Set-top box reviews: Features explained

Set-top boxes are bought for a variety of different reasons - to upgrade an old TV, to gain access to a range of different channels or to add new Smart TV services such as BBC iPlayer or Lovefilm. They come with a variety of different features. Here we explain some of the key features to look out for and how they will affect your buying decision.

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Different types of set-top box

There are different types of set-top box available depending on which TV service you want to receive - Freeview, Freesat, Sky digital satellite or Virgin media cable. The Sky and Virgin set-top boxes are purchased as part of a subscription package. Additionally Smart TV devices such as Apple TV can give you access to a whole range of online services by connecting to your home broadband service.

Electronic Programme Guide

The electronic programme guide helps you plan your TV week

Programming features

Electronic Programme Guide (EPG)

The on-screen electronic programme guide (EPG) lets you see what's on all channels for the week ahead – but some do it better than others.

Favourites

The 'favourites' feature lets you choose your favourite channels, making them quicker to access – handy with the wide range of digital channels on offer.

Timer

This lets you program the box to switch between channels at a certain time – handy if you want to record from more than one channel while you're out. You'll still need to program your VCR or DVD recorder too.

Scart link recording

You select the TV programmes you want to record on the EPG and, at the appropriate time, the box sends a control signal via the Scart link telling a compatible VCR or DVD recorder to start/stop recording. This means you need only to program the set-top box and it will switch to the right channel at the right time and 'wake up' the VCR or DVD recorder to record, so there's no need for a timer.

Convenience features

Controls on the box

Some models have controls on the box, as well as on the remote control. This is useful if you lose the remote or if the batteries go flat.

Remote controls work with other TVs

The remote controls for some set-top boxes can also control some basic functions of various brands of TV. This means you can use just one remote to turn the TV on and off, adjust volume, and switch between digital and analogue TV channels.

Getting connected

Scart sockets

Two Scart sockets give you more versatility. The first connects to the TV and carries the higher quality RGB signal and widescreen switching information that tells your telly when to switch between conventional and widescreen formats. The second Scart socket links to your recorder (video or DVD) – ideally this should carry RGB too, though often it doesn’t.

UHF modulator

If your TV doesn't have a Scart input (Scart isn't usually available on older models), you'll need a set-top box with a UHF modulator, which connects to the TV's aerial socket.

Audio output

Some boxes have a separate audio output, to connect the box to your hi-fi speakers.

Smart TV access

Many set-top boxes s can be hooked up to your home broadband service via ethernet cable or, in some cases, by built-in wi-fi. You can then access a range of Smart TV content such as catch-up TV services like BBC iPlayer or additional film download services such as Netflix or Lovefilm.

More on this...

  • TV reviews - find the Best TVs to work with your set-top box
  • Best Buy PVRs - if you want a box that also records read our reviews of the best PVRs
  • - to find the best way to connect your set-top box to your TV