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What is Freeview Play? We run you through the popular catch-up TV service

Stuart Andrews Thomas McMullan
22 Oct 2019
Freeview Play
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Here's everything you need to know about Freeview Play

Freeview Play has been around since 2015, integrating Freeview HD TV, online catch-up TV and on-demand services into one single TV platform. Buy a TV with Freeview Play – or a Freeview Play recorder or Set-Top Box – and you can get all the broadcast TV you want from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, plus a range of smaller broadcasters. What’s more, a great range of on-demand services is just one button press away, including BBC iPlayer, All 4, My5 and ITV Hub, not to mention a few others such as UKTV Play. All this comes without paying a subscription. It’s no wonder that sets with Freeview Play built-in now make up 60% of all smart TV sales, easily eclipsing the service’s old rival, YouView.

Sign up to Freeview Play now


Like YouView, Freeview Play piggybacks Freeview HD, which delivers 70 digital SD channels and a further 15 in glorious HD. The difference is in the way catch-up services have been integrated with the system, so programmes from BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My5 are available directly from the Electronic Programme Guide.

The EPG looks much like what you’d find on any modern Freeview HD TV, with a grid of channels and programmes on which you can check not only what’s on today but what’s coming up later in the week. However, where a normal EPG only scrolls forwards, the Freeview Play EPG can go backwards, too. You can scroll back or search to look for programmes that have already aired, and when you select one the EPG will open it automatically within the appropriate catch-up TV app. It can be a faster, more convenient way to find something you missed than manually checking out different catch-up apps and trying to dig out the right episode. Freeview Play allows you to look back through the last seven days of broadcasts.

Not all programmes are available on-demand, so there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to watch a movie or episode you missed, particularly where there are licensing restrictions, but the holes are getting fewer and further between. You might also have to wait for the programme to become available, as there’s often some lag between a programme being shown live and it appearing on the catch-up stream.

Manufacturers are free to tweak the interface or add new features, and while the general look and feel will be the same from set to set, you might find some EPGs redesigned to carry the manufacturer’s existing software style. You’ll also need Internet access – preferably unlimited – to use all the catch-up services, and many manufacturers also add other services on top, though it’s more normal to add YouTube, Amazon Prime Video and the rest through their own dedicated apps.

Isn’t this just YouView?

Well, the two have a lot in common, and Freeview Play originally came about because an argument erupted in the YouView camp, with some TV channels believing that the platform was being dominated by the pay-TV providers, BT and TalkTalk. Freeview Play was launched to give customers access to a free TV-only alternative.

In the past, we’ve seen YouView as the superior platform, partly because additional apps have integrated content from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Now TV – though most sets and set-top-boxes that support Freeview Play will have apps for those as well. YouView also had the benefit of a slicker user interface and a strong companion app, which allowed you to set recordings and check the EPG while you’re away from home. YouView also has the advantage of Ultra HD content playback, though only Netflix and BT Sport have any to enjoy.

All this is true, but Freeview Play keeps getting better. The interface has been redesigned to bring it into line with the experience you might get from Now TV or Netflix, with a special ‘gateway’ channel, Channel 100, which brings together the best and most popular on-demand content from BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5 and UKTV Play. It even packs in a universal search.

Meanwhile the service now has its own iOS and Android apps, allowing you to stream live channels direct to your phone or watch programmes on-demand, though you’ll need the relevant catch-up apps installed. You can also search for programmes across both the catch-up TV services and upcoming live broadcasts and browse the EPG to plan your watching week. You can set reminders if there’s anything you don’t want to miss.

Sign up to Freeview Play now


How do I get Freeview Play?

Freeview Play is an off-shoot of Freeview. Live TV is delivered via your aerial just like it always has been, with the catch-up and on-demand elements delivered via your broadband Internet connection. It remains completely subscription free.

You will, however, need a TV or set-top-box that supports it. Most Panasonic, LG, HiSense and Toshiba Smart TVs now include it, along with a growing range of Sony, TCL and Philips sets. These TVs all include the various catch-up apps as well as Freeview Play, so you can choose whether to find programmes through the relevant app or through the EPG.

If you want to add Freeview Play to an existing standard Freeview TV, you can do this by purchasing a set-top box (STB). Humax, Panasonic and Netgem all make boxes, either with or without built-in recording. The prices have dropped as well, with Netgem’s cheap and cheerful NetBox coming in at under £50, while the Manhattan T3R recorder can be had for well under £200. That’s still expensive when compared to some YouView boxes, with the excellent BT YouView box with 500GB hard disk widely available for less than £150 (despite the branding, it doesn't require BT broadband). However, the difference is hardly astronomical.

Should I buy a Freeview Play TV?

If you’re buying a new TV, then it’s well worth having. The interface and features keep getting better and Freeview Play gives you so much more than the basic Freeview HD offering. You’ll appreciate how easy it is to get to catch-up TV and it’s a more flexible way to enjoy your favourite telly. Best of all, there’s no real price premium over a regular Full HD or 4K set. What have you got to lose?

Should I buy a Freeview Play set-top-box?

You might want to think about it. In the past we’d have steered you towards the YouView alternative, but Freeview Play is fast gathering momentum. The only reason not to would be if you’ve pretty much stopped watching broadcast TV, in which case the EPG and catch-up features might not be worth £150 to £200 of your hard-earned cash. You might want to save some money and go for a Smart TV box or stick. However, if you’re as interested in the traditional broadcast channels as what’s happening on Netflix, Freeview Play makes a whole lot of sense.

Sign up to Freeview Play now

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