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Freeview Play vs Freesat vs YouView: Which free-to-view TV service is right for you?

Tom Bruce
17 Jul 2020
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Three free HDTV platforms, but which one is worth buying into?

Choosing the type of TV you wanted to buy used to be simple. Did you opt for a free-to-air service such as Freeview, or should you shell out for a paid service such as Sky Q or Virgin Media?

But now the landscape of TV programming options has changed drastically. You could be a “cord-cutter” and opt not to watch anything live via your aerial or TV subscription, using your TV to stream content from the likes of Netflix, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime Video instead. And if you still really want to watch live TV, your options for free-to-air TV have now multiplied and evolved.

The three major services on the market right now are Freeview Play, YouView and Freesat. While all are relatively similar on the surface – offering up a slew of free-to-air TV channels alongside catch-up services, TV recording and EPG (electronic programme guide) information – the truth is there are many crucial differences between them. Read on to find out which one is right for you.

READ NEXT: The best Freeview Play receivers and recorders

Freeview Play vs Freesat vs YouView: Available services

Way back in 2017, there used to be precious little difference between these three free-to-view TV services. Granted, Freesat carried slightly more channels, but each provider’s core offering – the UK channels you’ll most likely watch – was pretty evenly matched. Then, in early 2018, Freesat lost the rights to show Channel 4 HD and the All 4 catch-up service, leaving a gaping hole in its HD line-up. There are ways to get around it - you could stream it from the All 4 app on your smart TV, for instance - but it's still a blow for Channel 4 fans.

Freeview, Freesat and YouView all provide ‘Plus’ services, allowing you to record, pause and rewind live TV. This feature is built into Freeview Play as standard but, to make full use of it, you'll have to make sure you buy a Freeview HD Recorder rather than a straight Freeview HD Receiver.

To watch free-to-air TV via any of these services, you need a television licence and either a digital-ready aerial or a satellite dish installed at your home. If you have access to a satellite dish – including an old Sky dish – Freesat is worth considering, especially if you live in an area with poor digital transmission signal.

HD tuners are now standard in all set-top boxes and nearly all TVs with built-in Freeview or Freesat. Not all TVs support recording to an external hard disk, although all Freeview Play set-top boxes and TVs do, along with all YouView-equipped Sony TVs. If you’re looking to add a box to your existing TV and want recording capabilities, you’ll need a Freeview HD Recorder, Freeview Play, YouView+ or Freesat+ box.

Freeview PlayYouViewFreesat
Channels70+70+180+
HD channels151525
RecordingFreeview Play / HD RecorderYouView+Freesat+
Catch-upYesYesYes
TransmissionAerial/internetAerial/internetSatellite/internet

READ NEXT: The best indoor TV aerials for any signal area

Freeview Play vs Freesat vs YouView: Catch-up TV

Alongside standard and HD TV, Freeview Play, YouView and Freesat all let you catch up on missed TV through services like BBC iPlayer, My 5 and ITV Player. Freesat, however, now misses out on All 4. They all also include UKTV Play and STV Player and manage to pack in a few other, smaller names too. FreeviewPlay has CBS Catchup and Horror Bites while YouView and Freesat have Milkshake!.

These catch-up TV services are free to use and – if you have Freeview Play, YouView or Freesat’s Freetime – they’re integrated into the EPG. That means you can watch many programmes that have already been broadcast just by scrolling back to an earlier day.

All three services give access to subscription channels if you’re already a paid-up member. Netflix is available through all of them, while Amazon Prime Video, NowTV and Sky Store are also up for grabs. The line-up varies from service to service, and BT and TalkTalk customers using YouView also get their own exclusive content.

Freeview PlayYouViewFreesat
Free servicesBBC Player, ITV Hub, All 4, My 5, UKTV Play, STV Player, CBS Catchup, Horror BitesBBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My 5, STV Player, UKTV Play, Quest, Milkshake!, S4C, POP FUNBBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, My 5, UKTV Play, STV Player, Milkshake!, YouTube
Paid-for servicesNetflix, Amazon Prime Video, Now TVNetflix, Now TV, Sky StoreNetflix, Rakuten TV

Freeview Play vs Freesat vs YouView: Which one should I buy?

Think about how you watch TV. Do you tend to record a lot of your viewing and catch up on it later? In that case, a hard-drive-based device is still your best option. It will let you record two channels simultaneously, or record one while watching another. Otherwise, you might find that the services built into your TV are perfectly adequate – particularly if you’ve upgraded to a new smart TV.

If you’re looking to pick-up a set-top-box right now, Freeview Play is currently the best all-round choice. It has every mainstream channel and all of the catch-up services you'd need. And when it comes to set-top boxes, there are so many great options available; devices like the basic Manhattan T1 Freeview Receiver go for under £40.

For those living in a poor signal area or who already have a satellite dish, however, Freesat might be the superior choice. It's a worthy rival to Freeview in most respects, and its catch-up features have been much improved lately. The selection of Freesat hardware out there is also a lot better than it used to be: our current budget favourite, the Manhattan SX, goes for under £50, while Freesat's own 4K Freesat boxes start from £125.

But what of YouView? Accessing YouView using a standalone box is becoming harder these days, as all of the devices that we used to recommend now appear to be out of stock across major retailers. Alternatively, you can always bag a 'free' device as part of a contract bundle.

BT, Plusnet and TalkTalk TV packages bundle a free YouView box, making this an attractive option if you’re happy to sign up for a broadband/TV bundle. Then again, monthly contracts may not be the most appealing if you've come here in search of a free TV service recommendation.

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