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UPDATE 4/2008: I've decided to dust this one off, and rewrite it quite heavily, since having written in several years ago, a lot of "water has passed under the bridge".
THE HISTORY - For many years, there had only been five 'mainstream' TV channels in the UK, and even then, some have not been fully available to all. I only need to draw on the experience of holidays in several country cottage rentals to prove this.
I would imagine that there are still high-ground areas within the Scottish Highlands, the English Lakes or Welsh valleys that can't get any TV at all, except perhaps via satellite. Despite being a pretty good picture quality, i.e. 625 lines compared to the North American standard of 525 lines, the UHF signal in the UK has, until a few years back, remained doggedly analogue.
Then along came the "It's no good unless you can put a 'digital' badge on it" brigade. After all, it must be good quality if it's digital, right? Wrong! Just have a look at some of the low-rent Sky channels, like shopping channels for instance. By buying less 'band-width', they keep their running costs down via the Astra satellite, at the expense of picture quality, AND by sticking to the old style 4:3 picture format when people are defecting in droves to wide screen 16:9 TVs.
However, what digital transmission DOES do, is give the broadcaster the flexibility to fit more channels where only one existed before, and to tailor picture/sound quality to their needs (and to what the content provider will stand for). Cynics will say that this is what it's all about really.
I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone realised that you could fit 8 TV channels where one had existed before, even via an aerial, and OnDigital, later ITV Digital (and then OnDigital again*) were the first to try this.
Their offering was a mixture of free-to-air (e.g. BBC and ITV channels) and subscription channels, like Sky One. There were even a handful of pay-TV movie channels, although compared to Sky's Box Office, with the same movie starting every 30 minutes on a clutch of channels, this facility was definitely the poor relation.
*They changed it back to OnDigital once the receivers were called in to save the 'good names' of Carlton and Granada. Good name?!
Anyway, the fact that OnDigital folded in a spectacular manner is well documented.
I guess Freeview could be called 'son of On', but with a few major changes.
One, there were less channels, which gave the launch of Freeview a boost in picture quality allowing them to adopt a more robust but verbose digital data-stream, the idea being to bring Freeview to a wider audience than merely those who had previously received 'On' without a hitch. Estimates seemed to indicate that one million more viewers would be able to receive Freeview compared to its predecessor.
Two, there was no intention at the time of Freeview's launch to add subscription channels, witness the swath of equipment being sold with no smart-card slot. Since then, TopUp TV has emerged and I even dabbled with it for a while till I realised that I was effectively paying £7.99 a month for two more channels that I actually valued!
SO HOW MANY CHANNELS DO I GET? - OK, it's not the shed-load that Sky give you, but bear in mind that there's no extra charge at all, except for the current TV licence. There is still room for a little expansion, and some of the channel numbers are not yet in use. Of course, come the switch off of analogue, there will be yet more room for channels or some Hi-Definition content, but you can't play musical chairs with chairs you haven't got yet!
BBC 1 BBC 2 ITV 1 Channel 4 Five ITV 2 BBC 3 BBC 4 ITV 3 Sky Three UKTV History Channel 4 +1 More 4 QVC The Hits Dave Virgin 1 TMF Ideal World Bid TV Price-Drop TV ITV 4 E4 E4 +1 ITV 2 +1 Film 4 Five US Five Life Smile TV Gems TV Nuts TV The Jewellery Channel CBBC CBeebies CITV BBC News 24 BBC Parliament Sky News Sky Sports News Community Channel Teachers TV Teletext BBC Interactive
Note: Some of these stations are just "plus ones", i.e. the same thing run an hour later but Sky is also quite keen to pad out their coverage with these too. There are also several sales channels and several part-time channels - for instance BBCs 3 and 4 only come alive after CBBC and CBeebies close down, thereby freeing up the bandwidth.
In addition to these TV stations, some of which I never even explored yet, there are several radio channels.
BBC Radio 1 BBC Radio 1 Xtra BBC Radio 2 BBC Radio 3 BBC Radio 4 BBC Radio 5 Live BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Xtra BBC Radio 6 BBC Radio 7 BBC Asian Network BBC World Service The Hits Radio Smash Hits Kiss Heat Magic Q Smooth FM Mojo Kerrang! Talksport Clyde 1 (Clint Eastwood Nil) Premier Christian Radio U Virgin Radio Heart
It's worth bearing in mind that the sound quality of these radio-only channels is every bit as good as Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) if not better, so if the stations you like are here, there's really no need to invest in both, especially if your set-top receiver is connected to your hi-fi as well as the 'telly'.
