Digital switchover explained The best TV equipment and services
This article, Digital switchover explained, was last updated on 18 March 2010 and is now out of date and held in our online archive for reference. Explore our latest Technology articles.
The way we watch TV is changing, thanks to a nationwide transition to digital-only TV.
The UK government is gradually switching off the current TV analogue broadcast signal. Switchover has already been completed in a number of regions and by 2013 all of the UK will have switched, meaning that you'll be able to watch and record television only if you have a digital TV service and appropriate equipment, such as a set-top box or a PVR.
In the market for a new TV? Make sure it's digital switchover-ready with a Which? Best Buy.
The best digital TV equipment
If you're upgrading your TV equipment to digital, the best option for you depends on your budget and whether you want to record digital TV.
You'll need digital TV equipment for every TV set you want to watch after the switchover.
- Add a set-top box. A Freeview or Freesat set-top box is your cheapest digital option. Most TVs, even older 'box style' CRT sets, can be converted by connecting a set-top box. Prices start from as little as £40. Sky, Tiscali and Virgin Media provide their own set-top boxes as part of their digital TV subscriptions.
- Buy an LCD or Plasma TV with a digital receiver built in (IDTV). If you're in the market for a new television set, all the TVs we've tested have a Freeview receiver built in, so you won't need to add a Freeview set-top box. Some of the TVs we test have Freesat built in, too – use our product picker to find Which? Best Buy flat-screen TVs to suit all budgets.
- Use a personal video recorder (PVR). PVRs let you record digital TV programmes. Instead of tapes or discs they record programmes on to an internal hard disk. Unlike video recorders (VCRs) and many DVD recorders, most PVRs let you record one TV show while watching another (make sure the one you choose has two digital tuners). PVRs also act as set-top boxes, so if you have a PVR you won't need a set-top box for the same TV.
Enhanced TV features
In addition to offering more channels, digital television offers enhanced features. For example, most set-top boxes support an electronic programme guide (EPG), which is a regularly updated onscreen TV guide.
By pressing the red button on your remote control, you can often find out more about the programme you're watching.
Sky and Virgin Media offer further interactive services, such as TV shopping, emails, games and banking.
There are also some useful features for people who are hard of hearing or visually impaired. Audio description, for example, is a narrative that explains what's happening on the TV screen for people who can't see it clearly. Other services include talking EPGs, onscreen signing and recordable subtitles.
The best digital TV service
The equipment you choose may depend on the digital TV service you want to watch. There are four main options: digital terrestrial television (Freeview), cable TV, satellite TV and online TV.
Digital terrestrial television (DTT)
DTT is better know as Freeview and lets you watch up to 50 digital TV channels. With Freeview, digital TV signals are received by the same TV aerial that you use to receive an analogue TV signal.
Freeview comes built in to most new TVs; to convert an old TV you'll need to buy a separate Freeview set-top box. There are no ongoing subscription costs.
If you live in an area with a particularly strong Freeview digital signal, you might be able to get away with a TV set-top aerial. Otherwise you'll need to ensure that your rooftop TV aerial is in good working order.
Most people won't need a new aerial to be able to receive Freeview after the switch to digital (see will I need a new TV aerial?), or if you want to buy an indoor aerial, take a look at our reviews of Which? Best Buy indoor aerials.
This is only available on a subscription basis from cable company Virgin Media. The TV signal is carried via an underground cable, which may also double as a phone or broadband line.
Cable TV is available to just over half of the UK population and you'll need a Virgin Media set-top box to connect to your TV.
You can see how Virgin Media bundles measure up to rivals for customer satisfaction in the Which? review of phone, internet and TV packages.
Satellite TV is available to most of the UK and there are two options for watching it. Both choices require you to have a satellite dish attached to your house.
Sky offers two services, both of which require a dedicated Sky TV set-top box:
- Sky subscription TV – where you pay a monthly fee to receive a wide range of television channels.
- For a one-off payment you can get Freesat from Sky, Sky's satellite TV alternative to Freeview.
Freesat from the BBC and ITV
The BBC and ITV have teamed up to offer another satellite alternative, also called Freesat. As with Sky's version of Freesat, you pay a single upfront fee with no ongoing TV subscription costs. Some new TVs have Freesat built in; otherwise you'll need a set-top box with Freesat capabilities. Some Freeview set-top boxes also have Freesat built in.
BT offers a fourth option − TV over a broadband line − but you have to have broadband with BT to get its TV service. BT's TV over broadband service is called BT Vision.
The Which? guide to cable TV, satellite TV and digital TV packages has more on BT's internet TV.
The cheapest digital TV options
The cheapest ways to receive digital TV are with Freeview, Freesat from the BBC/ITV or Freesat from Sky. These require only a one-off payment for the digital TV equipment that lets you receive a basic range of digital TV channels.
Basic Freeview set-top boxes start from £20, though you'll need to pay a bit more if you want a Freeview box that doubles as a PVR. Freesat boxes tend to be more expensive, though prices are falling.
You'll need to pay a monthly fee if you want other digital TV options, including a Sky subscription TV deal or cable TV from Virgin Media.
For more help with your digital TV decision, see the Which? guide to free TV and pay TV services.