Freeview Play is a YouView-like electronic programme guide (EPG) that lets you browse forward to see what's coming up in the week ahead and scroll back to see shows from the previous one.
It combines both catch-up and on-demand television into one easy to view EPG, making it far easier to find your favourite programmes. 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.
To put Freeview Play through its paces, we connected a compatible Panasonic TV 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.
Bear in mind, however, that this just covers Freeview Play on Panasonic TVs. The EPG will perform slightly differently on other devices, but you should still get a good idea of the benefits on offer.
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.
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. 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 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.
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.
For smart TVs that have previously lacked key apps, 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.
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 feel that Freeview Play has great potential to improve the TV experience for Freeview users and take smart-TV catch up services mainstream.