CAN I GET IT? - Generally speaking, if your existing analogue TV picture is good, then yes, but check the 'postcode' checker on the www.freeview.co.uk web site. Of course, it won't tell you if that oak tree at the bottom of your neighbour's garden is in the way, but you'd know that already. Don't expect digital terrestrial TV to cure all your reception ills; if you have a poor analogue picture, then DTT might not work either - it's just that it won't work in a different way, that's all. As a general rule a weak "snowy" analog picture won't give you digital either, but digital can cure a ghosted image since it rejects "multipath distortion", reflections off metal objects etc.
Many people have found that by getting their aerial upgraded, or just overhauled and re-aimed, that the problem is solved. When I got the original OnDigital upgrade carried out, my analogue Channel 5 reception, which I'd given up on long ago, suddenly became perfect! It's amazing what 20 years of being used as a foot rest for half-a-dozen pigeons will do to your aerial!
If in doubt, why not see if someone locally has got it already. If they like you that much, they may even lend you the set-top box (the most common way to receive DTT). Unlike Sky satellite boxes, these don't object to being moved around, and even re-tuned. We sometimes take ours touring with us if we've rented a cottage somewhere - how sad is that?!
WHAT DO I NEED TO RECEIVE IT? - Well, the first thing you DON'T need is a higher licence fee - it's all part of the service. There are a few ways to receive Freeview.
a) Firstly, ex-OnDigital customers (the ones who didn't throw their box away, or send them back for fear of being charged for them, that is) can continue to get it at least for a while yet. There's just one drawback with this approach - these older set-top boxes, whilst no doubt better-built (they used to cost around £300) will NEVER benefit from any software upgrades that may be coming down the pipe.
b) The most popular method is to buy a new set-top box. These vary in price, facilities and quality. You can pay anywhere between £15 in Tescos up to £300 for a twin-tuner hard-disk recorder. This approach gets you the latest firmware upgrades over the air.
One example of a desirable upgrade is the firmware for the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG). This started life limited on Freeview as the 'What's On Now & What's On Next' facility, which for programming a timer to catch stuff whilst you're on holiday was about as much use as a chocolate teapot.
For this to be of any use at all, it needed the next 7-8 day's-worth of programming, plus some 'every week' settings and links for continuing dramas like '24', as currently supplied to Sky Digital boxes. These upgrades happened in dribs and drabs, culminating just before Christmas 2007 with the launch of official "Freeview Playback * " parameters, which if you have a PVR (Personal Video recorder) gives you the same functionality as a Sky Plus box, i.e. the ability to record a series (rather than set a timer to weekly) and to recheck the validity of existing timers in case of programming alterations.
*Look for the logo on any recorder you might buy.
One small point - if your TV doesn't have a SCART socket, get a box that definitely states that it has RF OUTPUT, not just RF loop-through. The later allows the analogue signal through to the TV, but the former generates a 'spare' channel frequency like VCR's do, allowing 'SCART-less' TV's to see the digital picture and mono sound.
c) An alternative approach, which might be of interest to those upgrading their TV to a 16:9 wide screen model, is the integrated digital TV (IDTV). As its name implies, it's got the digital tuner built in, as well as the old analogue one. Most new programmes on mainstream channels are now 'proper' widescreen - it's only the 4:3 repeats that spoil the cutting edge feel of it all!
DO I HAVE TO HAVE IT? - No, not yet you don't, although the Government is committed to a definite switch-off of analogue TV as we know it in 2012. I honestly can't see this making any difference to those that can't even get any terrestrial TV now for geographic reasons.
The official concern seems to be to get 95% of those currently receiving TV through an aerial cut over to digital before the switch off. What happens to the other 5% is anyone's guess - a free/subsidised Sky-type (Freesat) dish is one suggestion that's been mooted. Of course, if you're not allowed to put a dish up..........
The demise of the analogue channels gives the authorities more bandwidth to play with, some of which could be used to haul in those missing 5%. It's also claimed that signal strength can be stepped up once any clashes with analogue are no longer possible. I get an uneasy feeling about anything that can't be tested yet. It smacks of 'don't worry, it'll be all right on the night'. The digital switch over has now officially started, with various areas scheduled between now and 2012. Surprisingly, London is the last to go. I assume this is to do with the sheer scale of the exercise and the hope that lessons learned along the way can be applied to the final 'mere' 10,000,000 that watch via Crystal Palace!
