What is Freeview Play?
By Andrew Laughlin
Freeview Play blends live TV viewing with catch-up services. Get the lowdown with our expert Freeview Play review.
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Freeview Play - TV and catch-up
Freeview Play is a new, YouView-like electronic programme guide (EPG) that enables you to browse forward to see what's coming up to watch in the week ahead. Plus, if your TV or set-top box is connected to the internet, you can go backwards in the guide to catch up on programmes you've missed over the past seven days using services such as BBC iPlayer and ITV Player.
You can currently find Freeview Play on selected 2015 Panasonic TVs (including the CX680B, CR730B, CX802B and CR852B ranges) - check our TV reviews to find the high scoring models. Freeview Play is also available on the Humax FVP-4000T PVR, which we'll be testing it in our next batch, with results online before Christmas 2015 in our PVR reviews.
Freeview Play review
To put Freeview Play through its paces, we connected a Best Buy TV made by Panasonic with the service to a high-speed broadband connection in our lab. Then, two experts tested every single feature of the EPG to give you the expert review below.
Bear in mind, however, that this just covers Freeview Play on Panasonic TVs. The EPG will perform slightly different on other devices, such as the Humax PVR - we'll update this page when we have additional results.
Installation & set-up
Once you're up to speed with all its features, Freeview Play is an impressive EPG, with a user-friendly design. However, getting started could be handled better. There's limited guidance on how everything works and so you're left to figure it out for yourself. Some features and functions - as we'll come to later - aren't obvious as to how they work (even to trained experts). A printed quick start guide or on-screen tutorial would be beneficial.
Finding something to watch
On the Panasonic TV we tested, it's quick and easy to jump into Freeview Play – you just press the Guide button on the remote control and it pops up. You are then presented with a clean-looking EPG showing what’s available to watch up to a week ahead across seven channels at any one time. Information is displayed on what each programme is about, but the tiny text is sometimes hard to read, even on a large screen.
You can't set favourites through the guide, which is a shame as it can be a useful feature for customising the long list of channels available on Freeview. We used Freeview Play with both Panasonic's standard and 'smart' touchpad remote controls, but found the former easier to use with the core EPG features.
Connect your Freeview Play TV or set-top box up to the internet and you can flip the guide backwards to catch up on programmes you've missed over the past week. BBC iPlayer, ITV Player and All 4 are all available, with Demand 5 to follow shortly (Freeview expects more on-demand players to be added in the months ahead). Click on an available programme and the guide swiftly fires up the relevant catch-up service for you to start watching.
Catch-up content is displayed for a single broadcaster at one time in date order. Although this approach makes sense, it’s not immediately clear at first how it works. It’s easy to mistakenly think that the catch-up EPG is laid out in the same way as the regular EPG. You navigate the catch-up content with the direction keys on the remote (or touchpad with the smart remote), yet if you want to switch to a different catch-up service, you have to use the channel change buttons, which is rather confusing at first.
Another gripe is that the catch-up EPG takes quite a while to fully load (even on decent wired broadband connection) and the animation feels clunky. There’s no search functionality, so if you know what you want to watch but not the broadcaster or date, you can't just search for it within the EPG. Freeview tells us that this feature, along with recommendations of things to watch, will be added to the guide in the months ahead.
All the catch-up services are also available in Freeview Play as standalone apps for you to browse all their content. You can jump into them within the guide by pressing the yellow button on Panasonic's remote, or access them via the apps section in the main menu. Also available at launch are the BBC News and BBC Sport apps, with others to follow shortly.
For smart TVs that have previously lacked key apps such as ITV Player and All4, Freeview Play is a neat way to introduce them. Another key advantage is that, with ‘smart’ products increasingly vulnerable to apps disappearing or never becoming available, Freeview Play allows manufacturers to enter into a single contract and get all the major UK catch up TV services in one hit. This could, in theory, ensure the apps we love remain on our products for longer.
As well as browsing programmes to watch in the guide you can set recordings using the TV's PVR functionality (you'll need to connect a USB hard drive first). It's really simple to do this, with options to record in HD if it’s available. However, you'll need to leave the Freeview Play guide to actually watch the recordings as they’re stored in a different menu.
Also, it's a shame that not all the Freeview+ features are supported, such as the ability to set an entire series to record (series link) or something called conflict resolution – when you have conflicting recordings set and the EPG suggests ways to get around this. You can't pause live TV via the guide either, although we suspect these omissions may be down to limitations with the Panasonic TV we used for testing.
Overall Which? verdict
Freeview Play is a generally well-designed, versatile and easy-to-use TV EPG that in several ways is superior to its main competitor, YouView. We'd like to see a clearer introduction to the service in the form of a paper quick start guide or on-screen hints and tips. The limited PVR feature is a shame, but we'll reserve complete judgement on that until we test the Humax PVR box with Freeview Play.
We've fed back the findings of our testing to Freeview to help develop Freeview Play going forward. With some tweaks to the design and the introduction of search, recommendations and more catch-up services, we feel that Freeview Play has great potential to improve the TV experience for Freeview users and take smart-TV catch up services mainstream.