likely to come from your internet company. If your supplier is BT, the leading partner in YouView, you will doubtless already be familiar with the marketing.
Freeview Play can also be accessed on a set-top box but increasingly it is being built into TVs themselves. LG, Sony and Panasonic are among the top-flight manufacturers bundling it into their specification, though Samsung has yet to follow suit. If you have it, you will see it by default when you press the Guide button on your remote.
The service incorporates the catch-up services of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and UKTV channels like Dave. But it also serves as a platform in its own right for other apps – the most notable addition being Britbox, the paid-for archive streaming service from ITV and the BBC. Its upcoming integration into Freeview Play will be a boon to potential subscribers whose TVs and set-top boxes are not otherwise compatible.
The service also allows you to plug a £40 portable hard drive into the back of your TV and save upcoming programmes to that. Again, all you do is select the ones you want from the programme guide. Shows you have recorded can then be accessed from a separate menu.
If your TV isn’t compatible and you don’t want to replace it, you can buy the Manhattan T3 Freeview receiver for £75, though the equivalent version with hard disk recording adds another £90. It’s not an avenue I would recommend, since you can but any streaming stick for far less and get the same catch-up services, albeit without the elegantly integrated programme guide.
For that reason, Freeview Play works best when it’s part of your TV’s basic functionality. It makes smart sets smarter still by combining multiple apps in a single interface, and it should help to future-proof them by reducing the need for broadcasters to produce multiple versions of their apps for each manufacturer. It also supports streaming in ultra high-definition, should it become available on the services it offers.
What’s more, there isn’t much of a price premium for specifying Freeview Play on your next set. Bargain brands like Toshiba, Sharp and the Chinese maker Hisense are putting out 32in TVs for less than £200, while a superior 50in LG model with 4K definition is around £360.
Do bear in mind that although a service like this will reduce your dependance on your standalone recorder, it won’t replace it entirely. Not every programme is available on catch-up and there are many niche channels that neither Freeview Play nor any other streaming platform will ever embrace. All the same, it’s another step forward from the days when we ran out of things to watch every time we couldn’t figure out how to make the video recorder work.