SNAGS? - Well, apart from not being able to get Freeview where you live, there aren't many.
The one bugbear that hits anyone with any kind of set-top ** box, be it Sky, cable or Freeview, is the fact that you can't watch something else whilst recording a different channel. We forget, having embraced VCR and TV combinations so wholeheartedly, that in analogue TV, we actually had TWO tuners, one for now, and one for recording. A set-top box is stubbornly single minded is this respect, and though many have timers to controlrecorders whilst you are out, the problem of being indoors watching something else still prevails. There is a way round this. One is to have two cheap boxes, another is to have an integrated digital TV (IDTV) and one other box.
** What a silly name that is - has anyone tried perching one on top of a telly?
My own initial solution was to have an IDTV for watching and a set-top box for recording. Not the most elegant solution, I grant you, but as the French say, "c'est brutal mais ça marche".
The Rolls-Royce solution is to buy a twin-tuner PVR, like the Humax 9200T or the Topfield 5800/5810. These not only have two tuners, but a PC-style hard drive to record to. Now that "Freeview Playback" has launched, they are every bit the equal to Sky Plus only with less channels. They can set a timer for a series and then cancel it afterwards, and they recheck programme information to alter existing timers.
ADVANTAGES? - First and foremost, there's picture quality, and of course, those extra channels. Once you've got a good picture (aka signal strength - you can check this from time to time within your set-top box), you're not likely to get any trouble, like 'ghosting' or 'snow-storming' - these are the domain of analogue only.
With digital, you've either got a picture or you haven't. Of course, if signal strength was 'marginal' the day it was set up, and then you get a REAL snowstorm, then picture loss can be quite dramatic, going from good, to pixellated, to gone, all in the space of three seconds. Living 12 miles from a 1-megawatt transmitter like Crystal Palace has its benefits, and the former has never happened to me ever since I had my aerial re-aligned despite Jumbo jets flying through my line of sight with the transmitter mast (pigeons, please note, stay off!).
A further benefit is the picture-in-picture version of Teletext, which feels less like a text bolt-on in these days of graphical interfaces.
Then of course, you've got those radio channels as a bonus.
RECOMMENDATIONS? - Stay clear of cheap ex-OnDigital boxes, unless you don't mind being stuck with a basic box that may not work in the near future, thanks to some minor changes in the way the signal is put out. To be fair, my old Nokia Mediamaster was still giving sterling service to my Mum and Dad, who were just interested in having a few more channels to watch. It was one of the first to have a digital sound output, which I used with my home cinema equipment to good effect. Had I not been a subscriber at the time, it was one of the 300 quid jobs!
My Sony 32" Widescreen IDTV gives a superb picture on all channels.
My Topfield 5800 twin-tuner PVR is kept bang up to date to give it all the latest functions. Don't forget, this is also an opportunity to set timers for, and record radio programmes.
Ditto for my Sony single tuner PVR+DVD recorder.
If in Dixons or Currys' bear in mind that the myriad boxes for sale aren't all that different under the skin. For example, the Grundig, Ferguson and Thomson boxes are all Thomson's really, not that that is necessarily a bad thing - I recently helped a friend set up a Grundig and it was fine. All very 'plug'n'play'.
Others are beginning to appear all boasting the same chip-set internally, rather like different makes of PC all having the same motherboard and processor.
Do please check and if necessary remake all your aerial lead connections, that have stood the test of repeated years of being hoovered over , trodden on and the like. I did this for a friend and it improved her signal strength by 10% which was enough to make the signal reliable on all channels rather than just some of them.
EARS TO THE GROUND? - As well as the www.freeview.co.uk site, you could do worse than go to www.digitalspy.co.uk, where there are forums for technical and non-technical DTT questions. I use it as a way of keeping up to date with the latest firmware downloads for my equipment.
THE NERD FESSES UP - This is strictly one for the "just because I can" brigade.
My Topfield PVR has a USB port on the back for updates and accessing recorded programmes by another device (i.e. PC). I have my PVR linked via its USB port to my laptop, which I then use as an "FTP server" to access the files on the Topfield. Using my home network, I can "wi-fi" files over to my main PC upstairs using nothing grander than Internet Explorer and turn programmes into DVDs using a software suite called VideoReDo.
Finding one to which this is worth doing, is another matter………..